Writing Matters: In conversation with Dr Gopi Chand Narang
By Rahman Abbas
‘To write is to fight…’
Dr Gopi Chand Narang (born 11 February 1931) is one of the finest literary critics in the history of modern Urdu criticism. His works deal with the cultural study of classics, stylistics, oriental poetics, post-modernism, structuralism and post-structuralism. He has taught at Delhi University, University of Wisconsin, University of Minnesota, University of Oslo and Jamia Millia Islamia University, and in 2005, the University of Delhi named him Professor Emeritus. He is also Professor Emeritus at the Jamia Millia Islamia. The Aligarh Muslim University, Central University of Hyderabad and the Maulana Azad National Urdu University have conferred D.Litt. Honorus Causa on him. He is the only writer who has been decorated by the President of Pakistan as Sitara-e Imtiyaaz and by the President of India with the Padma Bhushan and Padma Sri. He was vice-chairman of the Delhi Urdu Academy (1996-1999) and the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language-HRD (1998-2004), and Vice-president (1998-2002) and President (2003-2007) of the Sahitya Akademi, National Academy of Letters. His important books includes Urdu Zabaan aur Lisaniyaat (2006), Taraqqi Pasandi, Jadidiat, Maba’d-e-Jadidiat (2004), Urdu Ghazal aur Hindustani Zehn-o-Tehzeeb (2002), Sakhtiyat, Pas-Sakhtiyataur Mashriqui Sheriyat (1993), Adabi Tanqeed Aur Usloobiyat (1989), Amir Khusrow ka Hindavi Kalaam (1987), Saniha-e-Karbala bataur Sheri Isti’ara (1986), Usloobiyat-e-Mir (1985), Hindustani Qisson se Makhooz Urdu Masnaviyan (1961) and others.
His seminal work on Mirza Ghalib – Ghalib: Ma’ni-Afrini, Jadliyaati Waza, Shunyata aur Sheriyaat (Ghalib: Innovative Meaning, Mind, Dialectical Thought & Poetics (2013) has been considered a milestone in understanding Ghalib. Besides the Padma Bhushan (2004) and Padma Shri (1990), Narang has received hundreds of awards across the globe – Bharatiya Jnanpith Moorti Devi Award (2012), Madhya Pradesh Iqbal Samman (2011), the European Urdu Writers’ Society Award (London, 2005), Mazzini Gold Medal (Italy, 2005), Alami Faroghe-e-Urdu Adab Award (Doha, 1998), Sahitya Akademi Award (1995), Amir Khusrow Award (Chicago, 1987), Canadian Academy of Urdu Language and Literature Award (Toronto, 1987), Ghalib Institute Ghalib Award (1985), and the Association of Asian Studies (Mid-Atlantic Region) Award (US, 1982). Besides India and Pakistan, he has made presentations almost all over Europe, USA, Canada as well as Russia, Uzbekistan, China and Japan.
Rahman Abbas: You are the most discussed literary critic in the world of Urdu literature. How do you assess this unparalleled journey of your life which started from Balochistan when the subcontinent was undivided? Could you also put some light upon your early connections with Urdu?
Gopi Chand Narang: I am simply a lover of Urdu. I was born in Balochistan. My mother tongue is Saraiki, but my father spoke Baluchi and Pushto. He was a scholar of Persian and Sanskrit as well. I was brought up in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural environ. The common speech of bazaar and school was Hindustani and Urdu. Language is nobody’s monopoly. It belongs to whosoever loves it. The newly independent India gave hope to many young people like me that there would be ample opportunities for fulfilling our ideals and aspirations. The Urdu Department at the Delhi University had come into being at the personal intervention of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who was Minister of Education, also played a role in this. As I later pursued my doctoral degree, I was extremely fortunate to have had guidance and patronage of some of the brightest minds of that time, including Dr. Zakir Husain (who later became President of India), Dr. Tara Chand, Dr. Syed Abid Husain, Prof. Mohd. Mujeeb, Khwaja Ghulamus Syeddain, Dr. Khwaja Ahmad Faruqi, Sajjad Zaheer, Prof. Ale Ahmad Suroor, Syed Ehtisham Husain, Maulana Imtiaz Ali Arshi, Qazi Abdul Wudood, Malik Ram, Masood Hasan Rizvi Adeeb, Najeeb Ashraf Nadvi, and Dr. Syed Mohiuddin Qadri Zore. These people symbolized values of our composite Indian heritage and they were true role models of our highest ideals. When I look back and remember these unique personalities, I cannot but feel very fortunate for having had them as my patrons and role models.
