G. V. Desani

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

G.V. Desani
Born Govindas Vishnoodas Desani
Nairobi, Kenya
Died November 15, 2000
Fort Worth, Texas
Occupation Writer, Professor of Philosophy and Religion
Language English, Hindu, Urdu, Sindhi, Sanskrit, Pali
Genre Novel,
short story,
Notable works All About H. Hatterr (1948)
Hali (1952)

G. V. Desani born Govindas Vishnoodas Dasani (1909–2000) was a Kenyan-born, self-educated Indian writer and scholar of Oriental spiritual traditions and their derivatives. The son of a wood merchant, he first worked as a foreign correspondent for London newspapers, The Times of India, Reuters, and the Associated Press. During World War II he was a commentator for the British Ministry of Information, the BBC, and lectured on antiquities for the India Railway system. Desani achieved considerable fame with his widely reviewed novel All About H. Hatterr (1948 and many subsequent editions), considered a fine example of mid-20th Century modernism in the tradition of James Joyce.[1] Hali, a second work of fiction was published in 1952. In 1967 Desani became a Fulbright-sponsored lecturer on Oriental Philosophy at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas. His credentials were a nearly 15 year engagement in traditional and ancient spiritual and religious pursuits in India, Japan and Burma. Eventually Desani became a tenured professor in the UT Philosophy Department. A final work, Hali and Collected Stories, was published in 1991. The stories were mainly drawn from his many contributions to the Illustrated Weekly of India. Desani's greater contribution was in his devoted study and erudite exegesis of the spiritual traditions of India and his published observations on the world leaders and geopolitics of his time.


Born Govindas Vishnoodas Dasani in 1909 to Indian parents in Nairobi, Kenya, Govind grew up in Sindh, now Pakistan, he was a bright child but very rebellious. He ran away from home twice times at an early age and was expelled from school at 13 as unteachable. A third time he left home and made it to England where, at the tender age of 17, he quickly and cleverly made some powerful friends. He was personally recommended by George Lansbury, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in the British House of Commons, for admission as a reader to the prestigious British Museum Library.

By age 25, Desani had become a correspondent for The Times of India, Reuters and the Associated Press. He was sponsored by the Central India Railway as lecturer on antiquities. A circular from the Director of Education, Delhi, stresses the great value of his lectures. Somewhere along the way he became known as G.V. Desani.

Just as Britain entered World War II, Desani returned to Britain. Waiving 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, Desani's public lectures were sponsored by the British Ministry of Information and were widely publicized by the Ministry. His audiences varied from businessmen, teachers, munitions workers and prisons. His talks were broadcast to army, navy, air force and civil defense personnel, to hospitals, resettlement units, prisons and American servicemen stationed in Britain. By the end of the war he had become a media personality.

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."

BBC Years[edit]

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 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 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."

Saul Bellow, in The New York Times, chose it for his Book of the Year selection (1952), (calling it) the book "I love."

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 brevity.

Return to India[edit]

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.

Illustrated Weekly of India[edit]

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.

Spiritual Philosophy[edit]

Desani followed an ancient spiritual tradition that purposed to conserve and pass on esoteric knowledge and understanding gathered by practitioners using secret and well guarded craft meticulously developed over millennia. He was in the nature of a modern day Guru though he explicitly eschewed such a notion. He claimed not to "have a Guru franchise".The West has its own religious and spiritual tradition that eventually turned East with seekers, writer's, such as Hermann Hesse. There was an historic effort to bring the West to the East that turned out doing the opposite. Desani no doubt knew of these currents and consciously took his place therein. He said at a Rangoon, Burma lecture, "I am a man of the world". He nevertheless remained rather modest in his ambitions leaving it up to posterity, to fate, to place him appropriately. He was an observer to his life and times in a strict meditative sense, he absorbed everything and then acted prudently according to nature.

Division of his work[edit]

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.[2]



  • 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

External links[edit]

  1. ^ "All about H - Indian Express". archive.indianexpress.com. Retrieved 2018-07-11. 
  2. ^ "All About G.V. Desani". www.desani.org. Retrieved 2018-07-13.