Remembering P Lal and Writers Workshop: The original publishing house for the new author
Purushottama Lal, popularly known as P. Lal, was a poet, translator and essayist, but most significantly, the publisher-owner of Writers Workshop in Calcutta.
Purushottama Lal, popularly known as P. Lal, was a poet, translator and essayist. (Photo: Writers Workshop, Kolkata)
“Somebody should go to Calcutta and write a history of Writers Workshop,” said Adil Jussawalla during a conversation. His first book of poems, Land’s End, was published by Writers Workshop. His author bio read: “Am 22. Left for England in 1957 to study Architecture. Left architecture to write a play. Wrote a second play — a verse drama— before going up to Oxford to study English. This is my first collection of poems. Have also written several short stories. And paint whenever I can.”
Jussawalla will soon turn 80. He has, so far, not published the short stories or the plays. He won the Sahitya Akademi Award for literature—the highest award a poet in India can receive. The biographical note by the then 22-year-old is one of the many treasures one can find in an old Writers Workshop title.
Purushottama Lal (1929–2010), the founder of the press, once wrote, “The main professed aim of Writers Workshop is to demonstrate that ‘English has proved its ability, as a language to play a creative role in Indian literature… Its publishing focuses on English creative and transcreative work by Indians, or such work as deals with, or is inspired by or has relevance for Indian life and culture.'
The opposition to the English as creative expression by Indians would find its voice in Bengali poet and Lal’s contemporary, Buddhadeva Bose, who called Indian English (or Indo-Anglican as he called it) poetry, “a blind alley lined with curio shops, leading nowhere” in The Concise Encyclopaedia of English and American Poets and Poetry (1963). Bose, however, was a well-meaning cosmopolitan and not a provincial nativist. He had a close friendship with some of the leading English writers of his time like George Oppen, and translated several poets like Charles Baudelaire and Rainer Marie Rilke, among others, into Bengali. Why would he then be so disparaging towards his contemporary Indian English writers? Attempting an answer can only be a good speculation at best. Responding to the entry, Lal sent out letters to several Indian English writers asking them to respond to Bose’s allegations. The answers of the respondents, along with their creative work, were published as Modern Indian Poetry in English: An Anthology and a Credo by Writers Workshop in 1969.
Much of the importance of that anthology, apart from Lal’s excellent introduction, lies in the replies given by individual poets. The replies themselves cover a wide variety of styles: from the quirky (Lawrence Bantleman signs off as ‘LAWRENCE DANTE PUSHKIN BUDDHADEVA BANTLEMAN’) to the philosophical (Jussawalla finds fault with Bose’s ‘vision of history’).
Much of the early work of Writers Workshop can stand as a testament to the challenges of two kinds of revolt that were necessary to usher in a new poetic language. The first was a revolt within the inherited tradition of English poetry written in India. “To rebel against giants, who use their excellent strength tyrannously and thereby deaden healthy growth, is a good thing,” he said in the introduction to the anthology. The giant that he takes issue with is Sri Aurobindo, who, for him symbolised a flowery romanticism. (For much of Lal’s insistence on modernism, however, he himself can be described as a “neo-romantic” poet. A look at Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s anthology and his insistence on “the sharp-edged nature of Indian verse” will show that there was arguably another shift in English poetry written in India beginning with the 1960s centred primarily around Bombay.) The second revolt was against those who, like Buddhadeva Bose, discredited creative writing in English by Indians. A significant part of Lal’s defence is also in pursuing his readers to appreciate poetry “for its own sake”: “I am not reading poetry for spiritual propaganda or propaganda of any sort, whether it plugs aspirin or bhakti.” Building this secular identity for poetry is something we take for granted, but it was a struggle to make readers aware of that identity in newly independent secular India.
The other word that has been associated with Lal is ‘transcreation’. He began a monumental process of translating the 18-volume Mahabharata in English in 1968. The process nears completion as Writers Workshop is in its sixtieth year.
What lies in the future? Ananda Lal, his son and the current editor of the press, says, ‘I plan to continue discovering new authors as long as I can, and have some major classics on the horizon as well: the completion of my father’s translation of the full 18-volume Mahabharata, never done in English before; a translation of the Malay Ramayana; and a translation of Annamacharya’s Telugu devotional songs.’ He is, however, apprehensive about how long the press can continue unless they find financial support.
The enthusiasm of the then young 22-year-old Jussawalla is not lost on the younger posts, who have recently published their first collections with the press. “I chose Writers Workshop because of their indigenous modes of publishing: from the author’s contract to the finished book, everything is handmade,” says Sahana Mukherjee. The quintessential Writers Workshop covers made of handloom cloth was invented by Mohiuddin Khan. Akhil Katyal remembers seeing the covers in a library, “During my PhD years in London, I had seen Agha Shahid Ali’s first two books in the British Library, the same (half charming, half toy-town) sari-clad covers.” Perhaps the relevance and need for a press like this are best conveyed in the words of their author, Annanya Dasgupta, who has the last word, “Writers Workshop is an instance of how not everything needs to be largescale to be bigger than life.”