Rahman Abbas: Some years ago, due to your stark criticism of the fake modernism in Urdu, you were personally targeted. It was unfortunate that instead of countering your opinions, your minority identity was targeted. Did that affect you? What was your reaction then and now?
Gopi Chand Narang: It is a sad story. As a young writer you must have witnessed all that happened. As long as Ale Ahmed Suroor, Khalil ur Rahman Azmi, Waheed Akhtar, Sulema Arib, Mahmood Ayaz and some seniors were alive and active, they wanted to develop a dynamic model which was alive to India’s new social and pluralistic needs. But soon after, when Shams ur Rahman Faruqi and his journal Shab-Khoon took over, a period of misconceived notions and a hidden agenda of sectarian fake modernism set in. This is a period of great turmoil and overlapping. Faruqi with his arrogant self-esteem, one-upmanship and know all bravado started polemics which had more sound than sense. He and his cronies, through over heated debates, set flawed standards for fiction, poetry and ghazal. This confused and misguided a whole lot of promising young writers. Waris Alvi, Baqar Mehdi and some others resisted but they had no theoretical base. At this stage, avoiding labeling and indulging in the misguiding polemics, I switched from my earlier cultural studies and stylistics base and started writing on Theory (both Western and Oriental) and postmodernism. Across the border, Wazir Agha, Qamar Jameel, Intezar Husain, Jameeluddin Azmi, Zamir Ali Badayuni, Faheem Azmi and many other genuine writers joined hands. We wanted to respond to the new social and epistemological shift absorbing the new light of the times, stressing the freedom of the creative voice of the writer, while constructing a genuine model which should be alive to our own pluralistic cultural, realistic and truly subversive, ingenious and in tune with our practical complex social concerns.
My endeavour was literary and scientific, not against any group or person, but since the fake modernism could not hold after my extensive studies and publications on Theory and Postmodernism, and the international seminar and publication, ‘Urdu ka Badalta Manzarnama’, it was but natural that I would be targeted. Since they had nothing genuine to say, the easiest thing was to target me unleashing a conspiracy using sectarian and minority angle. Ghalib is known to have said, it is the ‘gadha’ that hits a human, a human never hits back. I kept my cool and shunning polemics, I kept concentrating on my work. Sooner or later the truth is known and prevails. Thank God, today they stand exposed and their fake agenda, baseless allegations, libellous campaign and malicious attacks have blown away with the winds of time.
Rahman Abbas: You are known for many influential literary books but your recent book on Ghalib which has also been translated into English is considered the best work on Ghalib after the seminal work of Altaf Hussian Hali. Could you explain how you conceived Ghalib so differently and deeply rooted in the perennial flow of Indian civilization?
