March 27, 2009

A modern Indian literary institution turns 50


 One-man institution: Professor Lal in his study.

One-man institution: Professor Lal in his study.

India’s national newspaper, The Hindu, has a lovely feature written by academic and literary critic Meenakshi Mukherjee on The Writers Workshop, a legendary publishing house that has been a major contributor to Indian literary history. Many great Indian writers got there start there — Vikram Seth, Agha Shahid Ali, Meena Alexander and many others. And the beauty part is, the house is still going strong.

“Over 3,500 titles have appeared so far under this imprint — in elegantly produced, handloom sari-bound volumes — with the title embossed in exquisite calligraph,” according to Mukherjee. “It began in 1958 as a small movement spearheaded by a handful of aspiring writers in Kolkata (then Calcutta), and now, when the initial group has scattered to distant locations and diverse vocations, the founder member Purushottama Lal has kept it going almost single-handed, unaffected by praise, undeterred by criticism.”

Lal, who will turn 80 in August this year, does it all himself – with no secretary and no office. He still replies to every letter by hand, and has only recenlty gotten the help of his grand-daughter to use email. He edits, proofreads and lays out each book.

Young writers still regularly approach Lal in hopes that he will give them there first break. Which he often does. He tells The Hindu, “WW is not a professional publishing house. It does not print well-known names; it makes names known… and then leaves them in the loving clutches of the so-called ‘free’ market.”

And, the really remarkable part — he publishes approximately 100 titles per year!

Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.