Hali and Collected Stories
Clothbound, sewn, jacketed, 208 pages, 5.5 x 8.5", 1991, 0-929701-12-7
Forty years after the appearance of his classic novel, All About H. Hatterr, G.V. Desani broke his silence with this volume of twenty-three stories and one long prose poem, only the second full-length book of his fiction ever to be published. Many of the stories appeared first in literary anthologies and magazines, including The Noble Savage (edited by Saul Bellow), Illustrated Weekly of India, Transatlantic Review, and Boston University Journal. The stories are mostly written in the humorous mode of his famous novel, relying upon comic timing and his keen sense of the incongruities in contemporary life. They often captivate in the same way that Indres Shah's Sufi learning tales do, and the titles alone convey a sense of the interpenetration of India's cultures: "Suta Abandoned," "Mephisto's Daughter," "The Second Mrs. Was Wed in a Nightmare," "Gypsy Jim Brazil to Kumari Kinshino," "Country Life, Country Folk, Cobras, Thok," "...Since Nation Must Export, Smithers," "The Lama Arupa." Whether send-ups of colonialism or lampoons of conventionality, there is a seriousness to Desani's comedy that crosses cultural boundaries and racial identification.
All About H. Hatterr chronicles some seven misadventures in the career of its hero, the Eurasian Mr. H. Hatterr, one of the more confused pilgrims on life's way. In each chapter the half-mad Hatterr tries out some new scheme to improve his life in India, encounters a sage of one sort or another (generally a charlatan), suffers a complete debacle, and ends back at home in often bitter philosophical colloquy, discussing life's ceaseless mutability with his friend, the Shakespeare-spouting, English-skewering N. Bannerji. All this is funny in itself, but what keeps the novel so perennially fresh is its amazingly sustained "rigmarole English," a slangy Anglo-Indian dialect, built on comic punctiliousness and bountifully sprinkled with quotations and aphothegms.
One chapter, for instance, opens this way: "Said the Sage of Madras to the suppliant, 'Ere I decided to go wisdom-intoxicated, know, O scholarly! I had been prey to cruel passions! I was afflicted with the two inhuman infatuations: To buy and sell paper merchandise and To consume tasty foods." Another starts like this: "One day, the Maharaja-Emperor was engaged, utmost privately, in clinging to his chamber-maid. While he was acting imperially and was past-gone in a state of the eagerest insurgent impatience for the speedy satisfaction of his amorous and soul-consuming fervour for the said chamber-maid, suddenly, through the curtained-off window, lo, shame! a Voice entered the regal chamber." On any page the sentences may suddenly veer away into the strange and wonderful: "Last night I saw a dead mouse being thrown out of a trap by a surrealist neighbour. An Indian feller. Damme, it makes my blood boil to see mice being chucked about like that . . ."
If you think that last phrase, especially its rhythm, shows sheer genius, you should happily follow H. Hatterr as he is thrown, indeed chucked, out of his club and decides to become a wandering fakir, later goes prospecting for treasure in disguise as a beggar, and eventually entertains a group of drunken Indian poetasters in the hopes of getting a special diploma that he believes will recharge his wife's sexual affection for him. Of course, these are nothing compared to the time he falls in love with a woman lion-tamer. He hotly pursues his Cockney beauty -- "I played this game of supplicating, kid-behaviour, coquetry: and 'Sir, you have insulted me!' nice Nellie virgo-intacta stuff. . ." -- only to find himself the main attraction of the wild animal act: A human plate, stetched out in the ring, half naked, with a hunk of bloody steak on his stomach.
As Charlie the lion's muzzle approaches, H. Hatterr unexpectedly passes not out but rather into a kind of mystical state. In fact, Desani's book, for all its good humor and linguistic zing, repeatedly builds toward authentic speculations about religion, death, the after-life and other transcendental matters. If not quite a divine comedy, All About H. Hatterr is certainly a spiritual one. Which should not be too surprising since Desani spent the 1950s and '60s studying various forms of meditation and the 1970s and '80s in teaching Eastern philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. As a result, his only other imaginative writing appears to have been the youthful prose poem Hali and a score of short stories, most of them written for an Indian newspaper in the 1970s.
Hali relates the spiritual quest of its hero in a dithyrambic prose that verges on the incomprehensible and sometimes doesn't stop there. The language is pitched at what might be called the liturgical, a blend of the Song of Songs and "Lycidas," sing-songed by a Walt Whitman who finally made that passage to India. Some moments are quite lovely and lyrical: "Beyond the earth are more earths and more snares of dreams." Others are a blend of Dali and Kali: "Awed, frenzied, thy brothers and sisters shall war upon one another, and they shall shed their skins, and be drained of blood. And their ribs shall break, and their bones shall point to the sky, point like fingers to the sky. Ants shall nest in thy brothers' jaws and flies shall feed upon thy sister's breasts." The 25-page vision ends with a final transcendence, as Hali, his heart heavy laden with Rooh, the girlfriend whose premature death precipitates the quest, eventually finds peace with, or in, or as part of, the universe.
