In Memoriam: Prof. P. Lal of Writer’s Workshop, Kolkota

I visited Kolkota twice in my life. But I now regret not meeting the one man I intended to visit there but didn’t. Prof.P.Lal of Writer’s Workshop of Kolkota passed away on the third of November 2010 at the age of 81. He is familiar to hundreds of writers as a mentor and publisher of new talent, and many of the talents he published went on to become world-renowned names.

Prof Lal published Nissim Ezekiel, A.K. Ramanujan, Adil Jussawalla, Anita Desai, Kamala Das, Dom Moraes, Keki Daruwalla, Jayanta Mahapatra, Agha Shahid Ali, Meena Alexander, Suniti Namjoshi, Vikram Seth, Pritish Nandy and Shashi Deshpande, all of whom are stars in the literary arena. The list in just indicative and not exhaustive, WW has over 3000 titles on its list.

If you thought I was talking about just another encouraging publisher, please stand corrected, I am Not. Prof P Lal was literally a one-man-army who nurtured Indian Writing in English for over five decades just when Indo-Anglian writing was suffering at the hands of linguistic nationalism.

In 1958, I don’t think it was easy to publish in English, since it was the decade after India had sent out the colonists after five centuries of occupation and love for the English language was not considered quite right; was it not the language of the colonists?. Linguistic nationalism was a fad and fashion and Prof.Lal quite believed English as an Indian language. Keeping with his beliefs, he went on to build up WW almost like a cottage industry. He published stuff which most publishers would run away from; poetry and by unknown writers.

The Writer’s Workshop started in 1958 as a small movement spearheaded by a handful of aspiring writers in Kolkota and when the initial group dispersed to lives and spaces of their own, the founder member Purushottama Lal kept it going almost single-handed, deterred by nothing.  Poets writing in English across language borders flocked to him. He gave many a new writer a launching pad and did not bother about the commerce of it at all. In his own words “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.” He nurtured not one but two generations of writers and corresponded personally with each aspiring writer.

Prof. Lal was quite fastidious, he did everything himself; he edited and proofed manuscripts, created designs for covers and also used an amazing calligraphy in which he had expertise, using his own Sheaffer pen for writing out the title. A hand-stitched and hand-woven cloth cover with a splendid saree border made the book a collector’s item and he used the service of the late Tulamiah Mohiuddin to for the saree effect. This gentleman hand bound each book meticulously by hand and went on to receive a President’s medal for his work. His children continued to work for Prof. Lal.

Prof. Lal did not just publish and rest on his laurels. He made his mark on other venues too. He was a much-loved teacher and taught at the St. Xavier’s College for over forty years. He was Special Professor of Indian Studies at Hofstra University from 1962-3, and has since held Visiting Professorships at many colleges and universities throughout America, like the University of Illinois, Albion College, Ohio University, Hartwick College, Berea College, and Western Maryland College.

Prof. Lal was equally renowned as a translator and he called it “transcreation” for the simple reason that many words in the Indian languages had no exact meanings in English. “My version (of the Mahabharata) is for the educated, English-knowing Indian”, he said. “Non-Indians can eavesdrop and overhear.” He holds the honour of the best ever translation into English of the Mahabharata, the great Indian epic. He had completed 17 of the 18 books of the Mahabharata, which is sad. It was almost complete and it would be tough to find a comparable wordsmith to finish the work off with same élan that he did.

Prof. Lal will be missed sorely by the world of Indian Writing in English. Personally, my regret amounts to that mail I never sent out, asking him if he could published my first anthology of poems.

R.I.P, Sir.

You could check out the website of the WW to know more and actually see the works of art he had created with each book he brought out,  http://www.writersworkshopindia.com/


Suneetha is a writer by passion, profession and hobby. She writes fiction in English, poetry in her native tongue Malayalam and journalistic features in both. She can be contacted at yashovathi@gmail.com

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