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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 51, December 11, 2010

Salute to a Purushottama

Sunday 12 December 2010, by T J S George


These are days when the success of an author depends less on the worth of his writings and more on the vigour with which he promotes himself through book launches, television conversations and lectures organised by the marketing department of publishing companies. P. Lal did none of these. So his death (November 3) went almost unnoticed. A newspaper para-graph or two in his home town of Kolkata and that was that.

Yet P. Lal’s place in the literary history of India will be more exalted than that of many an author who basks in popular fame today. His contributions included poetry, essays, anthologies and translations. Above all, he was a pioneer in book publishing and in the propagation of English as an Indian language. Both were perilous pursuits when he embarked on them in the afterglow of independence. But he persisted in his quiet and unobtrusive ways until both his causes acquired value.

Two achievements will remain his lasting memorials—his translation of the Mahabharata and his nursing of the Writers Workshop. Numerous of course are the translations of the Mahabharata, but no one before Lal had dared to tackle the epic in its awesome fulness. He undertook what he declared as a 20-year project, transcreating (his preferred word) Vyasa in his entirety, all 100,000 slokas.

In quality, too, it was out of the ordinary. A poet himself, P. Lal was not afraid to have different renderings of the same passages, a result, he said, “of changes in my understanding and appreciation of Vyasa”. But his aim always was “to re-tell the story…in Vyasa’s own words, without simplifying, interpreting or elaborating”.

And how did he understand Vyasa? “The Ramayana rouses compassion, the Mahabharata an almost cosmic awe…Vyasa posits an intricate dharma, where right and wrong are bewilder-ingly mixed… No epic, no work of art, is sacred by itself; if it does not have meaning for me now, it is nothing, it is dead.”

Thanks to the poet in him, there was a pleasing emphasis on the oral/musical tradition of the epic. He took a characteristic step towards bringing this to public attention when he began spending one hour every Sunday morning at the Samskruti Sagar library hall in Kolkata reading aloud his transcreated slokas. He continued this practice until about a week before his death.

THE Writers Workshop (WW) was a labour of love. Today publishing is a crowded, glittering, highprofile, million-dollar enterprise in India. It is important to remember that WW was started in 1958 when the Republic was less than ten years old. Half-a-dozen idealists were behind the venture which eventually became P. Lal’s one-man band. There never was any money in it. It actually ran on whatever “shekels” he earned from lecture tours and visiting professorships abroad. When travel stopped on health grounds, he devised the system of asking authors to buy 100 copies in advance. If an author was too impecunious to afford this, he went ahead anyway.

Each WW book was a curious little work of art. The types were handset, the titles and chapter headings handwritten by P. Lal himself, a distinguished calligraphist. The books were handstitched, the cover design executed in handloom silk. Editing, proof-reading, page layout and correspondence with authors were done by P. Lal who never had a secretary or an assistant or an office. That never prevented him from publishing the early efforts of a galaxy of stars-to-be, from A. K. Ramanujan and Nissim Ezekiel and Dom Moraes to Kamala Das and Vikram Seth and Anita Desai.

Prof Lal taught at St. Xavier’s College for 40 years. Devoted friends called him Profsky, rather reminiscent of D.G.Tendulkar (biographer of the Mahatma) calling Dom Moraes Domsky. Was it some kind of a psychedelic association with radical thinkers like Trotsky and Laski? Lal did not look like a radical, but his achievements were reformist. Glamour-obsessed Indian media might have ignored him, but The Economist featured him in its famous page-length Obituary column. That must have surprised Purushottama Lal, whose first name now shines like a title the country has bestowed on him.

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