Obituary: P Lal

I met the Indian publisher Professor Puroshottama Lal in his home in 2009 and wrote about it at the time. He died on November 5 2010. An obituary that I wrote (below) was published by The Times on 16 December. It is also available for subscribers to The Times website here.

Professor P Lal

Indian poet and publisher who believed passionately that his country’s writers should embrace English

Photo: Rosalind Solomon


Purushottoma Lal was a teacher, poet, translator and publisher. From his home in Calcutta, he championed Indian writing in English with his publishing house, Writers Workshop, for more than 50 years. He was the first publisher of, among others, Vikram Seth.

Lal set up Writers Workshop in 1958 with a group of fellow aspiring authors and poets. He would later say: “It began the way all radical movements do. If society is conservative, so are its publishing houses. When no one would publish our work, we had to do it ourselves.” Each book published carried a declaration that the writers “agree in principle that English has proved its ability, as a language, to play a creative role in Indian literature through original writing and through transcreations.”

In the 1960s this was a deeply provocative statement. As India sought to regain its identity as an independent nation, the debate over whether English was a suitable medium for Indian writers raged bitterly. The opposing viewpoint to Lal’s was spearheaded by the Bengali critic Buddhadeva Bose, who in 1963 pointedly dismissed “Indo-Anglian Poetry” in The Concise Encyclopaedia of English and American Poets and Poetry as “a blind alley lined with curio shops, leading nowhere”.

Lal immediately responded in mischievous style by sending the entry to more than 100 Indian poets writing in English to spark a lively discussion. It worked. The responses were varied and eclectic and included some from those who would go on to become leading lights in India’s cultural development. Kamala Das pointed out that she just found it easier to write in English than in Malayalam; others questioned whether it was a valid question. “If they can, they will,” was A. K. Ramunajan’s response.

At the heart of the debate was the question of whether English can be considered an Indian language. Lal believed it was but also argued, sometimes fiercely, that Indian English was distinctly different from British English. He insisted that India was a “mass of inclusiveness”, with a special skill to “adopt and adapt”. Because Hindu culture found concepts such as understatement and irony — central to British English — incomprehensible, Indian English had developed into a distinct language “of dreams and love, not business and criticism. When we dream and make love in English then the language comes alive for us Indians.”

It is a debate that continues to this day, carried on by Salman Rushdie and Amit Chaudhuri among others. Lal’s central contribution was to keep the debate alive and on level terms in the face of assertive opposition in the Sixties and Seventies.

Purushottoma Lal was born in Kapurthala, Punjab, in 1929. He was educated at St Xavier’s College in Calcutta and graduated in English Literature from Calcutta University in 1953. In the following year he joined the English department of St Xavier’s College where he taught for more than 40 years, becoming honorary Professor of English after he retired.

Over his career he held a number of other posts, many of them in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Notably he held two professorial posts at Hofstra University in New York and posts at the Universities of Ohio and Illinois.

His passion, however, always lay with the Writers Workshop. It was started in response to the continuing paternalistic attitude towards Indian writers from English publishers. That attitude quickly disappeared as Lal and his group made the case for a positive and progressive view of Indian writing in English.

Lal was always clear that his aim was to give aspiring writers their first chance before “leaving then in the loving clutches of the so-called ‘free market’.” His business model was geared to achieve that result. Before printing had commenced each author was asked to agree to purchase 100 copies in advance for sale or distribution as he or she pleased. Ten per cent of future sales were given in lieu of royalty with all copyright remaining with the author. Few writers were turned away.

The production itself was exquisite. Early on, P. K. Aditya, a neighbour, installed a hand-operated printing press in his garage. The books were then hand-stitched and embossed with gold lettering, creating beautiful books.

Lal published numerous volumes of poetry and books himself, but it was as a translator that he embarked on his most famous project during the 1980s, a “transcreation” of the 100,000 slokas of Vyasa’s Mahabharata. It was an immense task that he was close to finishing at the time of his death.

From 1999, he started reading it every Sunday to a small group of loyal followers in the Sanskriti Sagar Library. His love of the English language meant that these sessions were frequently peppered with literary allusions to Pound and Eliot as he drew out the erotic intensity and deep symbolism of the original language.

He believed passionately in the relevance of the Mahabharata to modern life and frequently drew comparisons between the challenges faced by leaders in the 21st century and those faced by the heroic protagonists of the epic poem.

It was not only Indian writers that he inspired. A procession of British writers also made the pilgrimage to his home in Lake Gardens, Calcutta. John Keay, who would later write the acclaimed India: A History, visited in the 1970s and remembered “the stalagmites of books so finely balanced that a sneeze would have brought them down”.

It fell to Lal’s wife Shyamasree, whom he married in 1955, to keep a measure of order in the dusty study where he spent much of his time until this year.

In 1989 while attending a conference in Toronto, Lal suffered multiple organ failure and faced the possibility of death. He found it a deeply affecting and humbling experience. After making an unlikely full recovery — he was 60 — he wrote a book Lessons which he called “almost a self-obituary”. In the preface he wrote: “Life’s a messy business for the ignorant. Since you can’t say, ‘Stop the world. I want to get off’, the time to start learning is now.” Learning was at the centre of his life.

Purushottoma Lal is survived by his wife and their son and daughter.

Purushottoma Lal, teacher, poet, translator and publisher, was born on August 28, 1929. He died on November 3, 2010, aged 81


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Filed under India 2010-11, Published work

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