I got to know about the passing of P Lal only last week. As I’m out of the country, it was only when someone posted on Facebook the obituary that had appeared in the Economist that I realised that an important yet relatively unheralded (by me) character from my formative years had gone. He never taught me, so he was never Professor Lal to me. Neither did I ever know him as Purushottama Lal; he was far too iconic for me to even think of him by that name. For me he was simply P. Lal. Like G force and U turn.
It must have been while I was leafing through one of those immediately recognisable sari-clad slim books he printed under the Writers Workshop imprint that I first got interested in sending him my poems. I say ‘printed’ rather than published because each book was treated as an object, and even though I found the sari covers a bit too ‘Orientalist’ for my taste, I appreciated the idea of a book-object. Then, a classmate of mine, Arnab Guha, came out with his Writers Workshop book, Memoirs of A Mad Dog. By the time I was in Class 11 a year later, I had sent out poems typed out on my father’s portable orange Olivetti typewriter with its black and red ribbon to P. Lal.
Did I expect a reply? I probably did. Till then, the only things I had managed to get published were in school magazines. But with Arnab showing the way, I figured I may have a chance in being published ‘for real’. I remember sometime in 1989 I received a letter, bearing the distinctive cursive calligraphic handwriting on the envelope. P. Lal wanted to publish my poems and wanted to meet, I remember the words that had come to me after I had read the letter for the 14th time: “O frabjous day! Calooh! Callay!” from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’.
I went to his house in Lake Gardens in Calcutta and finally met the man. He was seated behind a large table and was in druid white. I was very nervous, especially because I didn’t quite know where to look when he looked at me as he seemed to have a lazy eye. We discussed the poems. He had selected some of them and wanted me to choose 25 for the book. He also told me, in the manner of a suggestion, that I should change the title. “It might be a bit too Gothic,” he had said with a knowing smile. I certainly remember the original title and I’ll divulge it over my dead body as it was too cheesy, too pretentious even for a 18-year-old who wrote poetry. I also remember using his bathroom where the picture of Lord Jagannath stared back at me with his saucer eyes as I did the needful.
A few months later, with the title changed to 24 Poems (I dropped one poem so that my first book did not bear the same title as Dylan Thomas’ Twenty-Five Poems; ah youth!), my first book came out. Accompanied by my best school pal Orko, there I was in the morning, picking up a bundle of the purple coloured, sari-wrapped books with my name on it from a printing shed at the fringe of the city that, at least from the outside, looked more suitable for cows than for words threatening to topple Dylan Thomas from his alcohol-glazed pedestal. The bus ride home is still one of my best ever.
I was never very confident or comfortable about the idea of writing books. I wanted to, but even to this day, I’m terrified of being seen by my friends as a Bengali twat pretending to be a writer. When I joined university, a few months after 24 Poems came out, I would joke about how I had got a book out so that getting into the BA Honours course would be easier. (It wasn’t.) Twenty years later, I’m still cracking passive-aggressive jokes about writing outside my day job. But P. Lal, whom I had since given the name ‘Plal the Plumber’ (like ‘Bob the Builder’) for not only fixing lines in my poems but also for fixing a direction in my bipolar life, was the one who first showed me not to be embarrassed about wanting to write ‘literature’. As I write this while on a sabbatical from my day job in order to finish a novel (there, I said it!), P Lal, my first Jedi Master, reminds me — through a quiet suggestion, of course — from behind the Great Big Table in the Sky that it’s okay to do ‘the other stuff’. You know, writing-shiting.