Archive for May 19th, 2010

May 19, 2010

All About H. Hatterr

G.V. Desani’s All About H. Hatterr occupies a strange place in the canon (if there is such a thing) of Indian writing in English. One hears of writers who love it – Salman Rushdie is quoted at length on the back of my copy – but really, hardly anyone has read it, it’s close to impossible to find, and most people have never heard of it. I did a course on 20th Century Indian Literature in my first year of college, and I don’t think Desani was ever even mentioned.

So I was thrilled to find a copy (nyrb edition) a couple of months ago in a Delhi bookshop. I was also extremely intimidated by it, which is why this Spotlight Series on NYRB Classics came at such a good time. I forced myself to get on with it.

All About H. Hatterr begins with an introduction (“All About…”) by G. V Desani, with an account, presumably mostly fictional, of how the book was published.

So to Betty Bloomsbohemia: the Virtuosa with knobs on. I was summoned, Come Monday: but bagged Tuesday. I was questioned closely. Honouring me, as I never was ever! she insisted that I do explain the ABC of the book. Awed, I did the best I could. A. A man’s choice, Missbetty, is conditioned by his past: his experience. That’s true of his words too. I dare you, there are other ways of saying ‘Aspirin’. ‘Corpsereviver’, ‘Acetyl-Salicylic compound’. To one, M.P stands for a Member of Parliament. To another, it might mean major parasite. Depends on his experience. That’s all why this book isn’t English as she is wrote and spoke. Not verbal contortionism, I assure. B. There are two of us writing this book. A fellow called H. Hatterr, and I. I said to this H. Hatterr, ‘Furgoodnessakes, you tell ‘em. I am shy!’ And he tells. Though I warrantee, and underwrite, the book’s his. I remain anonymous. C. As for the arbitrary choice of words and constructions you mentioned. Not intended by me to invite analysis. They are there because, I think, they are natural to H. Hatterr. But, Madam! whoever asked a cultivated mind such as yours to submit your intellectual acumen or emotions to this H. Hatterr mind? Suppose you quote me as saying, the book’s simple laughing matter?

I was in love.

It makes little sense for me to tell you that the rest of the book (“H. Hatterr”, by H. Hatterr) is divided into seven parts, with a “critique” (“With Iron Hand I Defend You, Mr. H. Hatterr, Gentleman!” by Yati Rambeli, formerly widely known as Sri Y. Beliram, B.Com., Advocate, Original and Appellate, Civil and Criminal) at the end; that H. Hatterr is the son of an Englishman (in the navy, I think?) and a Malay prostitute; or that each section begins with the words of a different sage of some sort. Because what really matters about this book is the language. I’ve marked out passages on practically every page of my copy simply because they delighted me. This is taking ownership of the English language, and it’s pure brilliance. Hatterr and his firend Banerji’s cultural references are to Shakespeare and old school ties and pantie-vests from Bond Street made in Huddersfield, but they’re also very much of India. It’s an acknowledgement of our past – this is where we come from, this is what we have been, this is an authentic language for our experience.

Amardeep Singh discusses the novel far more intelligently here.