The place of P Lal in the literary history of India is and will remain unique. He achieved what others have not even attempted. Three addictions ruled his life – mahabharata, publishing newcomer books and campaigning for English to be accepted as an Indian language. All were perilous pursuits, but he persisted in his calm in an understated manner.
For a man born in Kapurthala and transplanted to Bengal as a child, it was unusual to be self-effacing and calm. Perhaps it was his vocation as a teacher that did so. For forty years he taught English at St Xavier’s College, Calcutta, continuing in an honorary capacity after his official retirement. His position as a professor led people to call him Profsky, recalling 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 seriousness of their favorite teacher. Lal has been a visiting professor at various universities in the United States. His work included poetry, literary criticism, children’s stories, translation and anthologies.
His translation of mahabharata was unusual because it was actually trans-creation, a word he coined. He took it as a 20 year project and ended up with 100 tapes of 60 minutes each with the creator reading his creation. He took Vyasa in full, all 100,000 slokas. Also in quality it was unusual.
The poet in him was not afraid of having different interpretations of the same passages, the result, he explained, “of changes in my understanding and appreciation of Vyasa.” Its 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 arouses compassion, the Mahabharata an almost cosmic awe… Vyasa postulates a complex dharma, where good and evil mingle in confusing ways… No epic, no work of art is sacred in itself; if it doesn’t make sense to me now, it’s nothing, it’s dead.
There was a nice emphasis on the oral/musical tradition of the epic. He took a characteristic step towards public attention when he began spending an hour every Sunday morning in the hall of the Sanskriti Sagar Library in Calcutta, reading his transcreated slokas aloud. He continued this practice until about a week before his death on November 3, 2010.
An 18-volume limited hardback edition featuring 18 parvas of the maha-kavya was released and quickly sold out. It had a typical cover designed by Lal and executed by Lal with characteristic Lal typography. Recommending this for lockdown reading in 2021, Shashi Tharoor wrote: ‘A wonderfully racy and contemporary translation of the timeless epic, blending poetry and prose and full of contemporary idiom, Professor Lal’s is unmistakably the one-volume version the best and most readable Mahabharata. ‘
The Mahabharata could have been a magnum opus for P Lal, but the world paid little attention to it. His magnum opus in the eyes of others was the publishing house that accidentally became his baby. Faced with a situation where serious book publishing had not yet developed in India, half a dozen Calcutta idealists got together in 1958 and set up an organization to bring out the original writings of Indian authors .
They called it Writers Workshop (WW), which seemed to suggest that it was a work in progress. It was an idea ahead of its time. Either because of this or because of the pre-finished feel of the title, the sponsors lost interest. One by one they gave up until only P Lal was left, in his lonely glory. 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 unique 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 get his books out was a burden. He earned quite a bit from his lecture tours and visiting professors. These “shekels,” as he called them, went into the production of WW books. Whenever travel has been halted for health reasons, shekels have also been stopped. This made him imagine the system of asking its authors to buy 100 copies in advance. If an author was too poor to afford it, Lal continued anyway.
Each WW book was a curious work of art. The types were combined by P Lal. The titles and chapter headings were made by hand by P Lal, a recognized calligrapher. The cover design was executed in hand-woven silk and the book hand-sewn by P Lal. Editing, proofreading and 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 had a pedal press but no place to keep it until a neighbor, PK Aditya, emptied his garage and gave it to Lal.
It was under these circumstances that P Lal released around 3,500 titles. Many were the critics who dismissed him as a vanity editor. His response was, “My mission was to provide opportunities for writers when the opportunities weren’t there and aspiring writers couldn’t find a publisher.” This 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 became 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 it weren’t for P Lal encouraging me, I might never have become a serious English writer.
Writers Workshop didn’t just give unknown writers a chance. P Lal had the ability to spot talent and, once spotted, to motivate and guide his discoveries. The significance of the service he rendered began to be appreciated towards the end of his career. Begun during the “sterile period” of English publishing in India, WW began to lose relevance with the rise of mainstream publishing houses from 1987. But appreciation of the role played by WW over the decades difficult began to grow at the same time.
P Lal was a much admired man when he died at the age of 81. The Spartan English teacher who never smoked or drank would have been surprised by the various epithets used to sum up his personality – Father of the Indo-Anglian Revolution, Dream Catcher, PPPP (Prince of Poets, Teachers and Publishers), l man who has seen it all, giver of faith to Indo-Anglia, the calligrapher of Calcutta, everlasting and evergreen parrot.
Among those who posted obituaries were The Guardian and The Economist. Finally, the P in his name stood out as a title bestowed on him by his country – Purushottam, the jewel among men.
Excerpted with permission from The dismantling of India in 35 portraits, TJS George, Simon & Schuster.