It was probably not a coincidence that around the end of October, a couple of weeks before Professor Purushottam Lal passed away, I entered a bookshop in the Bangalore International airport and picked up a collection of short stories compiled by Khushwant Singh. In it was a half-fable-like, half-spoofy, wholly childlike story by the professor. I could spare the five minutes needed to read it. I smiled all through and remembered sitting in the great man's legendary study and listening to him talk about literature.
It was 2004. Having quit IT a year ago, I had managed to wrap up a half-baked novel and a collection of short stories that, I was certain, would send tremors through the publishing world. I called this collection Wiser After. Unfortunately, nobody in Delhi shared my optimism for this work. And then someone told me about Writers' Workshop. I found out the details and mailed my manuscript to WW. I didn't know that the name I wrote on the envelope (Prof P Lal) was an institution in Kolkata and, therefore, the address (162/92, Lake Gardens) was a landmark.
Less than a week later, my phone rang. On the other end was the professor himself. He introduced himself and raved about Wiser After.
'Such wonderful ideas. So sparkling. So fresh!'
That did it. Within a week, I was in Kolkata, the only Indian city that values writers more than software professionals. In fact, a family of Ghoshes in Tollygunge agreed to have me as a paying guest for a month despite not knowing me. 'Only because you're a writer,' Mr Ghosh told me, wagging his forefinger. I stayed the month because I surmised that it'd take me that much time to polish my manuscript under Prof Lal's guidance.
In the very first meeting, the professor plainly detailed out the vanity publishing model he operated. I'd have to pay for publishing the books. Production costs were high, thanks to a traditional method of printing the books and the Sambhalpuri sari cloth that was used as a cover. I didn't mind it one bit. I was certain that Simon & Schuster, Picador, Doubleday or some equally big publisher would want to acquire the rights of Wiser After.
In the meanwhile, in addition to making modifications to my stories, I visited Prof Lal, at least thrice a week, and soaked in the stimulating environment of his study. I heard him give anecdotal references to great names.
1) For instance, a young Vikram Seth had sat in that very study and discussed his seminal book of poems titled Mappings. He had reportedly even lamented the fact that no publisher seemed interested in publishing his work. Indeed, not just Seth, but other big names such as Kamala Das, Jayanta Mahapatra etc had begun their writing careers with Writers' Workshop.
2) Shashi Deshpande, Ruskin Bond, Nissim Ezekiel, Jatin Das, Siddharth Kak, Jug Suraiya, Sasthi Bratha, A. K. Ramanujam, Pritish Nandy etc have been published by WW. All accounted for, WW must have given a jump-start to at least 3000 new writers and poets, considering that it has published at least 3500 titles.
3) At least two Nobel laureates - Pearl S Buck and Gunter Grass - had visited that same study. Other notable visitors included R. K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Nirad Choudhuri and many others that the professor must have failed to mention.
The professor also spoke about other things.
a) He was always willing to talk about a mammoth project he had undertaken along with Nandini Nopany. What was this project about? An attempt to transcreate (not translate, mind you; the professor despised this word) the Mahabharata shloka-by-shloka. The work was being brought out one fascicule at a time. And by the time I arrived in Kolkata, he was transcreating the preparations for the Kurukshetra war. All the Sundays I was in Kolkata, I made it a point to attend his public reading of the transcreations at the Sanskriti Sagar Library in Ballygunge. A faithful audience awoke early enough each Sunday to hear him read and annotate his work.
b) On two separate occasions, he mentioned that he was conferred the Padma Shree not because he was a teacher-poet-transcreator-publisher-calligrapher of substance but because an influential woman - the daughter of a well-known freedom fighter - was infatuated by him.
She had good reason to be. The lanky Purushottam Lal must have been a sight to behold in his youth. His unmistakable Punjabi looks would have stood out in the Bengali landscape that was his home. You will read obituaries written by students who were mesmerized by his voice and passion, his ability to conjure metaphors at will and his in-depth knowledge of English poetry. My own most vivid visual memory of him: his fingers. Bony, long, slender and expressive. They pivoted his hands and his emotions. They flipped forward to make a point. They seemed to be crafting ideas into paper boats and prodding them to assume the right shape.
More than anything, the professor told me not to lose heart. To always pursue this difficult life of stringing words together to make a story.
I returned to Bangalore, sold Wiser After to many gullible and kind-hearted friends, friends of friends and acquaintances and somehow managed to break even. By the end of 2004, I realized how inept Wiser After really was. The ideas were still promising, but my execution of those ideas had been terribly clumsy. I had gone ahead with publishing it only because I desperately wanted to see my name in print. By mid-2005, I couldn't pick up the book without wincing. It was a lifelong lesson in humility. Never again would I love my own words so much that I'd miss noticing their glaring flaws.
Another, equally important, lesson stayed. This lesson was derived from the gushing words of encouragement Prof Lal gave me. They - those words - told me that some day in the future, more people would spot the talent languishing underneath my current lack of skills. All I had to do was to keep writing, whip myself daily, awake to the scars of yesterday and go on. Because if I do it for enough number of years, I'll whip myself less and write more.
Today, I feel as if I'm standing on the cusp of a new beginning. And this day probably would not have been possible had I not met Prof P Lal. Thank you, sir. For what it is worth, you made a mark in my life.