Gopi Chand Narang: Since the seventies and eighties, when I worked on the postmodern subversive ideologies and the ancient Sanskrit and Buddhist poetics, especially Nagarajun, Anandvardhana, Saussure, Derrida, Barthes, Foucoult, Edward Said, I got some fresh insights whenever I touched Ghalib. Ghalib’s poetry is my favourite. My real quest started when I was on a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship at the Rockefeller Study Centre at Bellagio in Italy near the Alps; no phones were allowed, only a laptop and your books. But hardly had I started and was engaged with some intricate questions that I had to move to Oslo University, Norway for a Visiting Professorship. There I got the news that I have been nominated as an eminent writer for the General Council of Sahitya Akademi. The Ghalib work reluctantly had to be moved to the back burner. Next year friends urged me to stand for the election of the Akademi which I did and won. I had a five year term to work devotedly to strengthen the Akademi. Amazing how some time you have to go with the flow of things. I have a single track mind; I gave up every thing and whole heartedly worked for the Akademi. The result was that I was shortlisted to run for the Presidentship of the Akademi, a position which, at the establishment of the Akademi, was held by Jawaharlal Nehru and later by Dr. Radhakrishnan. My adversaries in their self interest misguided Smt. Mahashveta Devi to contest the election. The respected lady herself was not interested and badly lost. I got involved for another five years, and the Ghalib project kept waiting. My inner self was not happy, but in a way it was good as all this while Ghalib and his ingenious mind had been in my thoughts and I kept thinking on some leads. It was after I finished the tenure of the Akademi that I started writing the Ghalib book. This journey might have taken more than 17 years. The result is before you. Thank God! I was able to finish it in my life time. I am grateful to my English translator and to the Oxford University Press for bringing it out in English. The Urdu book is into its fourth edition. The Hindi version is underway. As you would have seen, the study opens the enigmatic knot of Ghalib’s mysteriously magical creativity as no one has yet been able to do. It traces the archetypical roots of his creative consciousness and inscrutable thought in Buddhist dialectical philosophy, particularly in the concept of Shunyata, via the Mughal era Sabk-e Hindi Persian poetry and Ghalib’s mentor Bedil. The extensive study places Ghalib in the galaxy of the great Eastern poets stretching far beyond the boundaries of India and the Urdu language. The work has been extensively reviewed online and in the print media.
Rahman Abbas: Well, we know how strongly you had defended the post-modernism and literary theory in Urdu criticism and this had invited a lot of baseless allegations. Why were these people so disturbed? What was their interest?
Gopi Chand Narang: As pointed out above, because of my sustained work on Theory and Post-Structuralism and Oriental poetics, their fake Modernist positions were challenged and vested interests threatened; they joined hands and started a baseless campaign of vilification. They even charged me as ‘plagiarist’ without perhaps knowing the meaning of the term. I feel sorry for a Chicago Urdu teacher, who, without any scholarship, mostly writes on the social media. He was totally misled and given wrong information and he made baseless allegations. I am sure he never read my book from cover to cover and wrongly believed in what was being baselessly propagated by the fake modernist Urdu group. He didn’t know that in my book wherever I had quoted Saussure, or Derrida, or Lacan, or Barthes, or Foucault, or Roman Jacobson, or Husserl, or Anandavardhan, or Nagarajun, or any authority, I have given their names and credits again and again. Only a blind person would deny this. All that they alleged was baseless, wrong and pure libel. Even in the Preface of my book I had written that the ideas and philosophies belong to the philosophers, I have only paraphrased the main points and elucidated them to make them available for Urdu readers to read and understand. As Urdu lacked technical terms for new philosophers, I invited the reader to go to the original books whose detailed bibliographies are given chapter wise in the book. My detractors never mentioned this, suppressed the facts and tried to spread falsehood through social media. Eventually the bubble burst and they themselves started fighting with each other. They exposed each other and they acknowledged that they were running a campaign of pure vilification. Since you yourself have researched on this whole episode and nefarious vilification campaign, and written in detail on this, it is better to invite the reader to read what you wrote, and how you got to the truth(1). The fact is that today I stand absolutely vindicated.
Rahman Abbas: Similarly, the modernists who were annoyed with you on the ground that you had exposed their fake ideology had tried to malign you by spreading the propaganda about your tenure as the President of Sahitya Akademi. Could you please tell us something about it?
