November took away two men I admired. Prof P Lal (1929-2010) and LC Jain (1925-2010) were in their 80s, but I never thought of them as old. They had the independence of spirit that is the mark of youth. For them, idealism never became a dirty word. Gentle folk who wore their greatness lightly, they joyfully swam against the current. But they politely declined to make waves. So the nation did not remember them as fulsomely as it might have, though they were harbingers of its future.
Jain was promoting participatory development shortly after Independence, almost half a century before the term was coined. One of his first experiments was Delhi’s satellite town of Faridabad, built by refugees with community ownership of civic facilities and even factories. He was a key figure in the cooperative movement which created many enduring institutions, from the Cottage Industries Emporium to Amul butter. And Super Bazar, India’s first quality-assured supermarket chain, a bulwark against the rampant food adulteration and hoarding of the Indira years.
Jain worked in the Nehru administration, though he was appalled when it trashed the daring Gandhian experiment of village-centric development in favour of a command economy run by indifferent bureaucrats. It is only now, half a century too late, that the government is promoting rural self-sufficiency through Band-Aid employment guarantee schemes.
P Lal, too, was ahead of his time. When the Empire wrote back in the hand of Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth, it owed something to his cottage industry. Writers Workshop, established in Lal’s Kolkata study in the 50s, published literature in English when it was vilified as the coloniser’s tongue, the brand of slavery. In fact, Seth’s debut volume of verse, Mappings (1980), was published by Writers Workshop. Lal made books by hand and with love — handset type printed on a hand-operated press in a neighbour’s garage, covers calligraphed with a Sheaffer fountain pen and bound with Orissa saree cloth. LC Jain would have applauded the nod to rural artisanship.
There are few major Indian writers and poets in English who did not make or build a reputation with the help of Writers Workshop. Like Lal, who had published Modern Indo-Anglian Poetry (1959), some went on to anthologise and chronicle Indian literature, in translation and in English. Adil Jussawalla edited New Writing in India (Penguin, 1974) and former poet Pritish Nandy, who has wandered irretrievably far from literature, edited the cult poetry anthology strangertime (Hind Pocket Books, 1977).
Nandy is the only beneficiary of Lal’s patronage who has publicly admitted that in the great tradition of new writers, he has been ungrateful to the man who gave him a break. In the bibliographies of writers launched by P Lal, early work is often listed as “independently published”, without crediting Writers Workshop.
India on the make has become embarrassingly eager to forget. LC Jain is redundant because ethnic is in, a travesty of his conception of village products as elements of daily life rather than fashion statements. P Lal is dispensable now that Indian names thickly populate the Booker shortlist. And, more importantly, we are inclined to forget that it is possible to be an idealist and go against the current without ceasing to be a gentleman.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine n
The views expressed by the author are personal.