Writers Workshop is now a part of modern Indian literary history. Many writers who are ‘big’ names today got their first breaks with WW decades back. Well-known academic and literary critic MEENAKSHI MUKHERJEE takes a look at the evolution of an enterprise that has been kept going by the efforts of a single man, Purushottama Lal.

Purushottama Lal, who will turn 80 in August this year, Has no secretary and no office. he operates from his study.

Over 3,500 titles have appeared so far under this imprint — in elegantly produced , handloom sari-bound volumes — with the title embossed in exquisite calligraphy .

Today, when a budding poet tremulously gets in touch with the legendary Professor P. Lal with her first manuscript, she might not be aware that if published, she is likely to become part of a great tradition. Writers Workshop had published Nissim Ezekiel, A.K. Ramanujan , Adil Jussawalla, Kamala Das among others in the 1960s, Keki Daruwalla , Jayanta Mahapatra , Agha Shahid Ali, Meena Alexander , Suniti Namjoshi in the 1970s, Vikram Seth in 1981 and many more such poets who have subsequently become part of the world-wide-web of fame.

An institution

Writers Workshop is not just a publishing house, it is part of literary history today. It began in 1958 as a small movement spearheaded by a handful of aspiring writers in Kolkata (then Calcutta), and now, when the initial group has scattered to distant locations and diverse vocations, the founder member Purushottama Lal has kept it going almost single-handed, unaffected by praise, undeterred by criticism. He asserts, “WW is not a professional publishing house. It does not print well-known names; it makes names known… and then leaves them in the loving clutches of the so-called ‘free’ market.” This statement takes care of the oft-repeated charge against Lal of not being sufficiently discriminating in accepting manuscripts. He is willing to give young writers their first launching pad and hopes that some will take off. Some do not, and this uncertainty is part of the game. To paraphrase Macbeth: How does one “look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not?”

Purushottama Lal, who will turn 80 in August this year, is an amazing one-man institution with no secretary and no office (he operates from his study). Until recently he replied to every letter in his famous calligraphic handwriting. Of late he has made some concession to the electronic age by seeking his grand-daughter’s help to send a few e-mail answers. He does the editing, proof-reading and page lay-out of each book. Books are stacked in every room of his residence including the staircase, and from a small kiosk outside his house called “Book Nook”, a young assistant attends to intermittent sales of WW books. “How has WW survived? Without plush foundations to back it, without advertisement, without large-hearted patrons? Initially, by the skin of our teeth (1958 -1964) , Then (1965-1990) by my visits to hard currency lands on lecture assignments and visiting professorships on two dozen or so occasions and pumping the shekels thus earned to keep alive a gasping ideal,” wrote Lal. Cynics believe that the authors had to always subsidise the production of WW books. But my own one-time experience in the 1970s (when WW published a book of poems that my husband Sujit and I had translated from Bangla) does not substantiate this. A friend who sent her first collection of short stories to WW in 1978 says Lal had asked her if she could buy 100 copies of her book. When she expressed her inability to spend so much money, Lal went ahead and published the book anyway and later did four more books by her with no financial strings attached. After 1990, when a major health crisis altered Lal’s lifestyle and he stopped travelling, the economics of WW also changed. By that time he had retired from St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta after being a charismatic teacher of English for many years. Now the Writers Workshop authors sign a contract, agreeing to make an advance purchase of 100 copies for sale or distribution as she or he pleases. Ten per cent of the books published are given in lieu of royalty. The copyright remains with the author. As every WW author knows, there is hardly any organised distribution of these books, but despite that, writers continue to come to him. On an average, 100 titles are published each year.

Important contributors

The story of WW will remain incomplete without reference to two of its chief protagonists — Tulamian Mohiuddin, who, for many years, meticulously bound each volume by hand and once received the President’s award for binding (now his sons have taken over the WW work) and P.K. Aditya, a neighbour who offered to do the printing in the early days. Aditya moved the car out of his garage and installed a hand-operated printing machine that cost him all of Rs. 6,000. He printed in this machine and the end-product was distinctive.

P. Lal nurtured two generations of writers, offering timely words of encouragement and keeping up a personal correspondence with each person. Shashi Deshpande told me, “He was the first literary figure to give me a sense that my work mattered.” When there was a bad review, Lal sent it to her saying, “Forgive him. He does not understand.” Yet, Lal has many detractors as well, and some of them are people who had benefited from his generosity. Pritish Nandy, in a touching tribute to P. Lal which appears on the Writers Workshop website, says, “We were, of course, almost uniformly ungrateful to him. For, we never respect those who give us a leg up. It embarrasses us.”

