Life of a 20th Century Adventurer

G.V. Desani was born in Nairobi, Kenya July 8, 1909 to Sindhi parents. He had a 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 of Anglo-Indian writers in English-language fiction. Later, as an essayist, Desani made unique contributions towards understanding the Indian bhakti and guru traditions and in interpreting the Buddha's teachings on Vipassana meditation for today's seekers and academics. Along the way he provided a million-or-so-words worth of cultural and social commentary.

At some point in his young life, Desani's family returned to their home in Shikārpur, Sindh, India (now part of Pakistan). Considered a prodigy, but difficult, by grammar school teachers and a naïve dreamer by his merchant-class family. (Once his father was aggressively urging the boy to show more interest in business. "I like books," Desani shouted back. "You like books?" his father retorted, "I'll buy you a bookstore!")

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

After a chilled-to-the-bone London winter (to keep from freezing he stuffed newspaper into a second-hand overcoat), Desani somehow  — and quite quickly — made his mark on the world's pre-eminent city. With a knack for engendering enthusiasm in acquaintances and total strangers, Desani was so often interrupted by fellow roominghouse neighbors that he borrowed five pound sterling from each, returning the money only when he was ready to move.

Attractive, brilliant, charismatic, and brimming with energy and self-confidence, the young Indian was befriended by George Lansbury, a prominent member of the British parliament. His new patron arranged for Desani to have access to the British Museum and its fabled library.

For the next 20 or so years Desani shuttled between India and England. He took bit parts in British movies and in India worked as a stringer for British and Indian newspapers, including The Times of India. He did a stint as headmaster at the same grammar school he had once been nearly expelled from. On occasion, Desani traveled the Indian countryside with a servant, collecting business debts for his father. Somewhere along the way Desani developed a lifelong obsessive interest in India's spiritual heritage, its gurus, sadhus and Buddhist traditions and practitioners.

The War Years

By chance, Desani returned to England just at the outbreak of World War II. In those days, elements in India and the U.K. saw the war as an opportunity for India to obtain independence from Britain and to take a neutral position in the conflict. In response, the British Broadcasting Service (BBC) produced propaganda about their wayward colony and provided India with radio broadcasts supporting the colonial relationship with England. Desani, almost always a reliable supporter of the Establishment, became a BBC-sponsored lecturer and radio commentator. He broadcast educational programs in Hindi and English describing India's heritage and discussing its place in the modern world. Desani's only surviving lecture/broadcast is India Invites, initially read at New College, Oxford in 1941. In addition to Desani, BBC war commentators included T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster, among others. A key organizer of the effort was George Orwell, later to author 1984 and Animal Farm.

During the war, Desani's avocation became his writings, several of which he developed for broadcast on the BBC. His literary efforts eventually gelled into what he dryly called a gesture. Notably, as Desani 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 versa) was also quite modest.

Genesis 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 rave reviews in Britain. Hatterr 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, spiritualists, 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. Writing in 2018, reviewers still find new things to say about this nearly 70-year-old novel. A recent writer pointed out that until Desani published Hatterr in London, of all places, literary Brits doubted the ability and intellect of non-native English speakers to fully master the language. George Orwell, who had lived and worked in India, was a staunch defender of English written by native Englishmen. He was none too pleased when Hatterr appeared and he provided one of the few negative reviews of the initial printing.

In short order Desani's All About H. Hatterr joined with James Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake in fleshing out an exotic, polyglot, supra-national novel that reinvigorated the Mother Tongue. Hatterr had a major influence on contemporaries such as Saul Bellow and later writers, including  Salman Rushdie, both of whom were generous enough to credit Desani's masterpiece as inspiring their own work in some measure. The anti-hero Hatterr's hilarious and essentially clueless 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 fictional works. While Hali may have puzzled Hatterr enthusiasts (E.M. Forster called it a "private mythology"), it at least captured well the building spiritual disquiet of a now-middle aged Anglo-Indian author.

In 1952, Desani returned to India to begin an urgent, highly personal search for.... That endeavor fully occupied the next 15 or so years of his life.

