Life of a 20th Century Adventurer

G.V. Desani was born in Nairobi, Kenya July 8, 1909 to Indian parents. He had modest formal education, no college, never married, and has no known descendants or surviving relations. Yet during a long and productive life, G.V. Desani helped define modern and post-modern multi-cultural literature and establish the voice India in English-language fiction. Later in life, as an essayist, Desani made unique contributions towards understanding of the Indian bhakti and guru traditions and in interpreting the Buddha's earliest teachings on Vipassana meditation for today's seekers and academics.

At some point in his young life, Desani's family returned to their home in Shikharpur, Sind, India (now part of Pakistan). Considered a prodigy, but difficult, by grammar school teachers and a naïve dreamer by his merchant-class family ("I like books," he once shouted at his father, as he declining to sign up for the family business. "You like books?", his father retorted, "I'll buy you a bookstore!")

Another anecdote: "Boy, you don't understand," young Desani was told by a favorite aunt, upon his informing her that the boy would go to England and become famous, "you don't even know English." In fact, Desani ran away from home several times, ultimately arriving in Great Britain, penniless (and without English), at age 17.

After a chilled-to-the-bone first London winter (he stuffed newspaper into his second-hand overcoat to keep warm) Desani emerged and quickly attracted the attention of Brits fascinated by their huge, exotic, faraway colony. Attractive, brilliant, charismatic, and supremely confident, the young Indian was initially sponsored to self-study at national libraries.

Over the next several decades, formally and informally, Desani he was often called upon to explain India and "the Orient" to the the English. It's not hard to imagine that these requests to explain the differences between East and West sparked the idea for a work of fiction that highlighted the distinctions far better and more entertainingly than a lecture.

Yet another anecdote: A loner with a knack for attracting attention and enthusiasm in strangers, Desani was so often interrupted by rooming house neighbors that he borrowed five pounds from each, returning the loan only when he was ready to move. After he got his own basement flat he procured a (hopefully) unused coffin to sleep in. Publicity followed.

All the while Desani experimented with his adopted language, lectured (the most famous being a series called "India Invites"), and even took bit parts in movies produced in the U.K. During times when he went back to India he worked as a stringer for British newspapers, took a stint as headmaster at the same grammar school he had once been nearly expelled from and, on occasion, traveled the countryside with a servant, collecting business debts for his family.

During World War II Desani lived in London, where he worked as BBC-sponsored lecturer. His writing efforts eventually gelled into what he called a gesture. Sadly, as Desani dryly observed in his introduction to All About H. Hatterr, there was no market for gestures, only for novels. Later he learned that even the market for gestures described as novels or vice-verse was modest.

Brief History of All About H. Hatterr

After being turned down by a number of publishers, All About Mr. Hatterr, as it was originally called, was published in 1948. The book was an immediate sensation with the British literati (however George Orwell, author of 1984, took notable exception). It was also very favorably received in the U.S. and India. Over the next 40 years, Desani was to revise or expand his beloved book at least four times.

Hatterr made grand fun of all manner of social structure, stricture, status, religious instruction, and language itself, English, its bastardized stepchild Indian English, Sanskrit and Hindi. Yet the book also offered glimpses of a man seeking to interpret the human condition — despite its obvious shortcomings — as having — if not a higher purpose — at least a trajectory.

Desani's All About H. Hatterr joined with James Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake in helping to flesh out the post-modern novel. It also greatly influenced contemporaries such as Saul Bellow and later writers, such as  Salman Rushdie. The anti-hero H. Hatterr's hilarious and somewhat pathetic attempts to reconcile East and West deftly foreshadowed contemporary challenges of maintaining self, civilization, and true faith in a pluralistic, secular, rapidly-evolving world.

In 1950 Desani's highly personal poetic play Hali was published. It is difficult to imagine two more different works of fiction. While Hali may have puzzled Hatterr enthusiasts (E.M. Forster called it a "private mythology"), it captured well the spiritual disquiet that increasingly preoccupied the now-middle aged Anglo-Indian. In 1952 Desani returned to India to begin an urgent, highly personal quest that would fully occupy the next 15 years of his life.

