The Indian ‘Ulysses’
Do we read for enlightenment?
‘Melodramatic gestures against public security are a common form of self-expression in the East. For instance, an Indian peasant, whose house has been burgled, will lay a tree across a railway line, hoping to derail a goods train, just to show his opinion of life. And the Magistrates are far more understanding…’
Indian middle-man (to Author): Sir, if you do not identify your composition a novel, how then do we itemise it? Sir, the rank and file is entitled to know.
Author (to Indian middle-man): Sir, I identify it a gesture. Sir, the rank and file is entitled to know.
Indian middle-man (to Author): Sir, there is no immediate demand for gestures. There is an immediate demand for novels. Sir, we are literary agents not free agent.
Author (to Indian middle-man): Sir, I identify it a novel. Sir, itemise it accordingly.
So opens this romp and wordplay by G.V. Desani, a writer born to Indian parents in Nairobi, Kenya, and raised in Sind, India (located in the present day Pakistan). This ‘gesture’ follows H. Hatterr on his search for enlightenment. Our protagonist, and author, is the son of a European merchant officer and a Penang lady, raised and educated in missionary schools in Calcutta.
Before you join Hatterr’s journey seeking out seven sages, from Calcutta, Ranoon, Madras, Bombay, Delhi, Mogalsarai-Varansi and All India, you need to decolonise your thinking. The cultural impact of a colonial missionary upbringing is represented through Hatterr’s obscure and garbled English. What we have been taught is thrown back in our faces, forcing us to shift our paradigms.
That’s all why this book isn’t English as she is wrote and spoke. Not verbal contortionism, I assure. (p16)
A wild satire, at times reminiscent of Cervantes’ Quixote’s adventures, Laurence Sterne’s rollicking and obscurity, and with the characterisations suggestive of Charles Dickens, this ‘gesture’ is unpredictable in many ways;
All pelmanism and former McCoy forsook him. Thus humbled, this once Apostle of Enthusiasm refrained from self-pity, and acted. HE gave up digging for good; and – fall of man! – he climbed down; evolved backwards. From the high station of a seeker of wisdom and learning, he went below; to the lowest bottom-rung of the human progress-ladder. He decided to become a writer! – belong to the frisky fraternity of autobiography-makers, the fellers who keep a tally of their does, and, in the sunset of their days, make an oyez to humanity, asserting the motto, Everyman, I will be thy guide! – damme, clowning and vaudeville-turning! (p31)
Each of the seven main chapters exploring H. Hatterr’s seach for enlightenment with each of the seven sages. They contain a “Digest”, “Instruction”, “Presumption” and a “Life Encounter”. Seven? Reminiscent of the seven deadly sins, pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wroth and sloth, although which teaching is which? For example in Chapter II, Hatterr lusts after a circus owner’s wife, and is reduced to lion taming, cowering on the floor with a raw steak on his stomach whilst the lion eats. Is this lust or gluttony? There is a possible explanation in the closing of the book, a critique of the book by Hatterr’s friend, seven quotes from the Bible , for Chapter II the reference is ‘Comfort me with apples: I am sick of love’. This closing part of the book consists of 80 paragraphs, again a number is used to imply other connections, “The number 8 is extremely symbolic: v. 8-limbed Raja Yoga, etc.” To add to the maze, the book also uses symbols, mathematical and to represent the planets.
Hatterr’s accomplice Banerrji, speaks a garbled Shakespearian waffle;
‘Honest Iago,’ says the feller, greatly agitated, ‘I am as meek as Moses, but I have just heard that you have been mishandled by that Bhata Govinda. Whip me, ye devils! Roast me in sulphur! Gall, worse than gall! A rascally yea-forsooth knave! Three Judases, each one thrice worse than Judas! Falstaff speaking, I am as subject to heat as butter. A man of continuous dissolution and thaw! What valour were it, when a cur doth grin! If I can but catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him!’ (p189-190)
The absurdity of Western customs and rituals always bubbling to the surface;
Baw-saw: Why do the Occidental males wear neck-wear?
