Biograph & Memorabilia
Literary and Personal Biography
As early as 1950, laudatory "Comments" summarizing reviews of G.V. Desani's books appeared. These sometimes took the form of personal sketches about the rather eccentric Indian author and teacher.
An extensive and unusual "Comment" was entitled “G.V. Desani, A Consideration of his All About H. Hatterr and Hali.” It was published by Karel Szeben, London and Amsterdam, 1952.
Several less ambitious, undated and unsigned "Comments…" notes came out over the years.
The following biographical note was drawn from a comprehensive Biographical Highlights, 1948-1993 document which also included elements of various vita developed in conjunction with Desani's academic career and provides a comprehensive inventory of Desani's published works.
Towards page bottom the reader will find memorabilia from Desani's life.
Born in 1909 of Indian parents in Nairobi, Kenya, Govindas Vishnoodas Dasani spent his childhood in Sind, now part of Pakistan. Known as a child prodigy, between his 7th and 12th year, he managed to run away from home twice and was expelled from school at 13 as unteachable. At the third attempt to escape, he reached England. Not yet 18, and a minor, at the personal recommendation of the then Deputy Leader of the Labor Party in the British House of Commons, George Lansbury, he was admitted as a reader in the library of the British Museum.
At 19, he was one of the foreign correspondents serving newspapers from London. At 25, he was a correspondent of the Times of India, Reuters and the Associated Press. About that time, he was sponsored by the then Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway, one of the great railway systems of India, as Lecturer on the antiquities of Rajputana, Ajmer and Delhi. A special circular, issued by the Director of Education, Delhi, stresses the great value of his lectures. Somewhere along the way he became G.V. Desani.
During World War II, Mr. Desani was back in Britain. Waiving their strict academic requirements, the Imperial Institute, the Council for Adult Education in the British Armed Forces, the London County Council, the Wiltshire County Council, and the Royal Empire Society, accepted him as a lecturer and teacher.
One of the few speakers who could fill to overflowing an auditorium of the size of the New Picture House, Edinburgh, or the New Savoy, Glasgow, his public meetings throughout the war, were sponsored by the British Ministry of Information.
His lectures in the Crane Theatre, Liverpool, the White Rock Pavilion, Brighton, the Geography Hall, Manchester, the Town Hall, Southampton, the Pump Room, Bath, the Great Western Docks, Plymouth, the Carnegie Library, Ayr, the Central Library, Manchester, were widely publicized by the Ministry and his audiences varied from businessmen, to teachers, to munitions workers. Some talks were relayed to thousands at a time including army, navy, air force and civil defense personnel, hospitals, resettlement units, prisons and American servicemen stationed in Britain.
Recalling his sensational rise as an orator in Britain, Anthony Burgess writes that Mr. Desani demonstrated to the British, "... in live speech the vitality of the British rhetorical tradition, brilliant in Burke and Macaulay, decadent in Churchill, now dead."
During the war years, Mr. Desani wrote and broadcast regularly for the B.B.C. The organ of the B.B.C., the Listener, welcomed him as "... a broadcasting discovery ... a voice singular in its beauty." Among the centers of learning, the New College, Oxford, the Rhodes House, Oxford, the Trinity, Cambridge, and the Psychologisch Laboratorium of the University of Amsterdam, invited him to read learned and specialized papers.
It was, however, the publication in Britain in 1948 of his experimental novel, All About H. Hatterr, that attracted the widest attention on both sides of the Atlantic and in India. T.S. Eliot said of it, "... In all my experience, I have not met with anything quite like it. It is amazing that anyone should be able to sustain a piece of work in this style and tempo at such length."
All About H. Hatterr broke all publicity records for a book published that year (Writer, London). The tone of the reviewers was of surprise and awe (Newsweek, 1951). In the United States, too, it earned the highest critical acclaim. Orville Prescott, in his Book of the Week review, in The New York Times, said of it, "... To describe a rainbow to a child born blind would not be much more difficult than to describe the unique character of All About H. Hatterr ... as startling as a unicorn in the hall bedroom. Reading it issues dizzy spells, spots before the eyes, consternation, and even thought."
