A Distinct Medium: How English Became a South Asian Literary Language
Liesl Schwabe on the Vision and Legacy of an Independent Press in Kolkata, India
In 1958, the young Indian poet Purushottama (P.) Lal was living in Calcutta, writing in English, and looking for a publisher. Unable to find one, he gathered a small group of college friends who were also convinced that English was a legitimate Indian language for creative writing, including Anita Desai, and started an independent press, known still as Writers Workshop. During what became their legendary Sunday morning adda—a Bengali word often translated as a “chat,” but that actually invokes a much more spirited and sustained way of life—Lal, Desai, and others swapped feedback, wrote prefaces for what became one another’s first books, and adopted a “constitution,” outlining their mission to “define” and “sustain” the role of Indian writing in English.
That Sunday morning adda continued every week for forty years. The press, which now almost exclusively focuses on poetry, is currently in its sixth decade, having published more than 2,500 titles, including early work by luminaries such as Vikram Seth, Agha Shahid Ali, Asif Currimbhoy, Meena Alexander, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, among others who would become globally celebrated. At the same time, Writers Workshop has been equally visionary in their support of authors who are not only writers, such as with the powerfully tender 2013 poetry collection Own Me, Srinagar, by the Odishan police officer Basant Rath, who was posted to Kashmir.
Across the subcontinent, the linguistic landscape has always been—and remains—richly complex. For P. Lal himself, a Punjabi living in Calcutta and married to a Bengali, English was the only common language. For a country with twenty-two constitutionally recognized national languages, including English, at least 100 other “major” languages, and thousands of dialects, the question of which language belongs to whom—or vice-versa—has never had clear or consistent answers.Across the subcontinent, the linguistic landscape has always been—and remains—richly complex.
In the late 1950s, India was also a newly independent country, and many saw the use of English, in any form, as a betrayal to the authenticity of one’s mother tongue and motherland, especially in Calcutta, which had been the heart of anti-colonial fervor for centuries. As a result, the early years of Writers Workshop were plagued by what Ananda Lal, P. Lal’s son, recently described as “vitriolic attacks.” Chief among those was by Bengali writer and academic Buddhadeva Bose, who denounced the claim that English was ever an Indian language. Although Bose recognized the historic value of Indian-English verse, he saw its merit as a relic of the 19th century. As for the future of Indian poetry in English, Bose deemed it a “blind alley, lined with curio shops, leading nowhere.”
Such sentiment was not only an academic argument, but palpable in the atmosphere, and the founding members of Writers Workshop “felt quite isolated in their own country,” as Ananda put it, under the ceiling fan and over fresh Sandesh, in a magnificent room with red walls, high ceilings, and rows and rows of bookcases at his family home in South Kolkata, which has also served as the Writers Workshop office since both the house was built and the press formally founded in 1959. Born in 1955, Ananda grew up alongside Writers Workshop, sitting in on the Sunday morning adda and observing the group’s struggles as well as their resilience. “They carried on regardless,” he said, “because English is an Indian language.”
Rather than be deterred, P. Lal took Bose’s public condemnation, which appeared in a 1963 encyclopedia of English and American Poetry, edited by Donald Hall, and repurposed Bose’s language and logic as a questionnaire, which he then sent, by post, to dozens of Indian poets: “Mr. Bose suggests that Indian writing in English was ‘the outcome of an anglomania which seized some upper-class Indians in the early years of British rule,’” P. Lal established before asking his writers point blank, “What are the circumstances that led to your using the English Language?” There were seven questions in total, including whether the writers considered English an Indian language, and the varied replies, alongside accompanying poems, became the 1969 Writers Workshop classic Modern Indian Poetry in English: An Anthology and a Credo, edited by P. Lal.
The nuance and intimacy of the responses endure as poignantly now as they did sixty years ago. “We spoke a Punjabi dialect,” journalist and poet O.P. Bhagat wrote of his upbringing in what became a small town in Pakistan. Though, he said, “it was not written—unless one deliberately used the Persian or Devanagari script.” At his school, Bhagat explained, the boys were taught Urdu and the girls Hindi, further complicating the already multifaceted variables of linguistic heritage. Bhagat also agreed with Bose that English was not an Indian language. “But” he reasoned, “it has, through historical circumstances, become the cultural and literary language to many Indians.”
In his response to the questionnaire, South Indian writer M.P. Bhaskaran, whose poetry collection The Dancer and the Ring was published by Writers Workshop in 1962, articulates a perspective that still resonates with many South Indians today, “The Hindi imperialists fear that English, unless it is rooted out, may not allow Hindi to dominate India.”
“Language,” Kamala Das said of her writing in English, “does not observe the rigid rules of narrow patriotism. It serves anybody who chooses to serve it.” Beyond this explicit rejection of Bose’s argument, Das’ poetry also directly engages with questions of the vernacular, notably in ways that read as inextricable from her feminism, such as in the final line of her poem, “An Introduction:” I too call myself I.
P. Lal died in 2010, Ananda took over the press, which has remained at once steadfast and innovative in upholding its original mission. “It’s not a different medium,” Ananda said of Indian writing in English, “but it is a distinct medium,” the literary and creative evolution of which dates back more than 200 years. “Longer,” he asserted, “than the history of modern literature in several Indian languages.”
