Last month my young friend Chintan forwarded a short news item from a Kolkata newspaper, announcing the demise of one of the city's (and indeed the country's) most respected literary figures, Professor P Lal. There had been no mention of this in any of the other papers, and a couple of my friends in the publishing industry had not heard the news either. Today, a little over a month later, The Hindu's Literary Review carries a full page tribute, combining perspectives from Shashi Deshpande, Keki Daruwalla and Gopikrishnan Kottoor. All three writers have similar recollections of Prof Lal, all three mention his generosity of spirit and his dedication to the art and craft of literary publishing.
I've been thinking of writing something on this blog ever since Chintan sent me the news. Prof Lal helped me realise a long standing dream of having my own work published. He helped me get beyond the sense that my wish was a mere indulgence. After many months (years?) of dithering, I had put together my collection of poems and decided to seek a publisher. I had of course heard of the Writers Workshop and read many of the collections, both fiction and poetry, put out by them. The hand-bound gold lettered covers were quite familiar and so were the names represented on many of them. Having grown used to an online mode of functioning, I sent off an email to the address indicated on the web site, and received a prompt reply--read the terms and conditions mentioned on our site, and if in agreement, send us the manuscript in hard copy and we will get back to you if we consider it suitable. So I did.
About ten days later, one evening, I received a phone call on my landline (my daughter picked it up and she said, someone called Professor Lal from Calcutta)... yes, it was him, and he was calling to tell me that he liked my work and would be happy to publish it. "But why don't you send it to a commercial publisher, it is really very good," he said. I suppose all of us who write do have a certain sense of the quality of our work, but it always helps reinforce one's confidence to hear it from someone else (especially when that person is not an indulgent parent or a kind friend). We spoke about some of the formalities and then he said, "You must keep writing."
There were a couple more conversations, mostly routine chats about proofs and postage, and as promised, two months later, my book was out, in the beautiful cloth binding that characterises WW. These are moments I won't forget. The phone call and those words. Opening the advance copy of my book.
I do agree that some vanity is involved, and as other commentators have observed, WW has over the years published work of excellence as well as indifference, and it is up to the reader to make the distinction, But Prof Lal's work nevertheless has allowed many of us to emerge from the woodwork more confident, and more willing to take on the sometimes cruel gaze of the critical audience.