Gopi Chand Narang, The ‘Renaissance man’ of Urdu


There are eye-opening characteristics of Urdu’s creative heritage that he delineated. He was also an insightful theorist of both the eastern and western traditions of poetics and literature, philosophy, and a cultural historian Urdu was thirsting for…writes Surinder Deol

Famous Urdu novelist and short story writer Qurratulain Hyder once described Professor Gopi Chand Narang, who passed away on June 15, 2022, as a “renaissance man” of Urdu.

This description is generally used for someone who is multitalented, well-rounded, gifted, and skilled in many areas, like Leonardo DaVinci. Narang lived his life pursuing a passion while publishing one research article or a book based on new findings and interpretations at a time. He often quoted an Urdu couplet:

“ae dil tamaam naf’a hai saudaae i’shq mein/ik jaan ka ziyaan hai so aisa ziyaan nahien (O, my heart, you have been losing your mind in i’shq/There is no harm in pursuing a passion all your life, the only loss is the loss of a precious life, so it is no loss!)

Narang called his life a ‘safr-e i’shq’ (the journey of love) for Urdu language and literature — achieving mastery in this language (which was not his mother tongue) that included its evolution as a language from its early roots, changes with time, the cultural context of its growth and development, its genres and sub-genres.

He decided early on not to be a writer, meaning not to be directly involved in the game but a kind of outsider and a detached evaluator. This role was missing not only in Urdu but also in most other Indian languages. He was not a critic as critics conventionally are, but a cultural scholar, a humanist thinker, and a critic, one of its kind which is difficult to describe unless you read the whole range of subjects he covered.

There are eye-opening characteristics of Urdu’s creative heritage that he delineated. He was also an insightful theorist of both the eastern and western traditions of poetics and literature, philosophy, and a cultural historian Urdu was thirsting for.

Narang entered the field of cultural studies, literary criticism, and scholarship in the 1990s with his pathbreaking work Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, and Eastern Poetics. He undertook the research for this monumental work in the mid-1980s. He was virtually entering an area of darkness where people producing literature or evaluating it were not well informed of the latest developments in literary theory and criticism. Narang’s achievement was not limited to a reasonable sum of western concepts for the Indian reader. He also found traces of these ideas in the writings of Indian philosophers and Sanskrit scholars who had struggled with the same issues more than two thousand years ago. And interestingly, he discovered that Indian ideas had influenced some contemporary western scholars as well.

Born in a small town known as Dukki in Baluchistan, located on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the young Narang devoured writings by authors like Ratan Nath Sarshar, the poetry of Ghalib, Iqbal, and other great Urdu poets. When friends turned into enemies overnight, he was lucky that he was able to migrate to India in a Red Cross plane along with his elder brother during the Quetta holocaust of 1947.

His father was happy that his son had made significant academic progress under challenging circumstances. Still, he was not pleased that he had chosen Urdu as the field of study instead of mathematics, physics, or chemistry that could make him an engineer or a scientist. But for Narang, pursuing his heart’s passion was more important than gaining a professional position in his life. That is why he never regretted his decision to become a student and a champion of the Urdu language. It was clear to him that he wanted to follow the “bliss” he had found in the Urdu language and, later in his life, in the broader linguistic and cultural studies field.

As someone who devoted his entire life to developing and promoting the Urdu language, Narang took a broad but detached centrist and inclusive view while talking about the Urdu language’s status in pluralist India. Any discussion about language, he felt, should reject fanaticism and extremism. Some people took an either-or position, meaning complete fulfilment of what they desired or nothing. We could not talk about Urdu without talking about Hindi simultaneously because these two languages were related to each other as flesh and blood. Urdu owed much to Hindi and Sanskrit, including its core grammar and verbal and vocalic system. Urdu was not Urdu without Hindi, and Hindi was not complete without Urdu.

Narang was a great defender of the Urdu language in Urdu script. Even Urdu’s narrow-thinking protagonists do not know that these features are not shared with Arabic or Persian scripts as they don’t have certain sounds. Hindi and Urdu come from the same base, Khari Boli Hindustani. They shared early history since Amir Khusrau’s time, who called this hybrid speech Hindavi. Urdu in Urdu script was an Indo-Aryan language and occupied a unique place in the pluralistic lingual mosaic of India.

