He had an unshakeable belief in the trinity of ‘language, culture and literature’. Certainly, he had inherited a belief system from his ancestors and, as shown up by his last rites, he was a practising Hindu, but he didn’t allow his faith to pervade his Urdu writings and speeches.
This act was subversive in its very nature. Since the colonial period, we’ve been accustomed to nourishing a single identity constituted by the dyad of language and religion, but Gopi Chand Narang dared to jettison this and embrace an ‘aesthetic trinity’.
Aesthetics transcended all ideologies, including religious, in Narang’s vast oeuvre. His argument broadcasting Urdu as a harbinger of secular culture was based on acknowledging the true spirits of Indian Islam and Hinduism which have, quite naturally, permeated the idioms, metaphors, allusions and aphorism of the Urdu language and the genres, themes and poetics of Urdu literature.
This was not just a hollow, political avowal as made time and again by many writers, politicians and peace activists in Pakistan and India; it was an insight unearthed by Narang’s rigorous research on the mediaeval period of Urdu and its prominent genres such as ghazal and masnavi.
Gopi Chand Narang, who passed away on June 15, was a towering scholar who kept reiterating the secular, tolerant, inclusive and assimilative character of Urdu till his last breath
But though central, this is a small episode from the intellectual journey of the towering critic, writer and peerless orator who, at the age of 91, passed away at his son’s residence in the United States on June 15 after a brief illness.
A cursory look at biographical details can shed light on how the core values of his writings were formed. According to official records, Narang was born on Jan 1, 1931, to a Layyah-based Hindu family, in Duki, Balochistan, where his father, Dharam Chand Narang, was posted as a treasurer in the Revenue Service.
The child grew up in nomadic circumstances, changing schools every time his father was transferred. Although a native speaker of Seraiki, living in Musa Khel, Layyah, Pishin and Quetta exposed him to diverse linguistics and, in enumerating his familiarity and command over languages, he would include Punjabi, Balochi and Pashto with Urdu, Hindi, English, Persian and Sanskrit. This must have inculcated in him values of tolerance and pluralism and shaped his literary and intellectual growth.
In 1947, Narang migrated to Delhi, completing his BA in 1950 and MA in 1954. The early days were difficult since he came alone — his parents joined him later — and he lived in shabby hutments built for poor, displaced people.
At Delhi College, Narang met Khawaja Ahmad Farooqi, the only person whom he considered a mentor. In Khawaja Ahmed Farooqi Ke Khatoot, Gopi Chand Narang Ke Naam [Khawaja Ahmed Farooqi’s Letters to Gopi Chand Narang], he admits to shadowing Farooqi to learn not just language, literary taste and manners of academic writing, but also a sense of literary history and an insight into the Urdu writers’ pluralistic approach of many centuries. Farooqi also encouraged Narang to pursue serious academic writing.
Although Narang had been writing in Urdu before Partition, publishing a few short stories in Balochistan Samachaar, his decision to choose Urdu for his higher education, career and medium of expression was significant in the context of the explosive nationalistic politics of the time. Urdu was maliciously painted as a divisive language and for a Hindu to prefer it over Hindi was unimaginable.
But Narang reiterated that he had fallen in love with Urdu and once stated that his mentor, Farooqi, believed that Urdu had always been an amalgamation of Hindu and Muslim cultural values. Historically, therefore, associating the language with just one religion was unjustified.
Narang believed the gulf of hate between Muslims and Hindus, created by division, could be bridged to some extent by reinterpreting and reinforcing these values and so wrote ‘Urdu Adab Mein Ittehad Pasandi Ke Rujaanhaat’ [Trends of Unity in Urdu Literature] for the Bombay-based magazine Nawa-i-Adab in the 1950s.
His doctoral thesis was Urdu Adab Ka Saqaafti Mutaalia [A Cultural Study of Urdu Literature]. Interestingly, in his debut book, 1961’s Hindustani Qisson Say Maakhooz Urdu Masnavian, he traced — as the title translates to — those Indian tales and myths that had been adapted by Urdu masnavi poets.
Revealing that the poets of the Deccan, Delhi and Lucknow generously borrowed stories from the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Panchatantra, Kathasaritsagara and other Hindu religious works, Narang’s book revived interest in the masnavi and also encouraged the re-emergence of the Indo-Islamic selfhood that colonial historiography had obliterated from the memories of Urdu speakers.
In his book on masnavi, Narang had restricted himself to digging out facts. But in Urdu Ghazal Aur Hindustani Zehn-o-Tehzeeb [Urdu Ghazal and the Hindustani Mind and Culture], he leapfrogged into theorising that, although Indian civilisation had, over several centuries, exhibited a triad of quintessential characteristics — assimilation, unity in diversity and harmony — it was Urdu language and literature that specifically epitomised assimilative cultural traits.
In contrasting the Urdu written in Pakistan and India post-Partition, it is clear that both sides were heavily influenced by their respective nationalist ideologies. In Pakistan, Urdu was decisive in constructing a religious selfhood; in India it was deemed crucial in the construction of secular selfhood. Narang kept reiterating the secular, tolerant, inclusive and assimilative character of Urdu till his last breath.
