In 1990 in Madrid I saw a series of Picasso’s sketches called “The Bull”. Picasso began, as most would, with a quick rendition of the animal, head hanging low, exposing massive shoulders and an expansive flank. From there he proceeded to reduce the representation, removing specifics portions, erasing form and curvateurs until the final sketch was the “essence” of the toro in Picasso’s mind.
And so it can be with people too. Sometimes a person can live long enough that the layers are stripped away by the passing days and when you look at them you notice that each movement of the body and every phrase they utter is both measured and relevant. This is what it’s like when you meet Professor P. Lal. He is the founder and architect of The Writers Workshop, a publishing house run in minimal terms with maximum output. Check out some of the names who first found a public space with him. He gave me a small packet one day, which contained a book listing Writers Workshop publications, some postcards, and other inserts and bookmarks. One postcard just shows his profile, done carefully but with apparent ease. At nearly 80 years of age he is something of a caricature anyways; from a generation that breathed the bloody, exhilarating dust of Partition and in a mere 60 years since that time now checks emails.
His master work is a translation into English of the epic poem, The Mahabharata. Since 1999, he spends an hour each Sunday reading a chapter out loud to a small audience at the library in the Birla Temple in Kolkata. By reading aloud, he intends to capture the musical, flowing nature of verse, and as the Mahabharata is at heart a story, it works fairly well.
Prior to each reading, Lal discusses some aspect of that day’s chapter. Recently, he discussed the character Karna, and why he chooses to fight against the Pandavas, who are his half-brothers. It has to do with the kind of son Karna is. What do I mean by that? Well, in Hinduism, there are at least 14 types of sons, some recognized by law. Unfortunately, I don’t have the Sanskrit name given to each type, but the list is interesting (sorry, I could only remember 13 of the 14):
- A son born of parents who are married (legitimate)
- A son conceived before, but born after, marriage
- A son of a woman who has been previously married
- A son born of a concubine
- An illegitimate son, (a bastard)
- A son of an unmarried woman
- A son of an adulterous wife
- A son whose father’s name is unknown or is a secret
- A son adopted by a man who cannot have children of his own
- Adopting a son fathered illegitimately
- Adopting a son where it is not clear where the father’s “seed” came from (this is the idea of a God-born son, fathered by a divine being)
- Adopting the son of your own daughter (your grandson) because you have no sons of your own
- Adopting a son of parents who may or may not be related to you