The News on Sunday: You have so many feathers in your cap. What is your own favourite persona or how would you like to be remembered as by posterity: a teacher, a linguist, a literary critic, a theoretician or an ambassador of peace and friendship?
Gopi Chand Narang: I am a simple writer and a humble worker in the service of peace, co-existence and love. All the different fields in which I have endeavoured to work, my effort has been to understand and unfold the mystery and magic of the language called Urdu.
Urdu is not my mother tongue. I was born in Balochistan. My father spoke Pashto and Balochi and my mother spoke only Saraiki. Nonetheless, it was inevitable not to have been soaked in the multilingualism of social life. I had my schooling both in different parts of Balochistan as well as Layyah, Muzaffargarh and Multan.
Gradually, I was drawn to Urdu, may be unconsciously. I consider Urdu not only as the finest product of the Mughal India but aesthetically the most cultivated and developed idiom which reflects the best in the syncretic Indo-Muslim cultural heritage. I had been a Science student but I pursued a career in Urdu in India where after partition Urdu was a victim of history and marginalised. But the mystery of its charm and cultural synthesis permeated my psyche and my whole literary odyssey has been to unfold and appreciate different aspects of the blending of Arabo-Persian super structure with the Indic base, resulting in a marvel such as Urdu language.
Urdu to me is not only a [language of] speech, it is the embodiment of a culture of enlightenment, beauty and love. The sectarian hate and violence, generated by politics lately, is antithetical to the essence of Urdu.
TNS: You started your career as an Urdu teacher. What first sparked your interest in the science of Linguistics?
GCN: The underlying secret of it being a hybrid language but producing a blend of rainbow-like colourful and unitary spectacle [is what first sparked my interest in it]. Urdu, like English, has received from all but naturalised and transformed everything and resulted as a unified, independent, self-sustaining and self-regulating open language with a magical character of its own. Urdu is not a carbon copy either of Sanskrit or Arabic or Persian. Be it the phonology, script, semantics, prosody, everything is synthesised. Common people don’t know, but this is a marvel and the reason of its cultural attraction.
My humble effort has been to unravel some of its mysteries by employing scientific methods of linguistics. But only mechanical application is not enough; one has to have a ‘dil-e-gudakhta’ to look beyond the surface. In language only the given is not enough, the unknown, the ‘other’ is as revealing.
TNS: You have made several visits to Pakistan and met all key figures in the fields of education, social sciences, literature, media and cultural affairs. Have you noticed that we in Pakistan have done wonders in the areas of art and literature but, compared to India, our performance in science and research is not enviable. Take Linguistics, for example. We call Urdu our national language, but all serious research on Urdu linguistics is conducted in India. What objective conditions are required for this science to flourish in Pakistan as well?
GCN: It is sad. There has been an explosion of knowledge lately. Unfortunately, both Pakistan and India achieved independence in a bloodbath. There might be drawbacks in India and there’s an emergence of degenerated politics. Nonetheless, a liberal atmosphere exists.
Pakistan went through many upheavals and regimentation. Religion is essential, maybe the core, but knowledge needs absolute human freedom, an atmosphere of liberalism. When a society is under pressure, it starts living in the past. Past has a solace but it cannot be possessed unless conditions are the same. We can draw lessons and act. Islam achieved great heights in sciences and knowledge, even accelerated the renaissance in Europe, great achievements indeed. In today’s society, what is needed is to plan priorities, encourage pursuit of knowledge and sciences and leave them free of all sorts of interference or pressures. Linguistics is a small field. Full encouragement and support to all sciences is needed irrespective of common gain or loss.
TNS: You are one of the very first people who introduced Western literary theory to the Urdu world. What can we learn about our own language and literature through the lens of the Western theory?
GCN: All knowledge is human heritage. I don’t believe in the divide: a give and take goes on. They gained from us, we gain from them. We marvelled in the spiritual heritage, the understanding of the mystery of self, the absolute consciousness. They have made advances in sciences. Allama Iqbal had lamented that ‘Char sau saal se mashriq ke hain maikhane band’! He also inspired:
Maghrib se ho bezaar na mashriq se hazar kar
Fitrat ka ishara hai ke har shab ko sahar kar
So we have an equal right to all insights and all advances in human knowledge, be it here or there. Literary theory has given us new awareness. Language and literature are like a river — ever flowing, ever fresh. Stagnation is death. Old knowledge is basic but not enough today; all re-reading is enriching and meeting the new demands of the day. Urdu is a living language; it needs to imbibe the new to be fresh and vital.