An Intense Spiritual Quest

Having written one madcap spiritual adventure, Desani proceeded to live another. Grudgingly supported by a well-off cousin, Desani scoured the Indian sub-continent with the zeal of an investigative reporter searching for absolute proof of The Other: proof of the divine in a culture with one foot in modernity and the other in unbending tradition, a multitude of family religions and lost crafts. With enormous physical and mental energy, Desani earnestly sought out gurus and other spiritualists and mentalists across India and — using bravado, sincere devotion, a photographic memory, and a thoroughly disarming charm — collected 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, just to see if he could. Upon being dug up after the requisite number of minutes his conclusion was that to avoid a panic which would consume the little oxygen available, you must have complete confidence in those who remain above.

Desani recognized early on that the Indian ascetic guru/chela system was unique among the world spiritual paths. The aging and obscure practitioners Desani encountered probably saw him as a worthy — or least unworthy — recipient of their crafts. 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 rest 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 many months at the Panditãrãma Shwe Taung Gon Sasana Yeiktha center for the practice and study of Theravada Buddhist teachings in Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Rangoon, Burma). Upon arrival at the monastery, Desani joined a small group of Western practitioners being introduced to the monastery's famous Abbot, Mahasi Sayadaw. The master gave his standard lecture in Burmese, pointing again and again at a rough blackboard drawing of a triangle which showed Nibbana (Pali for Nirvana, enlightenment) at the apex. The master concluded with "any questions?" Desani severely shocked the translating monk by asking, "How much?" The monk refused to translate the insolent remark. A solemn discussion turned into pandemonium as Sayadaw demanded "What did he say!? What did he say!?" Once a translation was abjectly provided ("He fables, 'What does it cost?' ") the Abbot, according to Desani, roared with laughter.

Soon enough Desani was settled into a rectangular room where his assigned practice was 20-plus hours a day of walking meditation with the instruction: "Observe." Desani told his classes that after a few months he became so sensitive that he could 'feel' sound on his cheek. Eventually the Abbot told him, "You may go" and authorized Desani to provide instructions in Theravada Buddhist Vipassana meditation. Traditionally, such a dismissal would only be provided to a practitioner who had attained at least the first of the four stages of Nibbana, Buddhist enlightenment. Desani neither claimed nor disclaimed such.

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 and under-appreciated amount of world-class fiction and commentary. His short stories can be found in Hali and Collected Stories, available from McPherson & Company. Others, such as his then-anonymous column "Very High and Very Low", which ran 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 currently unavailable.

In Hatterr, through his spiritual quest, and in his later years as a professor at The University of Texas at Austin, Desani delighted in debunking spiritual teachings that he considered "beneath contempt", a favorite phrase. He was particularly critical of hatha yoga, Shankara Hindu philosophy ("I am Brahma. You are Brahma.") and its Westernized characterization that enlightenment is simply a state of mind. Yet he accorded great respect to genuine spiritual teachers — Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Moorish or Christian — and their crafts. He was keenly interested in still little-known Nadi texts, reputedly ancient hand-written palm leaf writings based on Indian astrology that were the property of a class of Indian gurus and their disciples. Desani was convinced that he had received personal readings from Nadi text purveyors that relied entirely on the palm leaf pages written decades, if not hundreds of years, before he was born, and which correctly predicted his birthplace (Africa), parents' name, names and description of the women with whom he had been in love, details about his health, his gurus names and other obscure, sensitive facts that seemingly only he could know.

Texas Years

Desani first came to the University of Texas at Austin in 1967 as a Fulbright exchange scholar. Within a few years he settled in Austin where he shared a full professorship in Oriental Philosophy with Raja Rao, another highly-regarded Anglo-Indian writer. Desani taught Theravada Buddhism in the Spring; Rao taught Mahayana Buddhist in the Fall. Temperamentally and physically the two men could hardly have been more different, yet they became good friends. Being the late-'60s, their classes attracted hundreds of students.

As an instructor Desani exuded physical stamina, great confidence and a sense of personal achievement which contrasted markedly with the then-in-vogue cool images of contemplative and reticent gurus and Zen masters. He projected a highly competitive — if occasionally combative — persona with a deep bow to the great religious traditions. Once, a student asked if Desani believed in the devil. Stopped short by the unexpected question, Desani paused. "I am very polite to the devil," he answered.

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.