It is possible that people who have discovered Writers Workshop late will have a better perspective on this extraordinary enterprise. Already, Rubana Huq, a young researcher from Dhaka, has begun working in the archives of WW — sheaves of letters and pages boxed in a steel cabinet — and has published a 408-page Golden Treasury of Writers Workshop Poetry in 2008. A young IT whiz-kid — Arunabha Sengupta, now in Amsterdom, created a website for WW three years ago ( http://www.writersworkshopindia.com/) and another young man, Jed Bickman, from Brown University, is updating it from time to time . Perhaps one needs some distance and a sense of history to appreciate the value of this extra-ordinary man who has sustained an alternative publishing venture for so long.

The journey and fellow travellers

In February 2009, sitting with Purushottama Lal in his book-lined study, I asked him about the circumstances that led to the formation of the Writers Workshop. Lal simply said, “It began the way all radical movements do. If society is conservative, so are its publishing houses. When no one would publish our work, we had to do it ourselves.” Although, formally, Writers Workshop started in 1958 with a credo signed by its seven original members, according to Lal, the idea goes back to his undergraduate days when he became the first student editor of the St. Xavier’s College Magazine and tasted the joy of creating something of literary value by locating talents and giving them a platform. Among his college contemporaries who shared his passion for writing were Utpal Dutt, Tarun Roy (subsequently, both became important names in Bangla theatre), an Anglo-Burmese student called Denzil Leverston-Allen, Roger Lesser (an Englishman born in India who later became a priest) Leobald D’Souza who is now a Cardinal, and Romen Mukherjee, the son of a famous industrialist. Utpal Dutt’s first and probably the only English play, called “Betty Belshazzar” — a satire on Anglicised Indians — appeared in this magazine. Despite being close friends, Utpal Dutt and Purushottama Lal had their differences: “Utpal’s dream was simple. He thought Marx was an Indian Guru as well. My dream was equally simple. I believed that English was an Indian language as well.” While talking to me, Lal lamented that over the years he lost these early companions to “Marxism, religion, stage and the corporate world,” but later there were others friends , who too realised that their work would not be accepted by mainstream publishers and in 1958 “we formed a group, a nice consanguineous coterie. We wrote prefaces to each other’s books, pointing out excellences, and performed similar familial kindnesses in other ways as well… We gave ourselves a name — Writers Workshop — and adopted unto ourselves a detailed, 1,000-word “constitution” drafted by our precisest-minded member, Deb Kumar Das.”

Beyond publishing

The activities of this group were not limited to publishing. From the late 1950s, for about 20 years, there would be a meeting at P. Lal’s Lake Gardens house in Kolkata every Sunday morning, to read and discuss each other’s work. The regulars in the early years were Anita Desai, Pradip Sen, Deb Kumar Das, Kewlian Sio, Sasthi Brata, William Hull and Jai Ratan. P. Lal’s wife Shyamasree Devi provided solid support, both literary and otherwise. Some others dropped in now and then — Raghavendra Rao, David McCutchion and one-time visitors included celebrities like R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Nirad Chaudhuri, Raja Rao, Santha Rama Rau, Allen Ginsberg, Gunter Grass, Geoffrey Hill, Christopher Isherwood, Peter Brook, Paul Engle, Pearl Buck and more... Here is a description of an ordinary Sunday meeting, in P. Lal’s own words: “ ‘Let’s see — couldn’t ‘original sin’ be made into ‘aboriginal sin’? Sounds so much more in keeping with what the poem is trying to say…” A new poem by Pradip Sen has been read out. It is a winter morning; half a dozen members are present; outside, from the long French windows of the drawing room, one sees sparrows chirruping, and shaliks mud-bathing; inside, a rectangular book-and-magazine-littered centre table also displays coffee, cheese biscuits, samosas and rossogollas... ‘Could you take this story home, Jai Ratan-ji , and report on it next Sunday?’ And the story circulates from member to member, enduring barrages of critical comment, until there is the editor’s final yes or no.” These morning meetings stopped in the 1970s. Since 1999, another Sunday morning event has taken its place. Now Lal reads out from his transcreation of Mahabharata, not in his house, but in the Sanskriti Sagar Library in Kolkata.

Along with publishing books, Writers Workshop had started a journal, WW Miscellany (the first issue in 1958 opened with Anita Desai’s short story “Grandmother”). There were not too many journals in India those days that provided space for creative writing in English and it attracted poets like R. Parthasarathy, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Gieve Patel, Dom Moraes, Saleem Peeradina, Arun Kolhatkar — who were all young then. Looking at the old issues of the journal as well as the complete checklist of Writers Workshop books is like going through the Who’s Who of the Indian cultural scene in the last half century. Not only do we find names familiar to us as writers — from Ruskin Bond to Mamang Dai, but also some names we associate with other fields of activity. Not many who know Jatin Das as a painter or Yamini Krishnamurti as a dancer or Nihal Singh as Editor are aware that they were/are poets too. Siddharth Kak went on to become a TV producer, Jug Suraiya a journalist. Gauri Despande and Mamta Kalia after their striking debut in English went on to become well-known as Marathi and Hindi writers respectively.