TNS: Urdu is changing rapidly and most of its vocabulary is being replaced by English. Even simple and easy-to-understand Urdu words are being pushed over, like ‘rally’ for jaloos, ‘leader’ for rahhnuma, ‘meeting’ for mulaaqaat. English language is now the undisputed lingua franca of the world. How realistic are the emotional slogans of “Urdu Zindabad” in the present linguistic scenario? Isn’t it time to surrender before this all-out onslaught of English and seriously train our next generations in this new means of international communication?
GCN: Yes, mere slogan mongering won’t do. This is a period of rapid change; the western media and IT revolution are creating havoc. There are new pressures of multi-lingualism. We have to understand and appreciate them. English is a historical necessity not only in Pakistan but in India as well. It is a passport to jobs, a window to science and technology. We have to live with it. While English, French, German, Russian, even Chinese and Japanese transformed, we, thanks to colonialism, spent time fighting.
This is why I say that for all progress, peace is essential. Urdu still undoubtedly in the multi-lingual heirarchy is the lingua-franca not only of Pakistan, but the whole of South Asia — more or less. It is the idiom of our music, aesthetics and entertainment. We should work to save it. It has always co-existed, it will co-exist. Younger generations should not be overwhelmed. Our educational system has to inculcate the spirit of pride in our grassroots heritage. English is a necessity for us, Urdu is our shanakht [identity, soul].
TNS: Your recent book is about Ghalib. It was said 70-75 years ago that ghazal would be unable to cope with the literary demands of a complex modern society. But now that we are well into the 21st century, Ghalib is even more loved as a poet and ghazal still seems to be the most popular genre in Urdu poetry. What are the reasons for the continuing popularity of Ghalib in particular and ghazal in general?
GCN: Even before the progressives, Hali himself, one of the best exponents of ghazal, had attacked ghazal. Motivated by utilitarian concerns, these were misguided attempts, having been carried away by Western modernism, ignoring the essence of our own culture. One is reminded of Edward Said in this context that under the influence of colonialism how our culture was reappropriated and how we started looking down on our own heritage. In short, what haiku is to Japanese culture and doha is to Hindi, ghazal is to Urdu. It is the essence of poetry and Ghalib is one of the great minds the Mughal India produced. He represents the best in our thought and culture.
As the beauty of Taj Mahal is iconic, both Ghalib and the Urdu language are iconic. Today, Ghalib represents our ‘soft power’. My humble attempt has been to explore the archetypal and unconscious roots of Ghalib’s thought and mind. They are linked to the dialectical transcendental roots of the mystical thought of centuries. It took me 17 years to finish my work. Both Pakistani as well as Indian editions are sold out in six months. There must be some reason.
TNS: What is your next project after Ghalib? Can other Urdu poets be judged on postmodern and post-structural standards, or do you think Ghalib was a one off case?
GCN: I don’t plan. I go with the flow and the inner urge over which I have no control. Now I am stepping into my 84th year; the energy level is not the same though the fire of love is still there.
Last year, the Agha Khan Trust invited me to give a special talk on Amir Khusrau’s Hindavi kalam and the Berlin manuscript of Khusrau’s pahelis which I had discovered and published. That book is tough and directed mainly to the scholars of Khusrau and addresses the roots of both Hindi and Urdu. The popular folk aspect of Khusrau’s colourful creative personality was missing. I have been asked to do a book on Khusrau’s folk heritage for the common reader as Khusrau through his qawwalis and other Hindavi folk heritage is still very much part of the subcontinental cumulative unconscious mind.
Postmodernism or no postmodernism, freedom of mind and new insights are important. Movements are footprints of the march of time. Manifestos or formulas don’t produce literature. Theory is insightful and full of challenging questions. What most people don’t know is that its seeds are in the eastern tradition. Simply put, we have forgotten our heritage and the west has rationalised and theorised it. But creativity cannot be formulated or directed from without; it is freedom incarnate.
Ghalib is not a one off case. Whatever you love and whatever communicates with the inner self, such as Nasir Kazmi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Munir Niazi, be it Jon Elia, or Qurratul Ain Hyder or Intizar Husain, all can be reread with new insights. Rereading has its own rewards. Barthes said each generation reads texts at the horizon of its expectations. Meaning is in flux and is part of time. The context is infinite, so meaning is infinite. The main question is what communicates and meets your inner quest.
I have arrived at my station with ticket in my hand waiting for the train. It may come any time. I had nothing to give to Urdu except love, but what I got in return is much more than what I deserved.