Another look at P. Lal -- With a Focus on the Poetry

A few weeks ago I did a post on the Calcutta Writers' Workshop. Just about two weeks later, P. Lal, the founder of the Writers Workshop, passed away, at the age of 81. 

It seems like a good time to say a bit more about P. Lal (Purushottama Lal), who originated from Punjab but spent his entire adult life in Calcutta, and who was the founder of what was quite literally the Cottage Industry of Indian Writing in English beginning in the 1950s and 60s. In the weeks since his death, some very perceptive, solid obituaries have come out. Here are a few links to some of the obits. I would recommend:

--In The Economist
--by Nilanjana Roy, in the Business Standard
--by Shahnaz Habib, in The Guardian
--by Shashi Deshpande, in The Hindu
--by K.N. Daruwalla, in The Hindu

In the post below, I'm going to quote from, and discuss briefly, some of P. Lal's poetry. The achievement for which Lal will be best known will undoubtedly be his tireless management of the Writers Workshop publishing house, but for many years he was also the editor of an important Indian-English literary journal, called The Miscellany, where he often published his own work alongside that of many other writers. He was also an author in his own right (mostly poetry, some stories), and a committed translator of Indian devotional texts, mainly from Sanskrit (though his translation of the Punjabi/Sikh Jap Ji Sahib is actually quite strong as well).

Let's start with P. Lal's earliest poetry, published beginning in the early 1950s in magazines such as The Illustrated Weekly of India. These were collected in an early Writers Workshop volume, The Parrot's Death and Other Poems, by P. Lal (1960). For the most part, the poems of The Parrot's Death fall under the category 'neo-romantic', and I find them skillful but a little cloying, with sometimes cliched invocations of roses and bees. The one that closest to success for me in this collection might be the following:

The Old Man, by P. Lal (1958)

I was stronger than you are, but living
is cruel, and loving is crueller, he said;
I was swifter and fiercer, but sinning
sears, and thought saps; his white head
was bowed; I was swifter in running,
more violent in loving; I had spread
more laughter than you gave or are giving;
but when he turned his eyes were red.

Thoughts ran like tremors in my mind.
I was wise, but wisdom goes; I was mad,
but sanity comes; when I looked, I did not find;
when I saw, I did not see; when I laughed, I was not glad;
light in his eyes, he bowed his head;
he was an old white man, but his eyes were red. 
I don't much care for, "sinning/ sears, and thought saps," but I am somewhat undecided about a similar kind of word-play later: "I was wise, but wisdom goes; I was mad,/ but sanity comes." It still seems a little clunky to me, though maybe there is something to it -- our lack of control and passivity in the face of our own emotional oscillations. As a side note, just as I can't stomach the young T.S. Eliot striking melodramatic poses (emulating old men) in his poems, I have a hard time accepting P. Lal, in his twenties, doing effectively the same thing. (The one wild card here -- the mark of difference -- might be Lal's invocation of race in the poem: "He was an old white man,  but his eyes were red.")

Overall, the abstract tendency in these early poems (which is also at time visible amongst Lal's Writers Workshop peers -- Nissim Ezekiel and Dom Moraes in particular) is derivative in what I think of as an unfortunate way. It's as if these early poems were written by an Oxford undergraduate, not a person who has, in the decade preceding this poem, seen (among other things) the birth of a new nation and the horror of the Partition. The reference point is more England-centered than it is India-centered. Even the melodrama seems studied and derivative. 

Within a few short years, however, Lal's poetic voice matured a great deal. Out go the vaguely T.S. Eliotish turns of phrase, and in comes a new element of social realism -- with a particular commitment to Calcutta. There are also some poems that are, interestingly, somewhere in between aestheticism and social realism -- carrying the modernist angst of British high modernism, but with a more pronouncedly Indian sensibility. In that middle might be Lal's "The Guava Tree" (1966), of which I'll post a brief excerpt to give you an idea:

The Guava Tree, by P. Lal (excerpted)

He was seven when the guava tree
Wore fruit like ear-drops.
In a distant field in the Punjab.
He waited daily, patiently.
One guava he had his eyes on
Would ripen, 'one guava, mine, for me.'

The seventh day the parrots pecked it,
Bloody parrots. Clean. Stock-still, he
Saw it dangling like a bat,
Like a maimed man, flesh sucked
Off intestines, disembowelled, seeds
So many scattered bits of torn ticket.

I especially like the way he builds toward the last line in the second stanza: "so many scattered bits of torn ticket," which has a memorable rhythm and over-the-top alliteration. Another poem from this intermediate phase that I like has a vaguely Auden-like quality. This is "Darling Talk of Crime," from 1967:

Darling Talk of Crime, by P. Lal

Darling talk of crime.
Fish in the bazaar --
The Bengali's elation --
Is spurred by inflation.
The profiteer works overtime.
Nothing is at par.

