P. Lal’s demise marks end of an era in publishing


New Delhi : Every year at the Kolkata Book Fair, a gaggle of literary eager-beavers scouting for a door to the literary world would clutch their maiden published volume of poetry or prose bound in trademark red, white or beige cloth with an embroidered stripe running across the length of the jacket.

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The cover textiles were sourced from Orissa saris and the title often calligraphed by hand. The design was distinctive and decidedly Indian. The ethnic cover of their books gave them away.

The youngsters’ were part of a vibrant literary movement triggered by Writers’ Workshop – an avant garde Kolkata-based private publishing house. And the man behind the publishing movement, which began in the late 1950s, was Professor Purushottam Lal, who passed away at the age of 81 in Kolkata on Nov 3.

He was a man with a mission – to pitchfork new age writers of an emerging India to the global literary centrestage and translate classical Indian language writing into English.

Some of the Writers’ Workshop beneficiaries – to name a few – are Vikram Seth, Anita Desai, Shasthibrata Chakravarti, Buddhadev Bose, Jayanta Mahapatra and Keki Daruwalla.

The publishing house has 3,500 titles of poetry, novels and drama to its credit till date.

Lal, a former professor of English St Xavier’s College, made no money. And the authors might not either because they were required to purchase 100 copies of their work in advance. Some complained, but Writer’s Workshop was a gateway – to the hall of refined literature and often fame. So they fell in line.

Lal was also known for his poetry, essays and knowledge of the English language that he often said “would be unsuitable for India because it was too subtle, too charged with irony and inadequate for Indian emotions”.

“Indians were more pastoral and sentimental with faith in simpler ideals,” he said.

He had set up his modest publishing apparatus in 1958 at his home in Lake Gardens in Kolkata with a few like-minded friends.

His business may have been publishing Indian writers in English, but the former professor transcreated 18 volumes or “parvas” of the Mahabharata in English. These were later revised for special reading sessions that Lal started as a Sunday ritual across the metropolis.

Lal’s Mahabharata was published over a period of four years between 2005 to 2009.

Born on Aug 28, 1929 in Punjab, Lal studied in St Xavier’s College and later taught English at his alma mater for 40 years.

He was a guest faculty at various colleges in the US.

He is survived by wife Shyamashree, son Ananda and daughter Srimati.