The Sheik: It is a mystic symbol and is called the Neck-tie. Their system of mysticism is called Etiquette. Accordingly, their women suffer equality with men: and assume leg-wear, the Garter! Mystically baptised the Honi. I have heard it said, in answer to another query, that the highest respect an Occidental husband can accord his spouse is the addressing of the incantation, You are a super, sweetheart! You don’t let the side down! Good show! (p104)
At times the language can be difficult to follow, with circular references, including allusions to the book itself, and spoonerisms, misquotes, incorrectly attributed references and more! Here Hatterr is travelling as a mystic, from town to town seeking alms as he has no money;
The trump card of us Balaamite fellers is the mumbo-jumbo talk : The priestcraft obscurantisms and subtlety : (…Wherefore, pious brethren, by confessing I lie, yolks! I tell the truth, sort of topholy trumpeting-it, by the Pharisee G. V. Desani: see the feller’s tract All About…, publisher, the same publishing company) : a language deliberately designed to mystify the majority, tempt ‘em to start guessing, and interpreting our real drift, and allegory, what the hell we mean : pursue our meaning on their sthula (gross), the sukshama (subtle) and para (supreme) planes, and levels, and still miss the issue and dash their heads against the crazy-paved rock of confusion, (…Wherefore, what we found, we forsook: what we did not find, we kept. Answer: Lice. A Greek writer feller called Homer, Plutarch confirming, killed himself trying to solve this.) Meantime, while heads are being dashed, and good Greeks killed, we the Wherefore, wherefore fellers, the masters of perplexing parable-speech, remain the all-knowing, never puzzled minority! (p120)
Heavily italicised, exclamation marks throughout the tongue in cheek jibes at the English, are forever flowing;
Damme, almost said to the feller, in his own tone and lexicon, ‘Cheer-o! Cheer-ho! Same to you! Blaw, blaw! Appadine-bloomin’-Sinclair! Huntin’ and shootin’! Good show! Good show! Ain’t cricket, Featherstonehaugh! Play the game, Cholmely-Smythe! A century, old bean! A daisy-cutter! A pink ‘un, Cru’shank! You are a Briton, sir! A real blightah, sah! A sahib, a durai, a tuan, a thakin, and a bwana, bay Jove! A fine dato, Finerty-Milliceep! Fore, there, fore! O mother, O begetter, O jewel! O bearer of the pangs of childbirth! Mama mia, madre, matka, anya, mata, meri! May Appadine-Sinclair’s dago arteries be squashed for turning up at this inauspicious moment! (p248)
Yes, Joycean in style and tone, this is a work that demands re-reading, a slow contemplative absorption, where you can take in the enlightenments, and the references to English (and European) literature.
Which leads me to the introduction, by Anthony Burgess, the same fellow I referred to earlier in the week and his Joycean reference to Alisdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’. Here he specifically references ‘Ulysses’;
The reader who expects the shapeless mind-wandering regularity associated with an amateur search for Truth, must now be informed that H. Hatterr’s story is carefully, even pedantically, planned as Ulysses. There are seven long sections, each of which begins with H. Hatterr consulting a sage. That means seven Sages, each from a different Oriental city, each specialising in a different aspect of Living (H Hatterr’s capitalisation is infectious). The student, having learnt some great Generality, the proceeds to an Adventure, in which he attempts to spread the gospel to other aspiring minds. He ends the section in a discussion with his friend Banerrji, then, refreshed and more hopeful than ever, he proceeds to the next stage of enlightenment. Some such patter, as Joyce knew, was essential if the fine flood of language was not to take chaotic control. (p10)
Here I will agree with Anthony Burgess, this is a highly enjoyable, yet challenging, humorous romp towards enlightenment. I’d give you the keys in summation, but that would be a spoiler alert and it would deprive you of the wonderful journey of H. Hatterr.
Another work complete in my journey through the world of Ulysses.