A few weeks after the death of 81-year-old Purushottama Lal last month, the poet-professor and publisher who ran the Writers Workshop (WW) in Kolkata, his family is bracing itself for a future without him. Each book that WW has published since its inception in 1958 has come with the distinctive calligraphic flourishes by Prof. P. Lal himself. The words flowing from his Sheaffer fountain pen have given each WW title an individual, signature style, which is now at the risk of discontinuation.

This was just one of the many routines that gave the process of publishing a book at WW a human touch; “an artefact that enshrines the book-feel, as my father used to say," says Ananda Lal, son of P. Lal and a professor of English at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, who is committed to continuing his father’s legacy. Lal realizes the constraints of imitation. “The printer mentioned that there is a possibility of individually separating each letter of my father’s calligraphic writing. These can be used in future publications. Otherwise we will have to revert to the usual fonts."

Cornered: (clockwise from left) Ananda Lal at the Writers Workshop book kiosk; P. Lal; and books published by Writers Workshop with their trademark covers bearing Lal’s calligraphy. Photographs of Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Lal, who is currently going through manuscripts, will publish three or four titles by early 2011. Among them, he reveals is a “particularly interesting" reconstruction of a journal that a young author’s grandfather kept as a civil servant during the British era.

In its 52 years of existence, WW has published around 1,500 individual titles, mostly poetry and experimental fiction, and well over 3,000 titles if one includes issues of the literary journal Miscellany and serialized works. Since its inception as a publication started by a group of aspiring Indian writers in English led by P. Lal (“Nobody was around to publish me. So I published myself," he explains on the website, www.writersworkshopindia.com), and its emergence as a literary movement, the imprint’s “book list" has become long, with much to commend in it.

At its modest press, set up in Lal’s neighbour’s garage in 1958 (the premises have since shifted to Lake Gardens), were typeset the first or early works of writers such as Anita Desai, Vikram Seth, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Shashi Deshpande, Ruskin Bond, Jayanta Mahapatra, Kamala Das, Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel, Sasthi Brata, Pritish Nandy, Dilip Hiro, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Arun Kolatkar, Meena Alexander, Adil Jussawalla, Agha Shahid Ali and Keki Daruwalla.

“Most of these people were little known when WW published them. Publishing young and unknown authors was my father’s vision and that shouldn’t change," Lal says. Its non-profit character is at the core of WW’s credo, underlined at the back of each book. Without any professional help, P. Lal—who also taught at Kolkata’s St Xavier’s College for many years—worked almost single-handedly, doing all the editing, proof-reading and the rest; the books came without any “ephemeral, glossy" jackets but employed the binding skills of Tulamiah Mohiuddin, a humble professional who operated out of a cubbyhole in the Sealdah area of Kolkata. The books carried the binder’s own touch—gold-embossed, hand-stitched, hand-pasted and hand-bound with handloom sari cloth, a style of work that won the Best Binding National Award for William Hull’s Visions of Handy Hopper in the late 1960s from the then president, Zakir Hussain.

Everything in WW is designed to cut down on unnecessary expenses, which has allowed the publication to survive “while covering production costs" for the past 50 years and not merely run on the scholarly and literary passions of P. Lal.

The non-profit approach has also led to accusations of “vanity publishing" against WW, which in its standard contract with the authors asks them to buy 100 copies of their published title. It is their way, contends Lal, of offsetting probable losses and a safeguard against WW’s lack of warehousing infrastructure and book distribution network.

“While it is true that buying back 100 books wasn’t the only criterion for an author to be published, it also happened that my father would sometimes spend his own money to publish a book when its meritorious author didn’t have the financial means to buy back the books," says Lal. “Even now, when Indian writing in English is big business, only an exceptional publisher would not ask for subsidies from the new author. Besides, publishers hardly ever venture into poetry or experimental writing, which will continue to be our focus areas."

That hard selling is not WW’s style is apparent on a visit to Book Nook, the book outlet attached to the Lals’ residence at Lake Gardens. The shop is nothing but a nook; hundreds of WW titles, which occupy every conceivable space, cramp things up further. Two books catch my fancy—a hardback English translation of essays of the noted Bengali travel writer and explorer, Uma Prasad Mukherjee, titled simply, Album, and a book on Calcutta nostalgia by Sadhan Kumar Ghosh called, naturally, A Calcutta Book of Nostalgia. The shop attendant pleads with me not to buy Ghosh’s book. “It’s a rare book and we have only five copies left," he implores. “You can, of course, buy a photocopied version," he says. “But that will cost you more than the original ( 60)." I am though allowed to buy Album, which first came out in 1997, for 200.

In an age when Indian writing in English commands aggressive promotions, pre-bookings, celebrity-endorsed launches and seven-figure author advances, WW and Book Nook definitely seem to have retained some of the old-fashioned values and charm of the book trade. At a time when the future of the book, as it is known, is being debated, WW has stuck with the original form, Lal asserts. “Possibly, this explains why we have published so many foreign writers who are amazed at the human involvement in the book publishing process," he adds.

But back in those days, not everybody was impressed about the use of English as a creative medium and by the standard of work produced by the WW authors. In 1963, the well-known Bengali author Buddhadeva Bose tore into the English poetry published by WW and portrayed such creative efforts as “a blind alley lined with curio shops".

Some years later, in 1975, the German writer Gunter Grass—who was later awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature—dropped in at a Sunday morning reading session at the Writers Workshop’s Lake Gardens address. Unlike other Sunday visitors such as R.K. Narayan, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Christopher Isherwood, Mulk Raj Anand, Peter Brook, Geoffrey Hill, Raja Rao and Allen Ginsberg, Grass, who was on one of his long visits to Kolkata, made his displeasure with the proceedings loudly known, unable, as he was, to reconcile himself to what he saw as the elitist practice of Indians writing in English.

While P. Lal’s response to Bose’s criticism was through the publication of Modern Indian Poetry in English: An Anthology and a Credo, a 600-page book based on the writings and reactions of 134 poets to Bose’s criticism, the fact that English is as an official language in India repudiates Grass’ observation, reasons Lal. The focal language for publication at Writers Workshop will continue to be English, he says. “Indians have been writing in English for over two centuries since the time of Rammohan Roy and it surprises me that such issues often crop up, especially when many think that currently the best writing in English is coming from Africa and India," he points out. “We had published the English translation of Marathi author Shivaji Sawant’s brilliant novel Mrityunjaya, which was known mostly in Maharashtra. How would the rest have read him if not for the translation?"

After the death of Tulamiah Mohiuddin, his wife Aktarun Begum has taken over the task of handcrafted book binding; and there is no dearth of talented and young writers, hungry to gift the world with their first book, says Lal. His daughter, 29-year-old Shuktara, says she is planning to start an e-journal of new writing; WW is also considering digitizing its rare titles.

Yet, as Writers Workshop moves on, Prof. P. Lal will be dearly missed, his son admits. And not just for his calligraphy.

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