According to Ananda, Shankar Mokashi Punekar, whose Kannada-language novel Avadeshwari won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1988, began integrating “Indian words” into his English language poetry in the late 1960s. This was remarkable at the time, he emphasized, because “the English then,” what his father and other poets were using, was “the Queen’s English.” Prior to that, the “great trinity” of Indian novelists from the 1930s—Mulk Raj Anand, a Punjabi, and R.K. Narayan and Raja Rao, both South Indians—also all used regional idiomatic expressions in their English. But even before that, as Lal used to argue in his classes at Jadavpur University, where he taught for many years, early 19th century Bengali writers, including the radical prodigy Henry Derozio and Toru Dutt, a remarkable woman writer and translator, who was the first Indian to publish a novel in French, were among the original pioneers of creative writing in English. And even they came a generation after Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who, in the 1790s, mastered many languages, including Sanskrit and Persian, but understood that English, for better or worse, would reach the widest audience.
Far more recently, writers including Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie have strengthened the entire world’s admiration of English as an Indian language—precisely for the acutely Indian contexts which they’ve illuminated. As Anupama Mohan, Associate Professor of English at IIT Jodhpur, whose 2008 poetry collection was published by Writers Workshop, described, “If colonialism took English from provincial to global, then these writers took English from global to local.”Writers Workshop books have come to reflect an India in which English is no longer synonymous with an urban upbringing.
Since its inception, Writers Workshop has also been expanding who or what constitutes an “Indian voice” by ensuring broad geographic diversity. While this has always included representation of South Indian writers, over the last several decades, Writers Workshop has consistently published writers from the Northeast, too. East of Bangladesh and West of Myanmar, India’s North East refers to eight states that are culturally, geographically, and linguistically different from much of the rest of the subcontinent. Marginalized since British rule with dispossession exacerbated by Partition, the Northeast remains especially vulnerable under the current Hindu Nationalist government, which has threatened the citizenship, land rights, and the religious identity of people throughout the Northeast, including Christians, Muslims, and Adivasis.
This year, Writers Workshop re-released the 2004 collection River Poems by Arunachal Pradesh-based poet, journalist, and Sahitya Akademi-award winning novelist Mamang Dai. Temsula Ao, who died in 2022, was born in present-day Assam in 1945 and became a celebrated voice of the Naga people. Her 1988 collection Songs That Tell was one of the first two books of poetry by Northeastern writers that Writers Workshop published. Her poem “My Hills” invokes a past and a present in which brutality has become the new familiar: I no longer know my hills, / The birdsong is gone, / Replaced by staccato / Of sophisticated weaponry.
Writers Workshop books have come to reflect an India in which English is no longer synonymous with an urban upbringing. “Up until the 1980s,” Ananda noted, “all our writers were based in metropolitan areas or had gone abroad.” That’s no longer the case, he underscored, and the manuscripts he now receives—and publishes—reflect this shift. “I’m getting more unheard voices from elsewhere.”
Despite these advances, the linguistic terrain remains fraught. Writing for The New York Times in 2015, Aatish Taseer notoriously proclaimed that English “ruined” Indian literature and that English continues to “re-enact the colonial relationship.” Beyond the provocative title, however, the piece soberly crystallizes the extent to which English in India registers as “class” as much as, if not more than, a language; the implications of status are undeniable given that an English medium education is seen as necessary to a financially viable future. And yet, current efforts by the ruling Hindu nationalists to promote Hindi and to shun English also threaten to silence, if not erase, other voices and experiences all together.
For Goa-based poet Gauri Gharpure, who has published two collections with Writers Workshop, the focus on English can feel like a distraction. “I wish it were seen with a more generic lens,” she said, rather than something to condemn or to glamorize. Ultimately, Gharpure considers English the means by which “different narratives of our culture, ancient as well as current, are portrayed in varied ways.” To this end, she’d also like to see far more work in translation. “That would be something worth glorifying,” she said.
Piercing through these infinite, thorny questions of history, nationalism, and the collective impact of individual expression are the gorgeous books themselves, each one still stitched and pressed in handloom sari cloth the color of jewels. Although Tulamiah Mohiuddin Khan, who began binding Writers Workshop books by hand in the early 1960s, passed away several decades ago, his youngest son continues the work today. The loving attentiveness to the beauty and craft of each book remains emblematic of the loving attentiveness given to the precision of each writer’s words—in the perfect, imperfect language of English that, like the fabric on the books, stretches into its own form, bright and durable and human.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, who was born and raised in Calcutta, was living in the U.S. when P. Lal published her first book in 1987, a poetry collection entitled Dark Like the River. “Publishing in English was crucial for me,” Divakaruni recently explained over email. “I am fluent in daily-use Bangla and read it at a high level, but English is the language I studied in school, and the only language in which I was capable of writing anything literary or complex. Writers Workshop made that possible,” she emphasized, which she believes also deepened her bond with her Indian readers. “Prof. Lal had a prophetic vision. He saw English in India, as used by Indian writers, as a unique entity…Now, decades later, we (and the world!) are seeing the truth of this.”