All about H

Githa Hariharan takes us through her discovery of a classic,G.V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr

Published:March 29, 2009 11:49 am

Githa Hariharan takes us through her discovery of a classic,G.V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr
For most of us,a “classic” is a book that stays with us over the years,giving us an inkling of who we are,and who we are not. But it isn’t always easy to find a classic of our own,not thrust on us from someplace else. Let me explain. I was 19 years old,and for four years I had been indoctrinated in the honour list of classics. As proof,I had just received a degree in English Literature. My teachers had done their best,but I was left with the unhappy conclusion that the “real” classics lived in a distant place. Between their home and mine stood insurmountable geographical obstacles. The makers of the classical canon,the pundits of Great Literature,never looked like us,spoke like us,or ate things we did. What they wrote became classics because they were “European”,mostly English. (The Americans then got only an endnote or two.)

So in 1974,emerging from the portals of Bombay University,I had to acknowledge a subversive suspicion. In the real world,literary life did not begin with Chaucer or end with T.S. Eliot. My friends and I took to ransacking the Lost and Found bookstalls of this real world,and read what we could find of that other,unmentionable baggage of classics. Thanks to Macaulay and Co.,we had to look for English translations. The Thousand and One Nights,for example,came back to us via Burton or the Penguin Classics. (We didn’t know then that in a later India,our lost and found classics would be under threat once more from a gallery of chauvinistic rogues.)

But in those days of innocent discovery,I also stumbled on books in English by non-English authors. For instance,I came across a strange and wonderful novel first published in 1948,All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani.

All About H. Hatterr is a quicksilver-tongued “autobiographical” of an Anglo-Indian seeking wisdom from the “seven sages of India”. The language swells and flows in torrents,but its originality is tempered with a carefully designed structure. If Hatterr,the eponymous hero,takes the reader on a wild roller-coaster ride,the “entire holus-bolus” has a Desani in masterful control.

When I first read Hatterr,I immediately knew it was an important book. But a classic? I mean,is it allowed? Can a classic be so funny,make a fine art of standing Classical Language on its venerable English head? Can a classic be written by a “fifty-fifty”,starring a hybrid hero,cooking up a dish of khichdi,the eclectic,nourishing,do-it-yourself subcontinental stew? The answer to all these questions turned out to be “Yes.” And as a result,Desani’s novel managed to get the visa required for writers with strange names to travel in the English-speaking world. Now maybe we could give them a few new classics,and change the direction of the traffic.

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