If there’s a worldwide shortage of exclamation points today, you can probably blame it on the 1948 publication of G. V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr, a book so demented and brilliant that it not only detonates about a dozen “!”s per page, but actually justifies this extravagance. For sheer hilarity, All About cannot be beaten. It deserves to be reprinted a thousand times over.
In fact, it nearly has been. It is a perpetually lost classic.
This is more than just good (or bad) publishing karma. Narrated by the eponymous H. Hatterr as he lurches from swami to swami in India, seeking enlightenment and gaining notoriety instead, All About was the first work to employ “rigmarole English,” a mishmash of Indian rhythms and English propriety. Thankfully, it wears this novelty lightly. Hatterr—who is part-Malay, part-Anglo, and completely nuts—doesn’t overexplain his rude, freewheeling syntax. His description of how he befriends a fellow shyster, for instance, is priceless: “My poor-taste compliment as to his sister, and his vulgar return tribute-abuse as to my mother, absolutely established cordial relations between us, both in the E minor and the D major, so to speak.” Then, characteristically, he kicks it up a notch: “A perfect understanding!”
It was this cheeky and hysterical style that Salman Rushdie admiringly amplified in his masterpiece Midnight’s Children. For South Asian writers, then, Desani is a grandfatherly figure, if a relatively obscure one: he died in 2000 and wrote only this one novel and a collection of stories. Further, Desani marshaled all his autodidactic genius for language and Indian culture and Latin medical terms and swindling swamis not to explore political issues that would have ensured posterity, but rather to be as hilarious as possible. “The people would be furious if they knew this was written entirely during the war years, and in London, and during the bombing!” he wrote in his prologue, with exactly the same devilish humor that animates H. Hatterr.
Each section of the book begins with an “Instruction” from a sage, a “Presumption” held by Hatterr (“‘Kismet,’ i.e., fate—if at all anything, and as potent as suspected for centuries—is a dam’ baffling thing!”), and a long “Life-Encounter” in which Hatterr inevitably falls into questionable company; makes a promise he can’t keep; gets utterly hoodwinked; expresses his bewilderment in a hail of exclamations; and then flagrantly and disastrously flouts the advice he has sought from the sage. A typical scenario might involve Hatterr allowing a circus tiger to eat a steak off his chest in order to impress a married woman who has no interest in him at all.
Indeed, the only person Hatterr defers to is a Bengali, Shakespeare-obsessed fellow called Banerrji. Banerrji speaks with the semi-apologetic formal English that you can still hear in the right bureaucratic offices in India and is (for unknown reasons) always rescuing the good Mr. Hatterr and then offering to publish accounts of his bravery in the “fortnightly” for which he works. When Hatterr tries to thank him, Banerrji has none of it. “No. India thanks you.” Banerrji is in this sense an uproarious and calculated comic invention: the Anglicized Indian foil to the Indianized H. Hatterr, and a way for Desani to show that ridiculousness, in the end, is relative.
Format: 320 pp., paperback; Size: 8″ x 5″; Price: $15.95; Publisher: New York Review Books Classics; Editor: Edwin Frank; Book designer: Katy Homans; Age at which author was declared unteachable and expelled from school: 13; Authors who wrote introductions for Desani’s prose poem “Hali”: T. S. Eliot and E. M. Forster; Name of Desani’s unsigned weekly column for the Illustrated Weekly of India: “Very High and Very Low”; Representative sentence: “Damme, I am not in the least aesthetic, but the above vernacular came out of me spontneously, absolutely!”