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Puroshottama Lal: sought to 'transcreate' an epic

He was close to completing his huge task of translating into English the 10,000 slokas of the world's longest poem, Mahabharata.

Had he lived but a short while longer, the Indian writer Puroshottama Lal would have completed his epic task of translating into English the 10,000 slokas of the world's longest poem, Mahabharata. His was not the first attempted translation, but it was unusual among rival editions for its eloquence and sense. He preferred the world "transcreation" to "translation", arguing that he was not looking simply to replace one word with its equivalent but to create a new text based on the original. It was the consummate expression of his devotion to literature and a mark of his contribution to India's literary scene during a lifetime committed to publishing his fellow writers in English.

The Writers Workshop over which he presided for more than half a century introduced authors such as Anita Desai and Vikram Seth to an English readership. It was formed by a handful of aspiring writers in Kolkata in 1958, and its founding member, known universally as P Lal, ultimately ran the press single-handedly. "It began the way all radical movements do," he said in an interview last year. "If society is conservative, so are its publishing houses. When no one would publish our work, we had to do it ourselves."

For about 20 years from the 1950s, Lal hosted a meeting at his Lake Gardens house in Kolkata every Sunday. Contributors would read and discuss their own, and each other's, works. Neither Lal nor his contributors made much money from the enterprise: the latter, in part, because they were forced to buy 100 copies of their work in advance. But money was not the object: for Lal, words were his passion and the handsomeness of the books, typeset by hand on local Indian presses and bound in hand-loomed sari cloth, enhanced the sense of the reader discovering something special within.

As an undergraduate, he was the first student editor of the St Xavier's College magazine, enjoying the identification and publication of local talents that such a platform afforded. He earned a master's in English literature from the University of Calcutta in 1953, and later taught at St Xavier's for more than 40 years.

He is survived by his wife, Shyamasree Devi, his son, Ananda, and daughter Srimati.

Born August 28, 1929. Died November 3, 2010.

* The National

Updated: December 4, 2010 04:00 AM