Ahead of the times

From the beginning, books published by WW carried a declaration that the writers “agree in principle that English has proved its ability, as a language, to play a creative role in Indian literature, through original writing and through transcreations”. Fifty years ago this claim seemed either premature or audacious to many. The debate whether English is a suitable creative medium for Indians might seem dated today, but in the 1960s it raged bitterly. In 1963, Buddhadeva Bose, a major Bangla writer and critic, wrote a short but brutally dismissive entry on Indian Poetry in English ( those days called “Indo-Anglian Poetry” ) in The Concise Encyclopaedia of English and American Poets and Poetry edited by Stephen Spender and Donald Hall. Bose described such poetry as “a blind alley lined with curio shops, leading nowhere.” Lal copied this two-paragraph entry to some hundred Indian poets in English and attached a questionnaire to solicit their views on the issue of writing in English. In 1968, Jyotirmoy Datta, Bose’s son-in-law and a minor Bangla writer, published an essay in the journal Quest, fiercely attacking Indians who wrote poetry in English, and the Writers Workshop poets in particular. His title “Caged Chaffinches and Polyglot Parrots” was a dig at P. Lal’s first book of poems: Parrot’s Death. P. Lal wrote a witty rejoinder and a discussion ensued on the pages of Quest. Meanwhile, the answers to Lal’s questionnaire had started arriving, and in 1969, these were collected, along with a portfolio of poems by each of the 134 contributors, adorned with their photographs, in a massive 600-page volume: Modern Indian Poetry in English: An Anthology and a Credo, which was probably the first major compilation of Indian poems in English. This volume is a collector’s item today.

In retrospect, it seems Buddhadeva Bose unwittingly did a great service to Indian Poetry in English. His provocation consolidated the scattered voices, forcing the poets to be self-reflexive. The responses varied widely. Kamala Das simply said she found writing in English easier than writing in Malayalam; Ramanujan wrote to Lal that he had no strong opinion on Indians writing in English: “Buddhadeva Bose has strong opinions on why they should not; you are persuaded that they should. I think the real question is whether they can. And if they can, they will.” Not many agreed with Lal that English was an Indian language. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra analogised in lower case: “english is as much an Indian language as bengali is chinese” and Nissim Ezekiel casually observed, “I do not believe that English is an Indian language,” but that did not seem to matter to him. Many offered autobiographical details to justify their choice of language. But on the whole these comments — serious or irreverent — contributed to a discourse that continued for several decades, at different levels of sophistication. Even today the stale debate on language and “Indianness” is occasionally warmed up and served by the media.

Branching out

WW’s initial emphasis was on poetry but gradually books in other genres began to grow in number. Fiction (more volumes of short stories appeared than novels), drama (Asif Currimbhoy’s 22 plays among others), literary criticism (some of the earliest studies of Indian writing in English, by David McCutchion, Syd Harrex, Stephen Hemenway, were published by WW), memoirs, and now there are newer categories like audio cassettes of poets reading their own work and screenplays (the complete dialogue done by Rahi Masoom Raza for the mammoth Doordarshan “Mahabharata” is available in English translation in 10 volumes). But, to me, the most important is WW’s list of translations (Lal’s term is “transcreation”) from Indian languages. He began long before the translation boom happened in mainstream publishing. I have a personal collection of some of these books that I cherish very much — English versions of Krishna Baldev Vaid’s own Hindi novel (Bimal in Bog), of poems by Gopal Krishna Adiga, Srikant Varma, Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena, C.M. Naim’s Ghalib and Satyajit Ray’s English rendering of his father Sukumar Ray’s Nonsense Verses, to mention just a few at random. Also Premchand and Tagore. Then there is a long list of translations from medieval and ancient authors — Kalidas, Kshemendra, Kabir, Jaidev, Meera, Ilango Adigal, Thiruvalluvar, and the list continues.

I must end by mentioning the major publishing event of the last two decades: The shloka by shloka, canto by canto, English transcreation of Vyasa’s Mahabharata by P. Lal that appeared first in 64-page units and now, fortunately, 17 parvas are complete and since November 2008 , the Adi available in DVDs as well as print format.

The Anusasana Parva remains to be Englished. No publishing house would have allowed the translator this unhurried pace, and the time to contemplate the minute ironies and profound ambiguities of Vyasa’s language .Transcreating the entire epic is achievement enough for a lifetime, but Purushottama Lal has done, and continues to do, so much else that he puts us ordinary mortals to shame.

Meenakshi Mukherjee taught English at the University of Hyderabad and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She received the Sahitya Akademi Award for her book The Perishable Empire: Essays on Indian Writing in English.