The BS Column: P Lal and Writers Workshop

(Published in the Business Standard, 9 November 2010)

In the homes of Indian writers of a certain generation, there’ll always be the Writers Workshop shelf, given over to hand-bound books, the cloth borders taken from Orissa saris, the title often hand-calligraphed. You don’t find them in bookstores that often these days, but there was a time when Writers Workshop represented, in effect, the sum total of the aspirations of Indians writing in English.

Professor P Lal, the man behind Writers Workshop, and perhaps the last of the dying breed of “gentleman publishers”, died this weekend at the age of 81 in Calcutta, where he had lived and worked most of his life. In the fifty years since he had started Writers Workshop, Indian publishing had changed beyond recognition. There were now a multitude of publishing houses, literary festivals, book launches—all the infrastructure that was missing when he and a group of friends began Writers Workshop.

“The reason I went into publishing is simple – nobody was around, in 1958, to publish me. So I published myself. Half a dozen others – friends – also found this expedient attractive. So we formed a group, a nice consanguineous côterie. We wrote prefaces to each other’s books, pointing out excellences, and performed similar familial kindnesses in other ways as well. We believed, with Helen Gardner, that criticism should flash the torch, not wield the sceptre,” he wrote of its beginnings.

The “half-a-dozen others” included Sasthibrata Chakravarthi and Anita Desai—but from the start, WW would aim to encourage those who were not destined to become famous, opening its doors to major and minor talent. AK Ramanujan, Vikram Seth, Jayanta Mahapatra, Kamala Das, Agha Shahid Ali, Keki Daruwalla, Mani Nair, the enigmatic Lawrence Bantleman and a score of Indian poets would find their first moorings within the elegant covers so carefully crafted by P Lal’s endeavour—but so would hundreds of other now-forgotten writers.

On a personal note, I might add that one of their youngest members was my sister, who had written a precocious short story at the age of 12, and who for years was made welcome at their meetings. Chai would be ordered—“and a coke for Baby”—and while she never took up writing, she remembers the warmth and acceptance P Lal and his circle handed out to everyone who happened to stray within its borders.

As Indian publishing came of age, the importance and necessity of Writers Workshop began to diminish. The space that P Lal and his friends had created in 1958 was crucial—both in terms of establishing a publishing house for writers, and setting down the importance of Indian writing in English. One of the first controversies that erupted was the attack on Indian poetry in English by Buddhadev Bose, and then by Bose’s son-in-law, Jyotirmaya Datta. The latter wrote an essay, “Caged Chaffinches and Polyglot Poets”, that P Lal responded to—with his usual spirited but gentle liveliness—and in many ways, these attacks offered a meeting point for those who were just beginning to write in English, using it as an Indian, not an alien, language.

P Lal was also a writer, poet and academic, but he will perhaps be best remembered for his magisterial translation of the Mahabharata—perhaps the most complete rendering of the epic available. It was typical of him that he would hold a weekly reading, every Sunday, open to all, from 1999 onwards, in honour of the grand oral tradition of the epic. So many of us, writers and readers in Calcutta, attended those sessions, discovering a community and a fellowship long before there was the season of book launches.

The impact of Writers Workshop cannot be measured by its 3,000-odd titles, or by the influence it once wielded as a publishing house. It was, like Clearinghouse in Bombay, a literary movement, fuelled by the agile mind and precise labours of P Lal. In my copies of the books produced by Writers Workshop, there was always this, in calligraphy: “Layout and lettering by P Lal with a Sheaffer calligraphy pen. Embossed, hand-stitched, hand-pasted and hand-boundby Tulamiah Mohiuddin with handloom sari cloth woven and designed in India, to provide visual beauty and the intimate texture of book-feel.”

Few publishers today, however brilliant their lists of authors, have that kind of passion, P Lal’s celebration of “book-feel”, and his insistence that literature was a large, rambling house, its rooms broad enough to accommodate all, however modest or stellar their individual talents.





5 responses to “The BS Column: P Lal and Writers Workshop”

  1. R2 Avatar

    Lovely write-up… makes me look at a Writers Workshop poetry book I have with new eyes. 🙂

  2. Trisha Gupta Avatar

    Thank you for this. I had this weird connection to Writers Workshop growing up, because P. Lal's house (which later also had the little shopfront selling Writers Workshop titles) is adjacent to the one in which my nana and nani lived, where I also lived for two years. So I sort of stumbled upon the books as a curious twelve year old – my grandparents had ones they had been given by Mr. Lal, and once the shop was set up, I would sometimes browse on my way back from school…

  3. Crazyfinger Avatar

    Amazing how little I knew about Prof P. Lal until I read this, thanks! I guess you'll have to be in the know from the beginning. Reading about P. Lal I am convinced we need more such Writer's Workshops. I wonder why there aren't already…or are there? RegardsCrazyfinger

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    I read "The Death Conqueror" by the Writer's Workshop – its probably the most romantic looking book I ever read; black silk hand bound with fake blood on top of it.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    Thank you for such a moving elegy to Professor P Lal. I was privileged to have had Writers' Workshop publish two poetry volumes of mine during my school-years although it is only now that I can claim to fully appreciate both the extent of the honor as well as the magnitude of Professor La's enterprise and dedication to Indian creative writing. I also cherish the time I met him at his Kolkata home in 1998, listening in thrall as he shared vignettes of his life with my family and I. I still remember him telling me to always take out the time to listen to birdsong and bask in sunlight – once again, words that now resonate with me much more strongly then it did at the time of our meeting. Thanks once again.Best,Priyanka Sacheti

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