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Tagore or Marlowe, he was at home with both

india Updated: Nov 11, 2010 23:55 IST
Suhel Seth

I first met him in 1979 when he was that stern judge at the inter-school debating competition hosted by the British Council. He was the grace eminence of the academic world in Calcutta and someone who could perhaps teach Chaucer some fine English. Over the years, his son Ananda became a very dear friend and a dreaded theatre critic.

But the good professor blazed a trail like no other man I have known. His gentleness was always clothed in a demeanour that made him come across as severe but that's till the time you spoke to him. He would invite you for afternoon conversations where, over some fine tea, he would take you through a magical journey of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. He would pick books from their spanking shelves as if he was handling a newborn baby and almost every book he picked, was dog-eared but lovingly protected.

My first gift from him was a book that he had published. He created and nurtured Writer's Workshop, which was a publisher of new authors many of whom are household names today. There would be budding poets, pretentious Conan Doyles and somewhat archaic Jane Austens who would flock to his house to get the man to endorse their literary bent of mind. And I never once saw him either impatient or flustered.

I remember I invited him to see the opening performance of Bhutto, the play in 1986 and did not see him backstage after the play: something that was the norm if you knew members of the cast or liked the play. The next morning I received this hand-written note from the man addressed to Master Thespian Seth. The writing was from the heart in a script that would put the best calligraphist to shame.

He was the quintessential professor. Academia was his world and publishing his hobby. In a way, he published only to advance the language he loved. He was more than just a professor of the English language. He was its evangelist. He was the one person you could go to and discuss Tagore or Marlowe and he would discuss both with élan and insightfulness that would stay with one forever. A giant among men and a humanist among professors.

Professor P Lal died earlier this week. But he has left behind admiring students, such a formidable body of work and so many ardent fans and authors that he will continue to live...as vibrantly and robustly as the language he loved and the anecdotes that made up his life.

Suhel Seth is managing partner of Counselage India. The views expressed by the author are personal.