If I’d lived through the 1940s, say a bit after that hideous war against fascism, then the Fellow I’d have asked on to the podium of RSL stage would have been G.V. Desani. Which is to say, Govindas Vishnoodas Desani, a joyous mouthful of mighty India. I say India but Mr G.V. Desani was born in Kenya, an African-Indian who wrote his novels and short stories about Indians in the English language. Mr Desani was a rude boy by all accounts because he was repeatedly expelled from school and ran away to Britain when he was 17 years of age. In essence, he became a British-Indian.
I describe Mr Desani in a somewhat comical manner because he was a mighty funny novelist, and his greatest novel, one of the greatest novels ever written in English, All About H. Hatterr, is a shape-shifter of a book; is it a novel or a very silly account about a spiritual person who encounters loads of silly experiences? Is the novel actually in English, yes, and well, no, not so, because its messed-up style recreates the way highly educated Indians spoke English: they would chuck in Latin, French, big fancy words alongside slang and whatever mix of English and non-English came to mind. This English is unofficially called Babu English. Here is an example from the funniest (OK, only funny if you get all the clever gags, which actually I don’t, not quite) book ever, the opening of the second chapter, about Mr H. Hatterr:
“An Oriental gent, whose only assets in the world were a sable fur coat and a genuine delight in information and learning, spent the better half of his life digging up a pyramid. He dug, because a seer had confided in him, that inside the pyramid was hidden stuff beyond man’s ken: many priceless diamonds! The task was super-human. But the feller carried on, and on, digging like kingdom come.”
You will notice, my beloved reader, how words from different sources are plunged alongside each other, the slangy ‘feller’ ‘ken’, formal ‘Oriental’, compound ‘super-human’, exclamatory style, and so on; indeed, my own use of fussy punctuation is an example of Babu English. The whole novel continues in this muckabout way with anecdote, factual details, digressions and whatnot for 300 joyous pages.
On publication T.S. Eliot, according to Wikipedia, said of the novel, “In all my experience, I have not met with anything quite like it. It is amazing…” Saul Bellow, a bleak writer, if ever there was one, said, Wikipedia again, “I love it”. Mr G.V. Desani could even cheer up the likes of Saul Bellow!
I know little of Mr G.V. Desani’s life but one story interests me because I’m about to visit my dentist after elevenses. Mr G.V. Desani had incredible white teeth, unheard of for a 1940s fella (to use his word), he loved his white teeth exceedingly; he visited his dentist frequently. When he travelled aboard, say around Europe and USA, he would seek out the finest dentist in the land to discuss with that dentist teeth.
If Mr G.V. Desani were to step up to the podium and sign his name in the Roll Book of RSL Fellows, I am certain we’d all applaud him: once for being a charming author and twice for his immaculate teeth, naturally white teeth, the envy of every author to have signed the RSL register.
Daljit Nagra is Chair of the Royal Society of Literature, on the Council of The Society of Authors, Adviser to Poetry By Heart and Professor of English & Creative Writing at Brunel University. He has published four poetry collections and is the inaugural Poet in Residence for BBC Radio 4/4 Extra.
Govindas Vishnoodas Desani (1909-2000) was an actor, writer, journalist and university professor, born in Nairobi and educated in Karachi. In 1926, he arrived in England to work as a foreign correspondent with major news agencies, broadcasting in both Hindustani and in English.