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Writers Workshop is still an institution in itself

By September 19, 2018No Comments

Source : The Hindu  –  Bulbul Rajagopal

Sixty and going strong, Writers Workshop’s beautiful books are still a legend

Writers Workshop, the publishing house associated with the legendary P. Lal, has been operating out of a makeshift office for the last 60 years. This ‘office’ is the library — its wall-to-wall shelves laden with tomes — of the Lal residence in Kolkata’s Lake Gardens. Professor Purushottama Lal founded Writers Workshop in 1958 along with his “ring leaders” — Deb Kumar Das, Sasthibrata Chakravarti, Anita Desai, William Hull, Jai Ratan, Pradip Sen and Kewlian Sio — as a platform for publishing Indian literature in English. In the 60 years of its existence, Writers Workshop has published the first works of authors such as Nissim Ezekiel, A.K. Ramanujan, Asif Currimbhoy and Ruskin Bond.

Near the library’s entrance is a stately wooden desk, which used to be the work station of P. Lal. Now, eight years after his passing, his son Ananda Lal sits at the desk, helming the place. “Well, my daughter Shuktara works at this desk more often. My favourite spot to proofread and edit is actually the bed. It is a very Indian practice: reclining in bed and writing in a relaxed frame of mind,” he says with a chuckle.

Ananda Lal retired as Professor of English from Jadavpur University last year: his continuing links with the university are chiefly courtesy the Workshop, which has published and continues to publish many of his students.

Family matters

For all the accolades it has earned over the years, Writers Workshop continues to be a family affair so far as administration is concerned. Ananda and his daughter Shuktara share the work of running the place. In the days of P. Lal, while he attended to the editing of manuscripts and maintaining client-relations, Ananda helped proofread. He was paid pocket money for his labours. Shuktara too started out as a proofreader and replier of emails — and earned her pocket money from it.

Her role in Writers Workshop became more defined once she returned from New York University, and has now grown to looking after orders and maintaining the correspondence around manuscript submissions.

Over 3,000 titles are currently with the Workshop, its most ambitious work being the English translation of Mahabharata in 18 volumes — 16 of them having been done by P. Lal himself over a period of 30 years, and the final two being completed now by Pradip Bhattacharya.

A stark difference between P. Lal and Ananda’s methods is the process of selecting titles. “My selection process is stricter. My father would accept many more manuscripts — and that sometimes gave Writers Workshop a bad name. There was a brief period when my father was accused of publishing sub-standard work, and I agree with this,” he says. But Ananda thinks this was so because his father stayed true to his initial belief — that everyone, especially younger writers, must be given a chance. “‘Better to err’ is what my father always said,” he says. In many cases, this has worked, a notable example being Vikram Seth, whose first book of poems, Mappings, was published by the Workshop.

Draped jackets

To readers, Writers Workshop is synonymous with its beautifully bound book covers made from sari material. The person responsible for these is Mohiuddin Khan, who has his workshop somewhere in the outskirts of Diamond Harbour. Urban legend has it that fashionable society women would place orders for the bright Workshop books in accordance with the colour scheme of their drawing rooms.

Photography is strictly prohibited in Mohiuddin Khan’s premises — his greatest business secret is the source of the saris used in binding. The family even received the National Award for best binding for William Hull’s Visions of Handy Hopper in 1970. Mohiuddin’s grandsons continue the tradition, ensuring that the books maintain their signature look.

In its 60th year now, the Workshop continues to be a platform for publishing poetry, and the baton is slowly being passed along. “Over the last two or three years, a few publishers of poetry — like Poetrywala — have come up. If more publishers like them gain steam, there may not be any need for Writers Workshop to go on. Until that happens, we will continue with our work. Our future is an open horizon,” says Ananda.

The writer is a postgraduate student of English at Jadavpur University.

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