Sunday, July 19, 2009

Rendezvous with Prof. P. Lal, the Bhisham Pitamah of Publishing Indian Writing in English

I visited Kolkata and met the legendary poet, translator, writer, professor, publisher: P. Lal. For the poet who has known over half a century worth of writers, and has been a cornerstone of Indian writing in English, a meeting with a novice like me may not appear anything special. But it was a very special forty-five minutes for me, and my post is a testimonial about the meeting. To call him Bhisham Pitamah of Indian Writing in English is to recognize the role he has played in nurturing several generations of writers, and to pay tribute to his effort at translating every verse of Mahabharata.

P. Lal, or Prof Lal (as he is affectionately called) is a month away from starting his eighth decade. In the last fifty years, he has launched innumerable poets and writers, who have found their niche in the world of celebrity (or in many cases obscurity). Be it Agha Shahid Ali or Vikram Seth or Keki N Daruwala or Pritish Nandy or AK Ramanujan or Chitra Bannerjee Devakurni or Kamala Das, their story begins with Writers Workshop imprint. P. Lal runs a small publishing "room", from where book acceptances are issued, and where 500 copies of hand-bound books are shipped, each carrying exquisite calligraphy, which is the hallmark of WW & Prof. Lal. As a publisher, his enterprise has incredible 3500 titles already to his credit. As a translator, he has collected and translated nearly every verse of Mahabharata. The epic is much much longer and richer than Collected Works of Shakespeare or both Iliad and Odyssey and requires a wisdom of language and culture, spread over three thousand years and more. The Writers Workshop has survived so long by the personal funds and efforts of one man, who continues to inspire writers like me. Now before I talk about the meeting, let me repeat the story of how I got the Writers Workshop imprint. I hope many more will follow this route and stay thankful for the existence of WW.

I first wrote to Prof. Lal in December, 2008, asking him if I could send in a manuscript. The response was prompt "yes" and I sat down and compiled 63 poems into "Saga of a Crumpled Piece of Paper". After sending in the manuscript, I was ready to wait for months, and yet the acceptance came within a few days. Then began the process of revisions on my part. In November 2005, I was fortunate to walk into the office of Thomas Lux, a poet a residence at Georgia Institute of Technology and in next three years, he taught me the importance of craftsmanship, skill, reading and revision. When my book was accepted, my Gurudev and friend, Thomas Lux, offered to write an introduction. In the MIT convocation this year, a speaker said that an intellectual and a scientist must possess traits of 'generosity' and 'curiosity ': Gurudev has taught me both with regards to poetry. Gurudev Lux showed generosity when I was a student, as well as in the introduction for my book (I christened him Gurudev, both because he is my mentor and because I could not follow the American practice of calling him Tom). Within a few months of submitting the revised manuscript, I had galley proofs with me, and the book will be ready by Fall this year.

While Prof. Lal and I exchanged emails, I was aware of the central role played by him (and Nissim Ezekiel) in nurturing Indian poets writing in English. For example in the the Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets, (a comprehensive anthology representing 70 poets, edited by Jeet Thayil), there are several poets who have had Writers Workshop imprint for either their first book or for many of their books. 'Three Indian Poets: Nissim Ezekiel, Don Moraes and A. K. Ramanujan' by Bruce King examines how Indian heritage and Western education create a new voice in English, and the anthology edited by Jeet Thayil introduces us to a broad spectrum of work in English, where a Western language carries Indian hues, smells, sounds and mystery. The contribution of Writers Workshop is not in how many books it sells, but in how it has cradled the voices that would have vanished without reaching us. Given the contributions made by Writers Workshop, Calcutta to Indian English, I feel it is an honor and a privilege to begin my career as writer here. When I decided to travel to India, I wrote to Prof Lal, asking him if I could come and meet him. He sent me a phone number, and I packed my bags in Himachal and traveled 2000 km more to meet him.

I was so excited about meeting him that I just landed up at his door. I was asked by the gatekeeper to return home, and told that Prof. Lal does not meet anyone without an appointment these days. I called Prof. Lal and learned that he was quite sick, was on a strict medical regime. He was getting blood transfusions done but he offered to meet me next evening. Next day, I showed up at his door half an hour before the appointed time, and entered the hallowed publishing "room", the grand library-like "office" of Prof. Lal. Since I am quite forgetful and I took no notes, I will paraphrase the essence of our conversation. (I shall not say what he said about my writing, he was quite generous, and I respect him for being patient and inspiring to youngsters like me). Fittingly we started to talk about Mahabharata.