An Intense Spiritual Quest

Uniquely, having written a madcap spiritual adventure, Desani proceeded to live one. Reluctantly supported by a well-off cousin, Desani scoured the Indian sub-continent with the zeal of an investigative reporter searching for absolute proof of a mystical world or God or Goddess connection. A man of enormous physical and mental energy, Desani earnestly sought out gurus and fakirs across India and — using bravado, sincere devotion, a photographic memory, and ever-disarming charm collecting all manner of oral teachings, tantric yantras, mantras, and arcane yogic practices. In one memorable incident, Desani had himself buried alive, a favorite trick of local yogis. Upon being dug up his conclusion was that to avoid panic that would consume sparse oxygen you must have complete confidence in those who remain above.

Desani had a sufficiently wide world view to recognize that the Indian ascetic guru/chela system occupied a unique place among the world religions. And that that system was being rapidly obliterated by modernism. The aging and obscure practitioners Desani encountered often saw him as a worthy recipient of their craft. The challenge of what to do with the gathered information, the experiences, the objects, and drawing communicable conclusions from those years occupied Desani for the remainder of his life.

In the early 1960s, in a climax worthy of any grand adventure, Desani embarked on the most rigorous of spiritual disciplines: pursuit of Enlightenment. His first attempt — at a Zen monastery in Japan — was not a success. Subsequently, however, he spend nearly a year in a Theravada Buddhist monastery in Rangoon, Burma. Upon arrival at the monastery, Desani joined a small group of Western practitioners gathered to be introduced to the monastery's famous Abbot, Mahasi Sayadaw. Sayadaw gave an impromptu lecture, pointing again and again at a drawing that showed Nibbana (Pali for Nirvana) at the apex. Any questions? Desani scandalized the resident monk translating from English to Burmese by asking of Enlightenment, "How much does it cost?" The monk initially refused to translate the insolent question. A solemn ceremony was turned into pandemonium as the Abbot demanded in Burmese, "What did he say!? What did he say!? What did he say!?" Once a translation was apologetically provided ("He fables 'What does it cost?' ") Sayadaw, according to Desani, roared with laughter.

Soon enough Desani settled into a tiny room where his assigned practice was 22 hours a day of walking meditation with one instruction: Observe. After a few months the Abbot told him, "You may go" and also authorized Desani to provide instructions in Theravada Buddhist Vipassana meditation techniques. Traditionally such a dismissal would only be provided had the practitioner attained at least the first of the four stages of enlightenment. Desani neither claimed nor denied such an attainment.

Columns, Papers & Short Stories

At age 53 or so, Desani began writing again for something other than his diary journals. Over the next three decades he produced a significant amount of world-class fiction and commentary. Many of his writings can be found in Hali and Collected Stories, available from McPherson & Company. Others, such as his then-anonymous column "Very High and Very Low" in the Illustrated Weekly of India, are currently only available in libraries or on microfiche. A number of Desani's powerful essays, written in the '60s and '70s, are also currently unavailable.

In Hatterr, through his Indian spiritual quest, and in his later years teaching in the U.S. in Austin and Boston, Desani delighted in debunking spiritual disciplines and teachings that he considered "beneath contempt", a favorite phrase. He was particularly critical of Hatha yoga. Yet he had great respect for genuine spiritual teachers — Hindu, Moslem, Jewish, Moorish or Christian — and their craft. He was keenly interested in still little known Nadi texts, reputedly ancient hand-written palm leaf inscriptions based on Indian astrology that were the property of a class of Indian gurus and their disciples. Desani was convinced that he had received readings from such text purveyors that relied entirely on documents written years if not decades before he was born, and which correctly predicted his birthplace, name, and other obscure facts only he could know.

Texas Years

Desani first came to the University of Texas in 1967 as a Fulbright exchange scholar. Within a few years he settled in Austin where he shared a full professorship in Oriental Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin with Raja Rao, another highly-regarded Indian writer. Desani taught Theravada Buddhism in the Spring; Rao taught Mahayana Buddhist in the Fall. The two men could not have been more different. Being the late '60s, their classes had hundreds of students.