Most of the stories in this handsome new collection deal with spirits, demons, metamorphosis, and matters somewhat alien to many westerners. In one a young Indian woman, educated at the university, falls in love with the son of her father's old friend. This mystical young man gradually inculcates into her his philosophy -- a kind of pantheism that feels no fear of death -- and then commits suicide. In the daughter's last letter home she announces that she, of course, plans to join her lover in the after-life. An old story, in some ways, but Desani treats it neither as romantic Liebestod nor as psychological horror, but as the natural completion of a spiritual journey -- unless, of course, his irony has grown so refined as to be invisible. Yet in many of the stories death is simply one more plot development. "A New Bridge of Plenty" even starts with the suicide of its hero, whom the gods offer an eternal life of "food, drink and sexual poetency"; he is, appropriately, transformed into a strange insect-worm that does nothing but eat, drink and breed.
Amid these fables of identity -- each "a random philosophic fabrication by a crackpot gownsman" -- Desani's prose keeps humming along, albeit without the supercharged intensity of H. Hatterr. In "The Mandatory Interview with the Dean," a variant on C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, a bureaucratic devil instructs a half-fallen angel in the arts of temptation. In "The Second Mrs. Was Wed in a Nightmare" the hero passes into what he is told is the fifth dimension and there discovers an ape named Eric who has been playing Bach organ music for centuries but who agrees to give up the keyboard and become his spiritual guide. All this in the first two pages. We are definitely not in John Updike territory.
Hali and Collected Stories will certainly be a little too strange for some tastes, but the adventurous should give these Borges-like Indian fairy tales a try. If you can handle the farther reaches of magic realism or the trickier Zen parables, they'll be a snap. Still, they should only be read after Desani's deservedly classic All About H. Hatterr.
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY: All the characters in Desani's allegorical prose poem ``Hali'' carry on a daily dialogue with Rahu, or Death. The Indo-English novelist fashions a private mythology, as Hali, the hero, learns through his beloved Rooh that love is the only antidote to death and nothingness. First published in 1950 in Britain where it was performed as a ``poem-play,'' ``Hali'' is an ornate, rapturous meditation. Best known for his Joycean novel All About H. Hatterr , Desani reveals his modern side in the 23 conversational stories also gathered here. Set in India, they confirm him as a master of subtle metaphysical comedies, a fabulist, fantasist, moralist and keen satirist of life's follies, absurdities and ego trips. In ``With Malice Aforethought,'' a travel agent professing a desire for spiritual self-realization betrays his me-first individualism. Stories about a suicidal teenager reborn as a worm and a lama's post-death experiences reflect Desani's playful yet questing forays into Eastern spirituality. Chance, karma, and kismet and circumstances toss his characters about like leaves--as in ``A Border Incident,'' where a sentry who saves a drowning boy is promptly punished for his bravery.
KIRKUS REVIEWS: Desani, born in Kenya, educated in India and currently a professor at the University of Texas, offers his first book in some 40 years: 23 stories and fables, along with a dramatic prose poem, that range from bleakness to ironic comedy and from supernatural tales to highly mannered satires. The prose poem—which tells the story of ``Hali,'' who loves Rooh, whose death plunges Hali into grief and a mystical journey— is most noteworthy as an example of private mythology turned into accessible invocation. The supernatural element in many of the other fictions is strong: ``The Valley of Lions,'' for example, is short and visionary; ``Mephisto's Daughter'' concerns a narrator who has access to ``Old Ugly's daughter''; and ``The Lama Arupa'' follows the holy man of the title through ``several states of consciousness'' after his death until he returns as a chicken. ``The Merchant of Kisingarh'' is told by a deceased merchant speaking through his son, a sometime medium. These pieces manage to be both wry and penetrating by turns, while ``The Last Long Letter''—an epistolary tale about a daughter sent away to meet her future groom, a boy who turns out to be visionary—is consistently bittersweet. ``A Border Incident,'' more traditional, tells of a man punished (mildly) for deserting his post to save a boy's life. Desani also offers a mock lecture (``Rudyard Kipling's Evaluation of His Own Mother'') on one of Kipling's more ludicrous compositions, and he closes with the phantasmagoric ``The Mandatory Interview of the Dean''—a madcap satire of bureaucracy and officiousness offered up in a style that is rich and frothily indulgent. A varied collection, impressive in its use of religious and personal mythology—and lushly descriptive of a sensibility and a culture that is part English, part Indian, and uniquely Desani's own.