Prof. Lal asked me if I knew of an English word that has two opposite meanings. I couldn't think of any, though he said 'cleave' has been used in context of being removed and sticking to something. Then he said in Sanskrit words can assume two different meanings quite easily. In the end of Mahabharata, Mahrishi Vyas asks that why can't man understand the path of 'arth', 'kaam', 'dharma' and 'moksha'? Prof. Lal asked me what these words meant. He explained "arth" has two meanings: first one is "essence" or "meaning" or "the fundamental understanding" (of self, and of world). But the alternate meaning is "money" or materialistic gain. We all pursue "arth", but usually the materialistic one. 'Kaam' can be associated with 'gandharva' or with 'kaamdeva', with 'love' or with 'lust', and most fail to go from 'lust' to 'love' or get trapped in cycle of 'lust'. Same for 'dharma' (often mistranslated as religion): it has a connotation which is 'spiritual', requires performance of duties and responsibilities that are harmonious with spirituality. Other meaning is "ritual", where the "show", the 'act' takes prominence. Of course, the great bane of us Hindus is that we forget the spiritual aspect, and over emphasize the ritual part. (In this context, the story of Nachiketa from Katha-Upanishad is quite telling: when the young son questions his father about the parting with worthless cows and animals, rather than giving alms of things dear to himself). The final goal of 'Moksha', also has two connotations: the first one of "detachment'' or "renunciation": freedom from "kaam" (lust), "krodh" (anger), "moh" (love or attachment), "lobh" (greed) and "irshya" (jealousy). It is a hard goal. The other one is of "escape", which is what many people take it to be. The translation from Sanskrit texts requires such subtle understanding, and hence is hard for people, especially foreigners and for students, to appreciate the "arth" or essence of complex, nuanced arguments.

Prof. Lal than told me another anecdote about how Yudhistar wanted to commit suicide after the battle of Mahabharata was over and he saw that the land was full of dead warriors and widespread destruction. Then being "dharmaputra" (Son of Dharma) he went to his foster father, Vidur, who represented Dharma itself (through his wisdom and deeds). Vidur asked Yudhisitar to first find out the similarity between "nadiya" (river), "stree" (female), 'taruvar' (tree) and "prithvi" (earth), and then make his decision. Yudhisitar came back, and said he understood. Prof. Lal asked me if I knew what the similarity was. River, earth, tree, and women, continue to provide even if they are abused, they carry on living even after destruction, they bring forth fruit and children and bear all the abuse with fortitude. To carry on in face of adversity and destruction is another facet of lesson imbibed in Mahabharata. I told him that I had heard about another anecdote about Yudhisitar visiting Bhisma to resolve these matters, and I had read Dinkar's verses about it. Prof. Lal smiled and said that is in Shanti Parva: the last part of Mahabharata, the section is finishing work on.

But the lessons in life and Mahabharata is always for the one who seeks an understanding. As Prof. Lal continued, he asked me why only Arjuna saw the "Viraat" Krishna (his grand form, with all times, all beings, all galaxies and universes, seen to be emerging from him and vanishing into him). The armies of Pandavas and Kauravas sat there, did not notice a thing. Yet Arjun went through a long deliberation as if, and this constitutes the Bhagavad Gita. 'Nar'-'Narayan', first is Nar (Man), then Narayana (God); first 'Jishna', then 'Krishna'. Why is Krishna only a charioteer, if he is the God, and why is Arjun in the doer, the driver, the decider seat? Why is Krishna, the all knowing God, not doing anything? Was Krishna just a voice in Arjun's head? Doesn't this mean that God watches as man does his actions? Why does Krishna advice Arjuna to kill Karna when Karna gets off his chariot to pull a wheel out of the mud? Why does Arjun commit this sin, why does he need to obey Krishna's advice? What is Krishna? The consciousness or mind or thinking that makes Yudhistar lie, say that Ashwathama has died and abet in the murder of Dhronacharya, his own teacher, his own Guru? Who is the doer? Who is the thinker? After all the arguments put forth in Gita, the pacifist Arjuna, says P. Lal, makes the wrong choice, and kills his own brethren. In heaven, when Yudhistar and Arjun get there, they see Duryodhana has a grander seat than them. When they ask why it is so, they learn, that they actually fought the war for profit, for their selfish desire to rule, and not because they were on the side of dharma (Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, in Rashmirathi and Kurushetra argues that once war begins, 'dharma' is impossible to follow, and so even if war has a just cause, every warrior ends up leaving his dharma). Prof. Lal smiled and said, there are lot of dilemmas and questions left open or raised in Mahabharata. It is a grand work, and if you get lost in it, there is no coming back. (I told him I want to do a translation some day as well). We talked about the versions he had used, about Gita Press Gorakhpur, who do a commendable job in making all the ancient texts available at a low cost. He also said, what I had seen, that the Gita press censors out any mention of meat eating (by Pandavas, for example) and of sexual matters (in highlighting which some Western translators take extraordinary pleasure in). He said, like many other versions, his interpretations will not be perfect, and he cannot hope to reach the perfect version: but he seeks a complete version.

