Saturday, November 13, 2010
Prof P Lal, in memoriam
He inspired me to seek a living from the written word
Poet-translator-teacher. That’s how newspapers described Professor Purushottam Lal — better known as Professor P Lal — who died in his beloved city, Kolkata, on November 3. Readers were also informed he was 81. Those who knew Prof Lal also knew that he was not given to maudlin sentimentality — he often described Indians as “naively sentimental”. But perhaps he would have preferred to leave for the hereafter surrounded by shelves laden with books, framed prints of poets, hand-written manuscripts and his family in his crammed though spacious study at his house in Lake Gardens. That was not to be. He had been unwell for some time and required frequent hospitalisation; this time he did not return home. Death stalks us every day and night of our lives; when it finally catches up with us, it is usually without notice. That’s how we are destined to live and die. After the last prayer has been said and the final tribute paid, the passage of time begins to dull the fondest of memories. The cycle of life doesn’t stop turning; it maintains its own steady pace.
Prof Lal will be remembered by many of his admirers as a poet who had crafted a style of his own, very Indian, very desi, not dissimilar to the notes of Hindustani classical music, yet tantalisingly, just so, modern and European. Others will remember him as a publisher who had an eye for spotting young talent and gave budding writers the break they were looking for. That’s how Vikram Seth, Jayanta Mahapatra, Kamala Das and many others embarked on their journey to literary stardom. Then there are those who believe he was a gifted translator. His mammoth, 18-volume, sloka by sloka, rendition of Mahabharat in English shall continue to bear testimony to his remarkable ability as a translator. Prof Lal chose to use the word ‘transcreation’ and not ‘translation’; he wasn’t simply looking for words to replace words, but creating a new text based on the original.
He will also be remembered for his publishing house, Writers Workshop, which he ran single-handedly, well almost. For he never forgot to mention, in the opening pages of every book he ever published, that the volume of prose or poetry had reached the reader’s hands via the hands of a typesetter (who was partial towards the Times Roman typeface, possibly because there never was enough money to buy or cast new typefaces), a printer (who operated an antiquated though made in India treadle machine) and a binder (who used cotton handloom sari cloth woven in India). In his lifetime Tulamiah Mohiudden became as much an institution with his imaginative use of Sambalpuri fabric as Writers Workshop. Prof Lal’s son, Ananda, whom I have known as a friend for more years than I can remember, tells me Tulamiah’s children have continued with the tradition made fashionable by the binder of Writers Workshop books. As for the covers, they were invariably designed by Prof Lal: The title and the author’s name, hand-written in his inimitable calligraphy with a Sheaffer fountain pen, would be embossed on the hand-woven fabric in gold. Prof Lal was inconsolable when the nib of his pen broke after decades of use. That particular model was no longer available in stores. He wrote a letter to Sheaffer, wondering whether they could help him locate a nib. They sent him a new pen, with a similar nib specially made for his use. I will never forget the childlike delight with which he told me the story, showing off the pen as a priceless trophy. Yet, no two books ever looked similar. Ananda says Writers Workshop has till date published at least a thousand titles, but as always, and in many ways like his father, he is self-effacing. I am told the Writers Workshop list covers more than 3,000 books.
Pritish Nandy, the radical poet of the 1960s who went on to become a typewriter guerrilla and now produces Bollywood films, would remember Prof Lal as the publisher of his first, slim volume of poems. I was neither a budding writer nor an aspiring poet when I first met Prof Lal in 1981; so I have never had the privilege of being published by him. The only time my name featured in a Writers Workshop title was when Prof Lal wrote a book on his near-death experience in the late-1980s when he was struck by a strange bug while on a lecture tour in the US. In his dedication, he included my name. That was his way of expressing affection for a student who lazed on the back benches, rarely if ever turned in his assignments, but never forgot to attend his class. And that’s how I have always known Prof Lal — as a teacher for whom I had, and shall always have, the highest regard and utmost respect.
Prof Lal’s lectures were invariably scheduled in the afternoon when silence would descend on St Xavier’s College. His mellifluous voice, which he would never raise, would add to the sense of post-lunch lassitude. Unlike the other teachers, he never came armed with tattered, yellowing sheets of paper scribbled with notes. He would just stroll in, perch his elbow on the table and, after the customary greeting, gently initiate more of a conversation than launch into a prepared lecture. He would use metaphors that were magical, words that knocked on the doors of imagination. Perhaps it was practiced ease; years of teaching undergraduate students of English literature abroad had given him a certain sophistication lacking in the other teachers of the department who followed the strait and the narrow of the university syllabus, insisting we scribble down their words, learn the notes by rote and prepare for examinations in which we were expected to get a first. For Prof Lal, a third was as good as a first, provided the mind was not stuck in a groove and roved free, seeking pleasure in prose and poetry, essays and novels beyond the texts prescribed by Calcutta University. He would never bother about marking classroom attendance — presumably he found it repugnant that students should attend his lectures merely to mark attendance and not to learn.
I was a back-bencher and would listen to him in rapt attention, my legs sprawled, eyes half closed. One day, after the bell rang, he waited for me to pick up my bag and walk towards the door. He called me over to where he was standing and said, “I won’t ask you why you never hand in your assignments, but for that alone I will invite you home for tea. Come over this Sunday.” And so it was that I set foot into the famed study where writers would meet for scintillating conversation and manuscripts would be carefully read to spot that special talent which needed a helping hand. Prof Lal was in his favourite armchair, reading a book. He put it aside as I entered the cavernous room on the first floor, the late afternoon sun pouring in through the open windows. I had expected him to rebuke me for not taking my assignments seriously. Instead, what followed was a long conversation that stretched late into the evening. That was the first of many such conversations, and the beginning of a guru-sishya relationship that endured over the years. An added benefit was the friendship I struck with Ananda, then at a loose end and now a professor of English at Jadavpur University.
Kolkata will miss an intellectual who made the city his home, far away from Kapurthala where he was born. While others, including his students, left Kolkata looking for greener pastures, Prof Lal stayed on, resolute in his belief that this was his karmabhumi. In his death, I have lost an affectionate teacher and someone who inspired me to seek a living from the written word. Meanwhile, the queue ahead gets shorter.
[This appears as my Sunday column, Coffee Break, in The Pioneer on November 14, 2010.]