Saul Bellow, in The New York Times, chose it for his Book of the Year selection (1952), (calling it) the book "I love." No writer in the late forties, or since, has been compared to so many literary greats, both Eastern and Western, or more honored by his fellow writers.
Mr. Desani's Hali, an unclassifiable poetic work, which followed his All About H. Hatterr, after five years, was introduced by T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster. Eliot described its imagery as "... often terrifyingly effective," and Forster wrote, "... It keeps evoking heights above the 'summitcity' of normal achievement," ('summitcity' "where the highest aspirations reach"). The work was greeted by a chorus of distinguished praise regardless of its size (about 50 pp.).
After his return to India in 1952, Mr. Desani spent nearly fourteen years in seclusion. He practiced mantra yoga, and other methods of Hindu and Buddhist mental culture, under guidance of teachers, traveling as far as Japan for specialized practice. At the invitation of the then Burmese Government (1960), he spent a year in a monastery practicing vipassana meditation, for some three months, reducing his sleep to two hours in 24. It was in Burma that he studied the obscure Theravada Buddhist text, the Abhidhamma, under a Burmese traditional teacher of the doctrine.
Requested by the Burmese Foreign Office, the Ministry of Religion, Government of Burma, chose Mr. Desani as the most authoritative speaker on yoga and Buddhist meditation techniques, to address a specially-invited audience of the Diplomatic Corps in Rangoon. Justice U Chan Htoon, the then Judge of the Supreme Court of Burma and the President of the World Federation of Buddhists (later held under house arrest by the government), presided over the meeting.
Mr. Desani, as an acknowledged teacher of these highly specialized techniques, has addressed the most distinguished audiences. The Indian Consular Services have provided him facilities to address select audiences in Karachi (Pakistan), Jakarta (Embassy of India), Tokyo (Embassy of India), as far as Sydney, Australia. The External Services of All India Radio, over the years, have provided him with a worldwide audience.
From 1962-67, as a special contributor to the Illustrated Weekly of India (The Times of India group), Mr. Desani published approximately 170,000 words of fiction, contemporary comment, criticism, book reviews and — before leaving for the United States, for a year and a half — wrote an unsigned weekly page ("Very High and Very Low"). Mr. Desani, until coming to the States, was one of the most widely read and influential journalists in India.
Some of his material was requested for publication in Britain and the States by, among others, the TransAtlantic Review and the Noble Savage, edited by Saul Bellow.
Mr. Desani's work, it is obvious, can be divided as purely creative and as a contribution to international understanding. No less an authority than Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, then Ambassador of India to the U.S.S.R., and Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions in the University of Oxford, and later President of India and among the distinguished Westerners, Prof. Edmond Blunden, Oxford, Lord Butler, the Minister of Education in Britain, Prof. Vincent Harlow, Oxford, Sir Harry Lindsay, Lord Sorensen, Prof. E.L. Stahl, Oxford, Mr. R.J. Cruikshank have spoken warmly of that aspect of Mr. Desani's work. The Marquess of Zetland, then President of the Royal Asiatic Society, and formerly Secretary of State for India and Burma, as far back as 1951, referred to him as, "... a bridge between East and West."
A brief biographical entry on G.V. Desani appears in The Open University: Making Britain (open.ac.uk). It states that Desani lived in Britain from 1926-28 and 1939-52. His initial journey to England was described as a (successful) effort to escape from an arranged marriage. His addresses in England are listed as 40 Kew Bridge Court, London, W4 3AE; Hillcrest OX1 5EZ, UK; and 6 Devonshire Terrace, London, W2 3HG. Archival information was ascribed to the BBC Written Archives Centre, Caversham Park, Reading, England.