Narang’s research and critical endeavours were anchored in ‘language’. Early on in Delhi, he had realised the power a language possesses in subverting political agendas, as well as its academic, philosophical, semantic, and critical worth. All major events of his intellectual journey were marked with the realisation and exploration of the cultural, semantic and aesthetic treasures of language in general, and Urdu in particular.
Initially, he took interest in Urdu’s technical and cultural aspects, seeking to unravel its phonological, morphological and orthographic peculiarities on the one hand and, on the other, understanding how Urdu epitomised Ganga-Jamuni [Indo-Muslim] culture.
This academic interest evolved into a literary/ intellectual odyssey. We can say Narang came to literary criticism a bit later, after a thorough study of linguistics, the classical literatures of Urdu and Persian and common Hindustani culture.
In the beginning, stylistics captured his attention. Though wholly based on the principles of general linguistics, stylistics studies the phonology, morphology, syntactics and semantics of a literary text, while the school of formalism looks at form.
From the 1960s to ’80s in India, these two schools of criticism reigned over Urdu scholarship. Narang’s Usloobiyat-i-Mir [A Stylistic Study of Mir] appeared in 1984 and contained many insights about stylistic approach, the orality of mediaeval Hind-Islamic culture and Mir’s linguistic peculiarities that earned him the title of Khuda-i-Sukhan [god of poetry].
Elaborating upon Mir’s penchant for the word ‘baatein’ [speech], Narang believed it referred to the then overwhelming profusion of oral culture. Mir couldn’t experience the power of the printed word as his Divan was published a year after his death. So baatein — with its semantic imperatives such as bolna [to speak], sunna [to hear], pukaarna [to call], sar dhunna [to enjoy] and plentiful use of ordinary, daily language — became an overarching principle in his poetry.
Narang’s stylistic approach extended to his analysis of Mir Anis and Allama Muhammad Iqbal in Adabi Tanqeed Aur Usloobiyat [Literary Criticism and Stylistics]. Believing that, at many places, the phonological and morphological analysis turns into purely technical, mathematical dissertation, he turned first to a semantic, and then a philosophical, study of literary language.
Saaneha-i-Karbala Bataur Sheri Isteara [The Tragedy of Karbala as a Poetic Metaphor] is an excellent tracking of how a historical tragedy became embedded into the imagination of generations of Urdu poets over the course of at least four centuries. Narang showed the convoluted process in which a concrete, historical moment became a timeless metaphor, quoting myriad verses from the early poets of marsiya [lamentation].
Narang held that metaphorical meanings are rooted in real and imaginary worlds alike. Metaphors give literary texts a multiplicity of meanings, as well as glue them to real, social, psychological and aesthetic life. His writings from the early 1980s demonstrated the interpretive potential of the notion of metaphor and skilfully interpreted short stories by Rajinder Singh Bedi, Intizar Husain, Balraj Menra and Surendra Prakash in the light of religious, cultural and political myths.
In the late ’80s, however, Narang concluded that the literary modernity being practised by Urdu poets and fiction writers of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and critical tools including formalism and stylistics, had been finished off by an explosion of new critical theories and the onset of neoliberalism and globalisation. Modernism was over, he declared.
His critical stance leapfrogged into postmodernism. He wrote books championing the subject, published articles in prestigious magazines and lectured at Pakistani and Indian universities. He achieved stardom in the literary world and won a slew of awards, including the Padma Bhusha, India’s third-highest civilian award.
He declared that themes of absurdity, meaninglessness and loneliness peddled by modern short story writers and poets were no more in vogue and that abstract literature and symbolism had been replaced with neorealism. ‘The plot is back’ became the mainstay of his belief, impacting new writers.
Narang’s works of the last three decades cultivated a notion of ‘the local, indigenous, specific to Urdu postmodernism’. In Sakhtiaat, Pas-i-Sakhtiyaat Aur Mashriqi Sheriyaat [Structuralism, Post-structuralism and Eastern Poetics] — perhaps his most celebrated yet controversial book — he juxtaposed Western language theories with Eastern ones.
He explained that the Western notion that ‘the rules, manners and conventions of language are neither natural, nor logical, rather conventional’ was first hypothesised in the Buddhist notion of Apoha, especially in the works of sixth century Buddhist philosopher Dignaga.
That ‘words lack direct, sensual relation with things they refer to, and each word is essentially related to other word(s)’ was later elaborated in his 2013 book Ghalib: Maani-Aafrini, Jadliyaati Waza, Shunyaata Aur Sheriyaat [Ghalib: Meaning, Mind, Dialectical Thought and Poetics]; we might well call it his magnum opus. That ‘few theories about human reality exhibited in literary texts transcend history, identity politics and cultural-political boundaries’ is the drift of this book.
Goodbye Narang sahib! You lived a full, intellectually active, and creative life. You left behind more than 70 books. You are now silent, but your words continue to speak for generations to come.
The writer is a critic, short story writer and professor of Urdu at the University of Punjab, Lahore. His latest book of criticism is Ye Qissa Kya Hai Maani Ka.
He tweets @NasirAbbas65
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 26th, 2022