Then came the question of what I planned to do in life. I said that I want to continue my life of a researcher and keep writing in spare time. We talked about how English is still a foreign language when Indian emotions need to be expressed. Prof. Lal said that Indians are pastoral, and are more straightforward than a typical Westerner: with faith in simpler ideals and idols. To say something in an understated way is English style, not Indian. Irony is not what an Indian poet must excel in, for irony falters in an Indian context, and reduces us writers to poor mimics of Western writers. To say what we feel, requires a greater effort in English; there has to be touch of reverence, there has to be pastoral simplicity. We need to go beyond the established norms of Western writing in English to do a proper justice to the thoughts, traditions, practices, and emotions of this subcontinent. Prof. Lal said he found English particularly inadequate in capturing the multilayered connotation of shalokas or cantos of Mahabharata. We talked about how most of the famous fiction writers from India, who write in English, are urban elites, somewhat disconnected from the rural India, as well as from poor and middle classes in cities and small towns. I hope to continue writing about this underrepresented section of India, for I grew up in small towns and spend a large part of my vacations in villages. We agreed that if I stayed on in United States, it will be hard for me to stay unaffected by the Western style and Western thought process and write honestly, without irony or suspicion about Indian themes. Yet we agreed, it is sometimes by staying away from our land and language that we begin to understand ourselves better. It is through poetry that we understand that which we might not know otherwise.

The fifty minutes I spend with Prof. Lal, each minute for a year of Writers Workshop, filled me with a satisfaction that one feels after visiting a temple he has only heard about. My personal story as a published poet is on its first page, and as I walked out of the "Writers Workshop", I knew that if and when I'll visit the more celebrated publishing houses in future, I'll never feel the reverence and gratitude I felt in presence of the grand old man of Indian Writing in English. I left thinking that it is easy for us to focus on our individual careers, but it requires a substantial will to carry on an enterprise like Prof. Lal has done for five decades. In a few minutes, I found a rickshaw and retreated into the crowded lanes of Kolkata.


Proma said...

Quite wonderfully written Vivek. Thanks for sharing, its a treasure..

Vivek Sharma said...

Thanks Proma,

I am copying the comment from facebook as well:

Thanks for sharing Vivek. Sanskrit words with multiple meanings makes us wonder how the multiple meanings originated. We see that in Indian regional languages as well,
expectedly, since many are derivatives of Sanskrit.
I also like his saying that we are only one part of the spi'ritual' and that Indians are 'pastoral'.

I am not totally convinced by whether we have simpler ideals, that is contradictory to the richness of our history, and various influences over the centuries.... Read More

I always used to say that western 'classical music' is more descriptive, whereas Indian classical is more about feeling the essence. That might be true for writing as well. However there is no reason why it should not evolve into something else, which we cannot predict. Influences are wonderful, they change the world and its only natural that it would change the writer and the writing.

I am copying this to the blog response as well...
Influences have been key to the richness of both Eastern and Western literature: will write about this in some detail soon.

Nitin Bhat said...

Great post Vivek.
I m glad to know that you are working on your book. Loved those stories about mahabharat in the blog

Vivek Sharma said...

Comments from

Amitabh Mitra
July 19, 2009
06:06 AM

I met Professor Lal in 1988 when I had gone to buy books of Kamala Das and later again in 2000. I told him about the tapes that needs to be converted to Compact Discs. I needed a specific cassette of Mukul Sharma. I had reviewed many a Writers Workshop poetry books since then.
He is the only poet other than Pritish Nandy who received the Padmashree for translating the Mahabarata.

July 19, 2009
07:07 AM

Good article, Vivek, thanks for writing it

July 19, 2009
01:05 PM


absorbing and riveting narration of the wishes for the book

just a minor digression:

a writer overcomes obstacles staring them in the face...breaking them down if needed... giving a wide berth if it calls for...(the context is your discussion on 'irony')

Vivek Sharma
July 20, 2009
12:19 AM

Writing involves choices. These choices are made in context of traditions prevailing both the social and literary culture of a nation. In pursuit of being current with English tradition, writers have leapfrogged and started to write like their Western counterparts: yet we must have a body of literature that first presents society as it is. Perhaps that exists in regional languages more than it exists in English. Reading Maila Anchal or Gunahon ka Devta makes you see why Moor's Last Sign, Glass House and Suitable Boy presents a different class of Indians, who perhaps represent only a miniscule fraction of society (the upper classes only).

Yet, a writer must write as he sees things, and break every rule of writing that hampers his delivery. I just read Naipaul's Letters between a Father and Son, and I see how from an early age, Naipaul had that peculiar bitter humor and astute observation that characterizes his writing. In his example, we find that he manages to create novel after novel from colonies that others never saw like he did.

Thanks for the comments Temporal, Aaman and Amitabh. The interview was quite special for me, and even though my book is delayed by another month, I wanted to travel and see Prof. Lal for myself. There is a sense of timelessness in his voice and presence, and I felt that the chair I occupied that day, is the one, where hundreds of writers have spend minutes engaged in similar discussions.