Govindas Vishnoodas Desani was born in 1909, and grew up in Sindh before leaving for London at the age of seventeen. He worked as a journalist, and is known for writing the cult novel All About H. Hatterr, which has influenced numerous Indian writers working in English. In 1968, Desani moved to Texas and taught Indian Philosophy at the University of Texas-Austin. He retired in Austin, and lived there for the rest of his life.

Ruksana Majid is close to completing work on a two volume critical edition of Desani’s manuscript diaries titled The Indian Journal. The first volume is tentatively planned for publication in 2017. She joined academia after spending many years working as a translator, and recently completed her PhD. at the University of Sheffield. Majid is also writing a book-length study of Desani’s life, and editing a collection of essays called The Postcolonial Archive.

I came across Desani’s journals in the Harry Ransom Center literary archives at the University of Texas-Austin while researching an essay on diaries. Desani’s archives were acquired by the Ransom Center in 2007, but haven’t been catalogued. Nor has a lot has been written about them.

I emailed Majid with questions about the contents of Desani’s archives, and became fascinated with her research. She describes archival work as an “excavation [...] with the life narratives of those no longer here”. This interview emerged from our email correspondence.

How did you become interested in G.V. Desani’s work?
My starting point was an interest in bilingual, or what you might also call translingual, authors. Having worked as a translator for some years myself (I speak Urdu and Pahari, my parents hail from Kashmir), I was drawn to a body of work by a range of early twentieth-century Indian authors who wrote with an awareness of operating between languages – I was curious about the types of choices, negotiations, and compromises that this might involve in relation to the novelistic form, particularly by those figures who expressed a sense of not feeling entirely at home in the English language.

When I first embarked on my doctoral studies I had certainly thought I was going to write a much broader study about early diasporic Anglophone Indian writers, but Desani emerged very quickly as not just an intriguing character, but one woefully understudied.

Could you tell us a bit about the contents of Desani’s journals?
The collective diary notebooks held at the Harry Ransom Center are a chronicle of the period following Desani’s return to India in the early 1950s, after an absence of almost twelve years spent living and working in Britain. It’s a prolific document, amounting to almost 4000 pages of handwritten text. The Journal has proven to be a really rich document for gaining insight into Desani’s life and work – truly one of those rare archival ‘discoveries’ that literary scholars are always on the lookout for!

The diaries are interesting as a personal portrait of 1950s India, but fascinating in equal measure are his frequent reflections about the time he spent in Britain, his own conflicted feelings about his authorial identity, and his detailing of his writing process.

How did studying Desani’s archives change your perspective on his work? Are there any particular insights you could share?
Despite being hailed as an inaugurating moment in the literature of postcoloniality, it is generally overlooked that All About H. Hatterr is very much a product of the Second World War – what is seen in his papers is that it was against the backdrop of wartime rationing, martial ordnance across London, and in close proximity to civilian death that the manuscript was obsessively drafted and re-drafted.

The view I’ve arrived at of his literary work, (Hatterr in particular, though this might also extend to his subsequent work, Hali), is that it was through the crafting of an innovative literary language that Desani was able to create a counter environment, one that intentionally recoiled from war’s culture of lies and simulacra, as well as afforded him an elliptical form of self-disclosure.

He retrospectively wrote about the traffic between life and literature, and even went so far as to suggest that literature allows us ‘glimpses of a life history’, and I have to say that this strand of Desani’s thinking has really shaped my own understanding of his work.

What silences or absences did you find in looking at Desani’s papers?
In a sense, I think gaps and elisions are the defining condition of the archive. In the Journal, he rarely referred to friends or family members, for example, by their full names, and would mostly use just an initial.

Another rather large gap, (incidentally, to which I dedicated a whole chapter of my doctoral thesis), is the issue of what I refer to as ‘the Missing Mahatma’. Desani’s papers, his letters and publishing ephemera, reveal that between 1947 and late 1948 he was hard at work on a manuscript for a biography of Mahatma Gandhi, entitled Gandhi: A Study, which was contracted to Francis Aldor Publications. He never completed this work, and there is no extant manuscript available amongst his papers.

Yet, aside from some mentions in various letters about unspecified difficulties he was encountering during the writing of this work, and, from a later date, what I’m sure is a tongue-in-cheek explanation offered in a column that appeared in the Indian press (he claimed that the secretary he had dictated the text to had lapsed into a coma after plunging suddenly from a balcony, and as he had been unable to decipher her shorthand notations, he was thus forced to abandon the work), there is no concrete information that would allow us to discern what this work would have looked like, or to fully answer the question as to why it was abandoned?

I was troubled by the misogynistic sentiments Desani expresses in his diaries, and I was wondering what your considerations are in editing the journals for publication – whether you're thinking of leaving those things out?
My primary editorial goal is to establish a text as close to the original as possible. Part of my research training is in the long established field of scholarly editorial methods and theories in the field of humanities research, so in terms of best practice in relation to some of the more unpalatable elements of Desani's journals (i.e. expressions of misogyny, admissions of violence against women, etc), eliding such details is not something I would be inclined to do; however, I would offer certain explanatory or contextual notes.

This is not so much a case of explaining away what is patently a quite troubling attitude, but offering a fuller view, which sometimes means drawing on supplementary materials – for example, certain correspondences I have had access to indicate that the reason for Desani returning to India was, in part, a humiliating rejection and failed love affair with a young Dutch woman named “Luise”. While this in no way excuses his expressed attitudes to women, it may go some way to explaining his embittered responses to the opposite sex in general.

Are there moments when he redeems himself in that context?
In terms of whether he “redeems” himself: again, while editorial craft (if I may call it that) certainly leans towards particular perspectives, such as authorial intent or alternatively, examining the writing process, it is not preoccupied so much with censuring the moral or ethical stances of an author. There is, however, something of an evolution in Desani's journal writing – although he never really loses his irascible tone, his later journals do take on the profile of a chronicle of a spiritual journey. Sometime after his arrival in Sarnath in October 1952, he became quite absorbed in his religious studies, even committing himself to a period of monastic training and extreme religious discipline, which is reflected in the nature of his journal entries as time passes.

Did archival work change how you relate to your own diary?
I’ve been a diarist myself for a number of years, but interestingly enough , my own journalling kind of tailed off around the time I began my research on Desani’s Journal – I'm not entirely sure if there’s any sort of correlation there! I think working with manuscript diaries does give you an awareness of what I can only describe as a voyeuristic impulse behind reading private documents of this sort.

There can be a sense of intrusion in the way that author diaries in particular are sometimes read. In popular culture, at least, they’re often plumbed primarily for the more scandalous exposures. My own interest in Desani’s diaries, however, is shaped by an abiding fascination with the life of the imagination, of which the text of The Indian Journal certainly provides an abundance of examples.

Anushka Jasraj is a writer from Bombay. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing from the New Writers Project at the University of Texas-Austin and was a regional winner of the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. She is currently working on a project involving South Asian women's diaries. She can be mailed at