Epson salts go soaring
Like ants upon a tree.
In the strangulated bus
Notice the spontaneous
Middleclass deploring
Economic disparity.

Even my dates with you
Have me upon the hip:
Air-conditioned restaurants
Make exorbitant demands,
The shady waiter too
Compels a bigger tip.

Only love is simple,
Only you are free,
Nothing's more expensive than
Youth's liberal elan,
The price of every dimple
A foolish word from me.
If the choice is between a jaded poet in his 30s, complaining about having to take his lover on expensive dates, and a young poet pretending to be a ruined old man, I'll take the former. Especially if the former is witty and knows how to write some memorable rhymes ("bazaar" and "at par" is particularly clever).

In the 1970s, Lal published a poetic series called Calcutta: A Long Poem (1977), which superficially seems to take something from the Anglo-American high modernist poetic investigations of cities (where Calcutta stands in for Dublin or London). But upon closer examination, it appears that Lal has made a more meaningful transition into full-fledged social realism. In the "Prelude," for instance, he contrasts the village in Punjab from which he came, with the shocking contradictions of urban life in Calcutta, to powerful effect:

[From Calcutta, a Long poem, by P. Lal]

In the faraway village where I lived,
There were few barren plots and no children
With famine in their eyes. In the town where you live
There are children's parks and juvenile gymnasiums
And children suck toffees and go to the movies.
In your town, in the alley behind your apartment,
Slum shacks along the Tollygunge Local,
Children with worse than famine in their eyes,
No children's parks and no gymnasiums,
They root in the garbage and sleep under porticoes,
With cats beside them.

O my dear town, and my dear town,
Calcutta, city of art societies,
Litterateurs that lead India, and poets
With Nobel prizes, city of the Bose-Einstein Theory,
City of multinational corporations,
When will your children not feed
On scraps in the festal dustbin? Beloved city,
When will the innocent famine in your children's hearts
Not show in their eyes?
It may be that, while the early P. Lal poems erred too far on the side of a kind of dislocated abstraction, these later poems also lose something by being so direct and journalistic. There are still lines that cannot fail to move: "When will your children not feed / On scraps in the festal dustbin?" But on the whole it seems that something has been lost with Lal's decision to start mentioning Nobel laureates and the "Bose-Einstein Theory" in his poetry.

As a final note, it seems important to recognize the quality of P. Lal's translations (or "transcreations" as he called them) of devotional texts from Sanskrit. The translations I have read are in fact eminently readable, with strong and clear English phrasing (readability is often a problem with very literal translations). Here, for instance, is an excerpt of an early section from Lal's translation of the Bhagavad-Gita:

The Bhagavad-Gita, translated by P. Lal (1965; excerpted)

[Krishna speaking]
You mourn those, Arjuna,
who do not deserve mourning.
The learned mourn neither the living nor the dead.
(Yet there is sense in what you say.)

Do not think that I do not exist,
that you do not exist,
that all these things do not exist.
And it is not that we shall cease to exist in the future.

To the embodied Atman boyhood, maturity and old age
continue imperceptibly.
And just that happens with the acquisition of a new body.
This does not confuse the steady soul.

Heat, cold, pain, pleasure --
these spring from sensual contact, Arjuna.
They begin, and they end.
The exist for the time being.
You have to learn to put up with them.

The man whom these cannot distract,
the man who is steady in pain and pleasure,
is the man who achieves serenity.

The untrue never is;
the True never isn't.
The knowers of truth know this.

I'm particularly impressed by Lal's willingness to put in colloquial phrases like, "You have to learn to put up with them" in the midst of the Gita's heavy philosophical precepts. Admittedly I have not checked this section of Lal's translation against other translations to see how they sound.

As of right now, I have not looked at Miscellany past the early 1970s, so I'm not sure whether P. Lal's poetic muse dries up after the period I've been focusing on. It is certainly the case that, beginning in the mid-1970s, most, if not all, of the Writers Workshop volumes for which Lal claims sole authorship are works of criticism or translations -- not his own original writing. It may be that he reached an endpoint for his particular career as a creative writer with the 1977 "Calcutta" (though clearly he continued to be an inspired editor and publisher for many more years). Perhaps in a later post I'll return to this topic...

* * *
[A brief follow-up from earlier posts, with some corrections. In my earlier post I complained that my main disappointment with the Writers Workshop was that it didn't stress translation from contemporary Indian sources, emphasizing instead translations of mainly Sanskrit texts. I still have that complaint, though in my browsing this afternoon of the early issues of the Miscellany today (from 1968) I did come across a series of translations of the Kannada poet Gopalakrishna Adiga, who is widely recognized as one of the great modern/progressive poets in the Kannada language. I also should note that Lal collaborated with Jai Ratan on a full translation of Premchand's Godaan, published in 1958; I think Gordon Roadarmel's translation of the same book is more readable.]