P Lal revolutionised Indian publishing with the Writers Workshop. His daughter Srimati Lal remembers the late gentleman and his fierce legacy
THE LIST of great Indo-Anglians discovered, given hope and published by my father P Lal (1929-2010) is immense – Vikram Seth, Anita Desai, Shashi Deshpande, Raja Rao and hundreds of others. Many went on to seek pelf and international glory. Some also remembered to express their indebtedness to the publishing group my father founded — the Writers Workshop (WW).
I remember the original idyll where it all began: a simple garden ensconced within halcyon rose bushes in Lake Gardens, Calcutta in the 1960s, where my father’s historic movement established Indo-Anglian literature as a significant literary genre and quietly became an international publishing phenomenon. His vision changed the face of our urban literature by pushing India’s post-Independence publishing towards genuine cosmopolitanism and sophistication. He had no interest in publicity or money and kept busy looking after every detail of his idealistic enterprise himself.
WW’s design concept in publishing is an aspect of art as well — WW’s design imprint threw off a burdensome and outdated colonial legacy in publishing. Baba lovingly designed each book in an inimitably Indian style, hand-binding it in jewel-hued handloom sari cloth, embossing it with his beautiful calligraphy within the peace of his own library — without any commercial backing or mercantile marketing. Well-heeled Delhi & Bombay socialites would place excited orders for “50 books in blue and gold to match my sofa please, and 50 more in ivory and pink to match my cushions!” This didn’t undermine WW books’ pathbreaking content, though!
Aside from the Indo-Anglians, the salons in my father’s library every Sunday would include guests like Pearl S Buck, Allen Ginsberg, Christopher Isherwood, Gunter Grass, Dr Karan Singh, Gopal Krishna Gandhi, FN Souza and many others who made their pilgrimage to WW’s remarkable haven. I remember returning home one afternoon from school to see a genial, bearded tall white man cooking machher jhol (fish curry) merrily in our kitchen. “This is the Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg,” Baba quietly informed me. On another evening, Pearl Buck, seated gracefully on the terrace of our home, read from her work over Bengali chai and pakoras. WW held no Page-3 parties — it operated from my father’s own precincts. Baba’s first library-salon, with its long bay-windows, was on the ground floor next to the garden. He quietly placed an antique marble birdbath in his peaceful garden, which was filled each day with fresh birdseed and water so that birdsong could be heard in the background to all salons — the WW logo is known as ‘Birdbook’. The PM Indira Gandhi held a salon for Baba at her Delhi house one evening in the 1970s, where he wore his classic black Nehru jacket with a gold medallion. Indiraji had invited Dr Karan Singh, Padmaja Naidu, Usha Bhagat and other close friends to felicitate my father over high tea.
P Lal rendered into English the first-ever and only shloka-by-shloka complete transcreation of the Mahabharata. (‘Transcreation’ was his own coinage, and is now included in the Oxford English Dictionary.) I became WW’s first literary illustrator and in-house designer, illustrating, among some fine fiction and poetry, the Mahabharata Family Tree that was the frontispiece to the condensed version of the Mahabharata published by Vikas Publishers. WW was viewed with envy and awe by conventional and commercial ‘mainstream publishing’ cartels. WW books were radically elegant marvels of truly Indian content and design. Yet no country or culture was ever omitted from the WW lists, which include practically every international genre of literature as well as transcreation.
One of P Lal’s most powerful prose works is Lessons: Testament of a Survivor — an amazing memoir of his near-death experience in 1980 at the Toronto Harbourfront Literary Festival. Baffling advanced doctors and surgeons by his sheer will-power and stamina, Baba miraculously survived this terrifying, unexpected near-fatal illness after two complicated surgeries, to return and continue his work in India for 20 more fruitful, courageous and peaceful years.
He was awarded the Padma Shri and the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship, but may it also be remembered that he gave up wearing western clothing in his 20s – he always wore only pure white Indian kurtas with open sandals and was hence initially denied entry into Indian colonial clubs — not that he cared! P Lal was a literary renaissance man who single-handedly spearheaded the entire movement of Indian Writing in English. I salute him as a literary hero.