Gopi Chand Narang: This is a similar baseless story and as previously the ‘minority’ angle was used, this time the campaign of vilification had an ‘Urdu/Hindi’ angle. If you are doing good work, name and fame doesn’t come easy. You have to pay a price. It was difficult for some politicalized Hindi big-wigs to tolerate the fact that an Urdu writer should be the President of Sahitya Akademi. They incited a great Bengali writer, Mahashewta Devi to contest the election. Once she lost, they were further irritated. They kept spreading their falsehood and raising baseless charges while millions admired the services I rendered for the Akademi and worked for the promotion of all the 24 languages without any discrimination. The then Prime Minister, Sri Man Mohan Singh inaugurated the Silver Jubilee Celebrations of the Akademi during my tenure. If I had committed irregularities, how did the Prime Minister of the country come to bless me and compliment me for my services? After some years, purely on merit and because of my work I was given Honorary Fellowship; that too pricked some Hindi friends. By joining hands and working as a lobby motivated by personal petty jealousies they kept spreading falsehood. If I had done something wrong or for personal gain, why not go to the High Court and file a case against me? It is easy to misuse social media. I hope the people responsible for running social media check the facts for themselves and not allow such fake elements to misuse the media for spreading libellous and baseless allegations for reasons of personal animosity without any foundation in fact or truth.
Rahman Abbas: The history of the Urdu novel is in front of you. How do you see the evolution of the Urdu novel? Is it really moving ahead or is kitsch a permanent misfortune of Urdu novel? Do you think in the 21st century, (I mean, in the last 18 years,) any notable novels have appeared?
Gopi Chand Narang: It has been a pity. We are a language of the short story and ghazal. We produced Ghalib. We produced Manto. But now things are changing. Lately there has been a glut of novels – Syed Mohd. Ashraf, Shams-ur-Rahman Faruqi, Anis Ashfaq, Husain-ul-Haq, Rahman Abbas, Tarannum Riaz, Noor-ul-Hasnain, Faiyyaz Rifa’at, Ahmed Sagheer and others. Some of them have a good command over language, but language alone does not make a novel. Most of them are writing semi-historical or autobiographical narratives. The novel is not a straight line; it is a layer upon layer complex genre. Rohzin is a major departure from the straight line and semi historical narratives. I always wanted someone to write an Urdu novel on the underbelly or suburban crooked life of Mumbai. A novel has to have a focal tension, an undercurrent of passion, clash of values, vivid characterization – where different speeches clash and different values come alive. Rohzin is a postmodern subversive narrative, or in Bakhtin’s term, a dialogical novel, where the passion and pull of love creates a mystique which touches the soul of the reader. It is not the author who is projecting himself everywhere, it is the characters that come alive and the storyline that is built through the problematic and core struggle that creates wonder and awe all along and the subtle intricate detail that permeates in the consciousness of the reader leading to the tragic enigmatic climax that grips the mind. The reader is not the same after he has finished the novel. The novel has to be an extensive aesthetic experience which transforms you from within. This is what it is. If ingenious novels like this can be written in Urdu, it augurs well for the future of the novel in Urdu. There is no dearth of talent in Urdu.
Rahman Abbas: Do you think that the humanitarian, secular and liberal tradition of Urdu literature is recently compromised?
Gopi Chand Narang: No, it can never be. It is only some misguided fake people. Eventually they meet their fate. Yes, it is an age of cultural clash, fake identities, liberalism versus fanaticism, wide spread misguided terrorism. But Urdu’s creative genius is against all orthodox and sectarian positions. Urdu’s message is message of human brotherhood, liberalism, love, enlightenment, tolerance and unity of mankind. There are some viruses here and there, produced by global vested interests, but they cannot survive for long; eventually the truth prevails. Mind it, writing by nature is oppositional, it is interface of subversion; to write is to fight. Simple accent, run of the mill, are fascist; dissent is freedom. All orthodox positions, sectarianism, fanaticism, arrogance, etc., are out and out fake; they must be challenged at any cost if you want to be a writer.
(1) Gopi Chand Narang refers to the article titled “How author and critic Gopi Chand Narang survived a maligning campaign“, published on 25 April 2018.