A recurrent theme in Desani's Theravada Buddhism classes was "there are no small acts." It seemed a strange life-lesson from a much lauded and accomplished gentleman. Desani would sometimes illustrate this perspective with an ancient story of the Buddha, post-enlightenment, walking through a village. He past a beggar woman sitting by the road, bent down with age and illness. As the entourage passed, she looked up and saw the magnificent Buddha. Reflectively, she folded her hands, bowed ... and died. The procession stopped. A crowd gathered. The Buddha commented that her death, at a perfect mental moment, caused her to be reborn as a celestial being.

By acting with compassion towards or thinking lovingly of a stranger, an insect or an enemy, the mind is invariably and immediately fortified and calmed. Future mental moments benefit from those small deeds and add an element to a chain of positive mental moments or, in lay terms, a happier countenance. Thus the "small act" is its own, immediate, reward regardless of any possible or even implausible "post-life" consequence. And that benefit comes whether your are a beggar or a major player on the world stage. The concept of "no small deeds" is an under-appreciated contribution of Buddhism to world philosophy.

Desani began his years at UT as an instructor but was soon tenured and awarded a full professor. He published a number of papers for and to the UT Philosophy Department and developed The Yellow Text of Theravada Buddhism, for his Buddhism classes. The anthology, with its several added notes, positioned the course as an educational inquiry rather than as a religious survey or study. He also taught courses in yoga, the Bhagavad Gita and on P.G. Bowen's The Occult Way and Sayings of the Ancient One.

Desani's undergraduate and graduate classes in the Philosophy Department also attracted a number of middle-aged women who either had a prior association with the UT Philosophy Department or with the community's Theosophy Society. These ladies provided support and assistance to the new-to-America professor and Desani encouraged their auditing of his classes and joining in with students in visits to his apartment near the campus. Eventually, one patron, Ida Maberry, encouraged Desani to move into a rental house she own. He paid only a nominal rent. Later another patron-student, Blossom Burns, converted a studio apartment on her property to provide Desani with a small bedroom and prayer room.

Post-age 65 Desani became an American citizen; he qualified for a driver's license about the same time. He loved the independence afforded him by his '58 blue Thunderbird. His 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 spraying 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 about a 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 cases, volunteer support was provided for as long as 30 years and included, all told, many thousands of hours helping Desani with his writings, his housing and accommodations, his legal and literary affairs and, finally, arranging for and providing financial help, companionship, and care management to an aging friend and mentor. The group of helpers — once as close-knit and dysfunctional as any family — are strangers again.

Desani spent his final years in failing health, cared for by an ever-shrinking team of former students and home care nurses, all Americans. He died at 91 in a private home near Ft. Worth, Texas, that had been converted into a private ashram.


Desani's plan to publish a complete anthology of his writings — fiction and non-fiction — remains unrealized. The Rissala, as he planned to title it, was submitted in the mid-80s to a major New York literary publisher. By then, however, the market for collected works of living writers — never large — was tiny; the publisher described himself as "abashed." The submission was rejected.

The writing of an autobiographical account of his spiritual quest — to be based on Desani's voluminous journals — was also "not willed", as Desani would have put it. (A former student and helper, John Hinds, has provided Some Further Thoughts on Rissala on his site. Mr. Hinds' blog contains many reminiscences of his time with Desani, including transcribed notes from conversations, scanned programs, letters, and so forth. Of particular interest is his Note from Meeting with Desani which may have summed up the author's personal philosophy.)

Recently "An Admirer" published on YouTube Part 1 and Part 2 of a 1989 videotaped interview with Desani.

In 2007 the Harry Ransom Center, UT Austin, received Desani's papers, including the original manuscript of All About H. Hatterr and his journals. Aged, handwritten palm-leaf Nadi texts that Desani had carbon-date tested in hopes of showing that his birth (and thus an obscure, specifically-detailed future event) had been predicted were gifted to Boston University in care of his good friend and academic sponsor John Silber, then BU president. (Results of the carbon-dating tests, conducted about 1979, were inconclusive.) UNICEF is believed to be the only beneficiary named in Desani's will; the organization retains world copyright to his writings.

Some of Desani's effects remain unaccounted for. In his first years of his teaching at UT (1966-67), a semester's worth of lectures on Theravada Buddhism and Yoga were tape recorded. Similarly, the disposition of Desani's collection of artifacts from his 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 quest for achievement, beauty, and perfection 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 readers are cordially invited to send questions or comments to Emails of general interest will be posted on this site.

May, 2018   

Site contributed in memory of Blossom Burns and Ila Maberry.