As an instructor Desani exuded physical stamina, great confidence and a projected sense of personal achievement that contrasted markedly with the then-in-vogue images of contemplative and reticent gurus and Zen masters. He uniquely combined a highly competitive — if not occasionally combative — persona with a deep bow to the great religious traditions of the East. His teachings are respectfully summed up as follows:

The ancient goal of Enlightenment is real and attainable. However, the quest is difficult and is for the few, not the many. Others should simply try to live good, ethical lives.

Post age 65 Desani became an American citizen; he qualified for a driver's license about the same time. He loved the independence afforded by his '58 blue Thunderbird. His retirement daily ritual included lengthy phone calls to close associates, a drive to the campus to pick up mail, a courtly bow to the Philosophy Department secretaries and home again to work on his writings, revisions, and plans as well as to prepare for his monthly full moon prayer day and less rigorous daily spiritual duties.

On most weekends Desani would play host and chef to former students who came to help with projects that might range from re-organizing his wall-to-wall library to improving an object found in a junk shop by spray painting it gold. At the end of the day tired helpers would crowd his tiny sitting room, wolf down one of his out-of-this-world curries punctuated by Lay's Potato Chips ("a very healthy food") as he shared one of his life lessons with an always rapt audience.

Through his years in Austin, Desani befriended and was aided by a good dozen students, former students, and several of adult women who, as members of the local Theosophy Society, met Desani by auditing his classes. In some instances, support was provided for as long as 30 years and included, all told, giving many thousands of hours of help to Desani with his writings, his housing and accommodations, his legal and literary affairs and, finally, arranging for and providing financial, companionship, and care management to an aging long-time friend and mentor. The group of helpers — once a close-knit and competitive near-family — are strangers again.

Desani spent his last decade in rapidly failing health and its attendant isolation, cared for by an ever-shrinking team of  former students, all Americans. He died at 91 in a private home near Ft. Worth, Texas.

Legacy

Desani's plan to publish compendiums of his writings — fiction and non-fiction — remains unrealized. The Rissala, as he called it, was submitted in the mid-80s to a major high-end literary publisher. By then the market for massive compendiums of living writers — never large — was  nil. (A former student and helper, John Hinds, has provided "Some Further Thoughts on Rissala" on his blog professordesani.blogspot.com.)

The writing of an autobiographical account of his mid-life spiritual quest — to be based on his voluminous diaries — was also "not willed", as Desani would have put it.

In 2007 the Harry Ransom Center, UT Austin, received Desani's papers, including the original manuscript of All About H. Hatterr. A few other documents including handwritten palm-leafed pages from Nadi texts which Desani unsuccessfully attempted to get carbon-dated were entrusted to Boston University during his life. At his death, UNICEF was named the copyright owner of all of Desani's writings.

Nearly 15 years after his death, some of Desani's most cherished possessions — described in his UT Austin lectures — are  unaccounted for. These include handwritten diaries from his years in India (1950-66), penned in Hindi and English and replete with Sanskrit references from encounters with Indian gurus, fakirs and their private traditions. In his first years of his teaching at UT (1966-67), a series of Prof. Desani's lectures on Theravada Buddhism were tape recorded and later transcribed. Similarly, the disposition of Desani's collection of documents and artifacts from his Indian spiritual quests, as well as numerous related drawings and illustrations, is unknown.

Shortly after his death, Desani's collection of colorful gemstone rings was professionally appraised and sold piecemeal to former students. The modest proceeds of a lifetime's collection also went to UNICEF.



Editor's Note: Over the next several years we hope to provide further insight into G.V. Desani's teachings and to offer examples of his world-class fiction, commentary and lectures. Our goal is simply to chronicle, as fully as is permitted, the legacy of a man whose teachings and writings have, if anything, greater relevance today than they did during his lifetime. In the meanwhile you are cordially invited to send questions or comments to mail@desani.org. Emails of general interest will be posted on this site.

July, 2014   

Site contributed in memory of Blossom Burns and Ila Maberry.