G. V. Desani
Govindas Vishnoodas Desani or G. V. Desani, (1909–2000) was a Kenyan-born, British-educated Indian writer and Buddhist philosopher. The son of a merchant, he began his career as a journalist, and achieved fame with the cult novel All About H. Hatterr (1948), considered[who?] a fine example of midcentury modernism. He was for a time a university professor in America, and spent many years engaged in meditation at various monasteries. A second volume, Hali and Collected Stories, was published in 1991.
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Born in 1909 of Indian parents in Nairobi, Kenya, Govindas Vishnoodas Desani spent his childhood in Sindh, now 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 thirteen 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 Labour 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 known as G. V. Desani.
During World War II, 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 publicised by the Ministry and his audiences varied from businessmen, teachers, munitions workers where his talks were relayed to thousands at a time to army, navy, air force and civil defence personnel, hospitals, resettlement units, prisons and American servicemen stationed in Britain.
Recalling his rise as an orator in Britain, Anthony Burgess writes that 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, Desani wrote and broadcast regularly for the BBC The organ of the BBC, The Listener, welcomed him as "... a broadcasting discovery ... a voice singular in its beauty." Among the centres 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 specialised 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 high 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."
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, Desani spent nearly fourteen years in seclusion. He practised mantra yoga, and other methods of Hindu and Buddhist mental culture, under guidance of teachers, travelling as far as Japan for specialised practice. At the invitation of the then Burmese Government (1960), he spent a year in a monastery practising vipassana meditation, for some three months, reducing his sleep to two hours in 24. It was in Burma that he studied the 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 Desani as an authoritative speaker on yoga and Buddhist meditation techniques, to address a specially-invited audience of the Diplomatic Corps in Rangoon. Justice U Chan Htoon, 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.
Desani, as an acknowledged teacher of these highly specialised techniques, has addressed a number of audiences. The Indian Consular Services have provided him with 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), 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"). Desani, until coming to the States, was one of the most widely read and influential journalists in India.
Desani was critical of Mahatma Gandhi's certain policies. In marked contrast to Gandhi in India and to Nehru who acceded to Gandhi's moral authority joining him to urge Indians not to help the British war effort, Desani encouraged Hindus like everyone else to resist German and Japanese enslavement.
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.
Desani's work can be divided into the purely creative and the contributions to international understanding. Dr S. Radhakrishnan, then Ambassador of India to the USSR, 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 Reginald Sorensen, Prof. E.L. Stahl, Oxford, Mr. R.J. Cruikshank have spoken warmly of that aspect of 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."
Desani lived the last years of his life in Austin, Texas where he settled in 1967. He shared a professorship in Oriental Philosophy at the University of Texas with professor Raja Rao. After he retired in 1978 some of his former students looked after him; ill and reclusive, he died in relative obscurity in Ft. Worth on 15 November 2000. He was 91 years old.
- All About H. Hatterr, Aldor, London 1948.
- revised edition, Farrar, Straus & Young, New York, 1951.
- further revised, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1970.
- further revised with a new chapter, Lancer Books, New York, 1972.
- with further additions and revisions in the Penguin Modern Classics series, Penguin Books, London, 1972.
Short Stories & Others
- Hali, Saturn Press, London, 1952. (A prose poem.)
- Dozens of signed columns, Illustrated Weekly of India, 1962–67.
- Mainly concerning Kama and her Immortal Lord, Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Government of India, 1973.
- Hali and Collected Stories, McPherson, Kingston, New York, 1991.
- Memorial resolution, University of Texas
- A photo of G. V. Desani at the McPherson & Company website – photos of G. V. Desani are rare on the Internet and in print.