P Lal’s place in the literary history of India is, and will remain, unique. He achieved what others did not even attempt. Three addictions governed his life – the Mahabharata, publishing books by newcomers, and campaigning to make English accepted as an Indian language. All were perilous pursuits but he persisted in his quiet an unobtrusive way.
For a man born in Kapurthala and transplanted to Bengal in his childhood, it was unusual to be self-effacing and quiet. Perhaps it was his vocation as a teacher that made him. For forty years he taught English at St Xavier’s College in Calcutta continuing in an honorary capacity after formal retirement. His position as professor led people to call him Profsky, reminiscent of DG Tendulkar (biographer of the Mahatma) calling Dom Moraes, Domsky.
Neither Lal nor Dom were radicals in the tradition of Trotsky or even Laski. Perhaps his admirers thought that a touch of Russification would add to the gravitas of their favourite professor. Lal was visiting professor at various universities in the US. His oeuvre included poetry, literary criticism, stories for children, translation, and anthologies.
His translation of the Mahabharata was unusual because it was in fact trans-creation, a word he invented. He took it up as a 20-year project and ended up with 100 cassettes of 60 minutes each with the creator reading his creation. He took Vyasa in his entirety, all 1,00,000 slokas. In quality, too, it was unusual.
The poet in him was unafraid to have different renderings of the same passages, a result, he explained, ‘of changes in my understanding and appreciation of Vyasa’. His aim was ‘to re-tell the story… in Vyasa’s own words, without simplifying, interpreting or elaborating’.
And how did he understand Vyasa? ‘The Ramayana rouses compassion, the Mahabharata an almost cosmic awe… Vyasa posits an intricate dharma, where right and wrong are bewilderingly mixed… No epic, no work of art, is sacred by itself; if it does not have meaning for me now, it is nothing, it is dead.’
There was a pleasing emphasis on the oral/musical tradition of the epic. He took a characteristic step towards bringing this to public attention when he began spending an hour every Sunday morning at the Sanskriti Sagar Library hall in Calcutta reading aloud his transcreated slokas. He continued this practice until about a week before his death on 3 November 2010.
A limited hardbacked edition in 18 volumes comprising 18 parvas of the maha-kavya came out and quickly went out of print. It had a typical Lal-designed, Lal-executed cover with characteristic Lal typography. Recommending this for lockdown reading in 2021, Shashi Tharoor wrote: ‘A wonderfully racy, contemporary translation of the timeless epic, melding poetry and prose and full of contemporary idiom, Prof Lal’s is unarguably the best and most readable one-volume version of Mahabharata.’
The Mahabharata might have been a magnum opus for P Lal, but the world paid scant attention. His magnum opus in the eyes of others was the publishing house that accidentally became his baby. Facing a situation where serious book publishing had not yet developed in India, half a dozen idealists in Calcutta got together in 1958 and setup an organisation to bring out original writings by Indian authors.
They called it Writers Workshop (WW) which seemed to suggest the tentativeness of a work in progress. It was an idea ahead of its time. Either for that reason or because of the pre-finished feel of the title, the sponsors lost interest. One by one, they dropped out until only P Lal remained, in solitary splendour. He decided to stay put.
What followed was a one-man operation, herculean in its efforts and historic in its consequences. P Lal made Writers Workshop a one-of-a-kind phenomenon in the annals of publishing, using facilities that were primitive by today’s standards. But his approach was imaginative and it produced results.
Lal was never a rich man and finding the resources to bring out his books was a burden. He earned a little from his lecture tours and visiting professorships. These ‘shekels’, as he called them, went into the production of WW’s books. Whenever travels were stopped on health grounds, the shekels also stopped. That made him devise the system of asking his authors to buy 100 copies in advance. If an author was too impecunious to afford this, Lal went ahead anyway.
Each WW book was a curious work of art. The types were handset by P Lal. The titles and chapter heading were handcrafted by P Lal, a recognised calligraphist. The cover design was executed in handloom silk and the book hand-stitched by P Lal. Editing, proofreading, and page layout were all handled by P Lal who was also in-charge of all correspondence with all authors; he never had a secretary or an assistant or even an office. He did have a treadle press but no place to keep it until a neighbour, PK Aditya, emptied his garage and gave it to Lal.
These were the circumstances under which P Lal brought out about 3,500 titles. Many were the critics who dismissed him as a vanity publisher. His reply was: ‘My mission was to provide opportunities to writers when opportunities were not there and aspiring writers could not find a publisher.’ That mission became a milestone in the development of English literature in India.
Among those whose early efforts appeared under the Writers Workshop imprint were writers who evolved into celebrities – Vikram Seth, AK Ramanujan, Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das, Anita Desai, Agha Shahid Ali, Ruskin Bond, and GV Desani. Kamala Das (Madhavi Kutty, Kamala Suraiya) spoke for them all when she wrote: ‘If not for P Lal encouraging me, I would possibly never have become a serious writer in English.’
Writers Workshop did not merely give a chance to unknown writers. P Lal had an ability to spot talent and, once spotted, to provide motivation and guidance to his discoveries. The importance of the service he provided began to win appreciation towards the end of his career. Started during the ‘barren stretch’ of English publishing in India, WW began losing its relevance with the rise of mainstream publishing companies from 1987. But appreciation for the role played by WW during the difficult decades began growing at the same time.
P Lal was a widely admired man when he died, aged 81. The spartan English professor who never smoked or drank would have been surprised by the various epithets people used to sum up his personality – Father of the Indo-Anglian Revolution, Dream Catcher, PPPP (Prince of Poets, Professors and Publishers), The Man Who Saw Everything, Faith Giver to Indo-Anglia, the Calligrapher of Calcutta, Eternal and Evergreen Parrot.
Among those who published obituaries were The Guardian and The Economist. Finally, the P in his name stood out like a title his country had bestowed upon him – Purushottam, the jewel among men.
Excerpted with permission from The Dismantling of India in 35 Portraits, TJS George, Simon & Schuster.