A true pioneer

Professor P. Lal, whose Writers Workshop was the stepping stone to success to many of the big names in Indian Writing in English today, passed away recently. Three eminent writers pay tribute to his path-breaking spirit…

December 04, 2010 05:11 pm | Updated 05:11 pm IST

Prof. P. Lal. Photo: Shuba Bhattacharjee

Prof. P. Lal. Photo: Shuba Bhattacharjee

One-man show

P. Lal was an institution who made a varied and voluminous contribution to IWE says award-winning novelistSHASHI DESHPANDE.

Decades back, someone suggested I get my short stories published by P. Lal of Writers Workshop. I knew neither P. Lal nor the Writers Workshop then, but I sent the stories. A very businesslike reply agreed to publish them. Days later, another letter arrived saying that he wanted to write a blurb for my stories, something ‘I almost never do'. And then one more saying that one of the stories would be read at the Sunday morning meetings in his home. I had never had such appreciation and encouragement before — nor have I had it since. But that was P. Lal — his love was for literature and he never hesitated to push writing that he thought good.

In time I came to know P. Lal the scholar, the writer, the teacher, the translator, but my first interaction was only with the publisher. The list of writers he published then is like a ‘who's who' of Indian English writers, but most writers soon moved on to bigger publishers. He told me of a young writer he had published, who soon found a major publisher. He went for her book launch, but he said ‘she did not see me. She had stars in her eyes.' A matter-of-fact statement, holding no rancour. P. Lal was that rare thing in the literary world, a generous man, whose generosity manifested itself in many ways. When I asked for permission to have my stories republished by Penguin, I was gently rebuked. ‘You know we don't do things that way. The stories are yours.' When I asked to use his words as epigraph for my novels, he said ‘you are free to use what you want.'

But P. Lal, more than a publisher, was a pioneer of Indian Writing in English (IWE). He speaks of IWE having begun in 1947 with a group of undergraduates in a Calcutta college writing in English. One does not know who the others were, but Lal went on to become an institution of IWE. It will be long before we realise the extent of his voluminous and varied contribution to the literature. He wrote poetry, essays, criticism, and above all translations — sorry, transcreations, the word he coined himself. There are transcreations of the two great epics, of the Gita, the Dhammapada, the Upanishads, the Rg Veda, of Sanskrit plays, of poetry, from the Raghuvamsha to little known Sanskrit verses, of Tagore, Premchand and much more. I have a great many of the books with me, some I asked for, many sent by him with great generosity, with heart-lifting inscriptions on the fly leaf written in his beautiful hand. Books I have read and re-read and quoted from extensively. Like his words on translation: ‘One is always translating for one's contemporaries. Creative writing may be done for a hundred years, but not translation.' The translation of a Sanskrit poem of unknown date shows he put this into practice:

Oh yes, I'm good at stitching and darning

And half my life's

Spent giving good dinners to guests who come

without warning

– I am a wife

‘Touche!' one is tempted to cry out.

Many of his statements on IWE can't be bettered. ‘If we look after the honesty of our feelings and the skill of our craft,' he says, ‘the Indianness will look after itself.' Words that should be chanted by an IWE writer every day before beginning writing.

A great defender of Indians writing in English, he was on the side of what he called ‘home-grown writers' as opposed to the expatriate variety. A letter after I got the Sahitya Akademi Award praises the Akademi for ‘not running after expatriate excellence'. His letters were marvels of brevity, wit, beautiful language and handwriting — treasures worth preserving.

I was fortunate to visit his home in Calcutta a few times. To see him sitting among piles of books, to hear him talk, was an experience. During my last visit, he looked frail, but gave us a brilliant exposition of Keats' “Ode to a Nightingale”. When leaving, he gave me a book written by his grandfather in 1817, a chance discovery. In the preface to the book he writes, ‘It is not always one finds a lost ancestor with lotus-feet worthy of being touched. Good karma, I suppose'.

All Indian English writers should say ‘Good Karma' too for having a literary forebear like Prof. P. Lal.

A passion for verse

No one has done more for Indian poetry in English in the last half century, writes poet and writerKEKI N. DARUWALLA.

Professor P. Lal died on November 3, lamented not just by his Calcutta acolytes (of whom there are legion) but by many poets, countless poetasters, ‘ authors’ who published for vanity, playwrights — in short people who wrote in English and saw no way of getting into print, except through The Writers Workshop.

Other sides

Before one gets lost in his Publisher persona, it needs to be acknowledged that he was a poet, an excellent translator, by all accounts a fine Professor and a superb scholar. I suppose one could call him the old world savant. Only recently did he complete his mammoth project of translating the Mahabharata, shloka by shloka. He translated Premchand and Tagore. He liked to use the word ‘ transcreation’, which basically means, (to my mind) taking ‘justifiable’ liberties with the text, liberties suited to the target language.

I met him only once mainly because I have hardly been to Calcutta on more than three occasions. (I believe they have changed the name of the city now.) We sat for at least two hours and his gracious wife fed me with some Bengali delicacies. He wrote to me in 1968, asking for poems for his gargantuan anthology, Modern Indian Poetry in English: An Anthology and a Credo, and then surprising me by writing that he wanted a book of poems by me. I sat down and in one year flat wrote the entire volume Under Orion. It was beautifully produced (though it had six misprints), hardback with the trademark handloom cloth binding.

Though he was not an eminent poet himself, Lal’s passion for poetry was commendable. Close to 4,000 books, mainly poetry, have come out of the hand-operated treadle printing machine of the Writer’s Workshop. He was editor, proof-reader and publisher all rolled into one. Well known writers who first published with Writer’s workshop are many — including Vikram Seth and Adil Jussawalla. I think Nissim Ezekiel also published one book with WW. Deb Kumar Das and Srinivas Rayaprol published with him. Ramanujan, Arvind Mehrotra and Kamala Das did not. The WW Miscellany was a favoured haunt of writers. I am told Anita Desai published her first story in the Miscellany.

It was rumoured that he had an arrangement with certain American universities whereby they took in books published by him. Later a lot of vanity publishing was resorted to by writers who found no openings, and I, for one, dreaded receiving too many of those beautifully brought out books, where vanities and inanities jostled with each other. (I am not sure which of the two got on to the victory stand.)

He once sent me a very fine autobiographical book (385 pages) entitled Lessons, about his brush with death in Canada where he caught a chill while reading with the likes of Karl Shapiro, Joseph Brodsky, Hayden Carruth and D.J. Enright. The room was not heated. In his own words “What’s a pathetic Nehru suit and a plain worsted overcoat against the ravaging chill that pierces through hapless East-of-Suez epidermis like an ice pick through sweet dahi?”

Perceptive critic

He was a fine critic and I especially liked his trenchant criticism of Aurobindo’s terribly inflated verse. (I will need a gunman to protect me if I ever enter Pondicherry again.) The well deserved respect he was held in can be seen from the fact that known celebrities, from R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand to Pearl S. Buck, Allen Ginsberg, Gunter Grass and Geoffrey Hill made it a point to call on him when they visited his city. The Indian literary scene is very much the poorer for his passing. In half a century no one has done more for Indian poetry in English than P. Lal.

Solitary romantic

A personal remembrance by the poetGOPIKRISHNAN KOTTOOR.

It is a numbing sting to me that Prof. Lal is gone.

I remember the tall, parrot-nosed man I met in Lake Gardens shortly after he did my first book of poems 25 years ago. It was not just that he had published my first book. More, his endearing comments on my first manuscript appear inspirational even today. The words wore impressions of what he felt exceptional poetry should be. “Your poems,” he wrote, “I think, are exceptional. Indeed they are. Lyrical, evocative, memorable, suggestive, and poignant.” Was the Professor tricking me to mail him costs? Could it all be true? Whatever, frankly, I was moved. His words have since turned to milestones in my heart, symbols for poetry that would be carried across time. They still ring deep, every time I attempt to write a poem.

He was different. He showed you the door politely, and opened it to dough that came in with stuff, good, or bad. It was his trick to push back a percentage of the books he printed to the author as royalty, tagging to it production costs as equal to paid up copies of the printed book to be bought by the poet.

Valued possession

He never franked his envelopes. I cherish the copy from the vintage edition of The Parrot’s Death and other poems that he sent me in an envelope almost entirely pasted with coloured stamps that reminded me of exotic butterfly wings.... The title page was calligraphed “This rare copy of the first edition of my book To Gopi Kottoor, With admiration…” That was 2001.

I recall our phone-fight. He wished to include his poem ‘Cut’! (On the Passing Away of Satyajit Ray) in his calligraphic style in the book of Indian Poets that I edited along with WW. While reviewing the proofs I asked him to remove his calligraph as I felt that it did not suit the anthology. It surprised me later that the poem was still present in the final print in his long bold lettering. Aghast, I demanded of the Professor why he had included the ‘offending piece’. A calm Lal at the receiving end only said, ‘Gopi, in your bio-note on me, you wrote on this special gift of mine... I think this is the best way to showcase my poem in your book... The calligraphy is me.’ Now, I believe, that what the Professor said was true. Mine, perhaps, is the only anthology of its kind that showcases P. Lal’s poem in his own magic lettering…!

He would send me his poetry packets for use in Poetry Chain. The knowns and unknowns kept coming, making my room another nest for Lal’s handloom birds of all hues. The entire Mahabharata, The Vedas, Tagore, the pompous WW imprint lists, pamphlets, all richly done, calligraphed in style…, they were all there. They showed the rainbow facets of a passionate romantic at work, solitarily lost in the warp and weave of his world of sketches, words, and colours…

Open doors

Lake Gardens remained an open house. It brought to light writers from all shades of life… mortals who turned to poetry looking for a glimmer of hope in a hopeless world … who would never have had their creative dreams fulfilled had there been no P. Lal. To many thousands, P. Lal was the URL to woo creativity.

The last time that I spoke to the professor was in 2008. Climbing late seventies then, he warmed up to me with his rare enthusiasm. He said he was still publishing, and offered to publish a book of my songs and juvenilia. “Just send them over…I would be glad to..” His voice, ruffled like a fresh parrot feather.

The parrot was evergreen, and Lake Gardens remained the humble administrator’s garden, ever. Now, the parrot is really dead. Nevertheless, the parrot will keep flying; As long as Indian writing in English flourishes, this green bird who dreamt up the colossal bird-family for English writing in India, and rose tall, sheltering voices dim and bright under his shaded plume… He’ll live on as the root and seed of the germination of true Indian Poetry in English. So, the parrot says truly, The King is dead… Long live the King.

Email: gopikotttoor@gmail.com

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