Narang felt that the script of any language was its identity and beauty, and this originality and uniqueness should be maintained at all costs. He was mindful that the demand for Urdu books in Hindi’s Devanagari script, especially in the field of verse, was gaining tremendous popularity. But Urdu remained Urdu even in Devanagari script. Yet as a matter of public policy and going by the diversity and plurality of India, Urdu script should be defended, and the government should provide resources for the development of digital and other tools for Urdu script to keep pace with the changing times.

Although religion was not the creator of a language, it significantly influenced its growth and development. But this influence was not one-directional. When language becomes literature, it performs a miraculous act of turning faith into something inclusive, pluralistic, and creative. Therefore, it was not a surprise that most world scriptures were also works of great literature.

Narang believed that India offered a great pluralist and peaceful environment where different cultures and languages flourished over long periods. Despite a torrent of foreign invasions and rise and fall of empires, different cultures grew where female beauty was appreciated and celebrated in incredible stone carvings. And where poets were uninhibited, sex was not a taboo, music and dance were part of the celebration of life, and people lived in peace and harmony, though they worshipped different gods. Killing and rioting in the name of religion, ideology, or country started with incoming invaders and the advent of British rule. This political order fanned the flames of religious divisions that eventually led to the country’s partition.

Distinguished novelist and short story writer Intizar Husain once stated, “When he comes to Pakistan, Narang represents India in one piece. I can’t say this about anyone else. When he occupies the stage, we feel that India in its entirety is addressing us.”

Prominent Hindi writer, Kamleshwar, while talking about the critical literary contributions of Professor Narang to the Urdu language, mentioned that every Indian language needed one Gopi Chand Narang.

Gulzar Sahib paid a special tribute through the medium of his poetic pen. Here is the poem that he wrote to honor Professor Narang:

“do paaon se chalta dariya/ek paaon p thehri jhiil/jhiil ki naabhi p rakhi hai/Urdu ki raushan qindiil/raushani jab bhanvraati hai to/jhiil bhanvar ban jaati hai!

bhanvar bhanvar mahvar mahvar/I’lm ka saaghar chhalak raha hai/tashna lab sab ok lagaaye dekh rahe hain/chhalke ga to nuur gire ga/nuur gire ga nuur piyein ge!”

(A river moving/on two wheels/ lake balanced/on one foot/Settled/on the lake’s navel/Urdu’s bright/paper lantern/When light is caught/in a vortex/the lake turns/into a whirlpool.

Whirlpool, whirlpool/axis, axis/The goblet of knowledge/ is overflowing/People with parched lips/and folded palms/are watching/When the goblet overflows/magnificent light/will spread around/Light will rain/People will drink/particles of shiny light)

As a lover of literature and literary criticism, I have been wading through Professor Narang’s scholarly writings for a long time. Reading his work, I was frequently overcome by awe, thinking about what I would say to him if I ever happened to meet him. Fortunately, that opportunity came my way when I met him for the first time in the winter of 2013 at a meeting in Northern Virginia.

Contrary to all my fears, I found him extremely friendly, a man who showed great humility as he talked with people, showing no traces of narcissism of which scholars, even with minimal achievements, were guilty. Although our brief encounter was routine, it formed the basis of a beautiful relationship.

In the summer of 2014, as I was looking for someone to launch my book The Treasure, an English translation of Divan-e Ghalib, I could not think of anyone better than Narang to do this job. Again, to my surprise, he agreed to fly from Charlotte, NC, to Washington, DC, to do the book launch.

Our relationship matured over the years. We worked on several projects, including my Urdu translations of his classic works on Mir Taqi Mir, Mirza Ghalib and Urdu Ghazal. In Narang, I found not only a benevolent friend, a compassionate guide, and a teacher, but also an extraordinary human being. He lived his life by following the highest values found in our scriptures. The gifts that he gave me over the years included not only a critical understanding of Urdu language, its poetry, and prose, but how to be a good human being, how to shed one’s ego, and guard against all signs of narcissism.

When significant literary figures depart, they leave behind their work of a lifetime. Professor Narang’s contribution will be remembered as long as literary tradition is alive and well in Urdu and scholars are writing about the origins and growth of literary criticism in Indian languages. His legacy is safely protected in between the covers of his books and that is the place where students of language, literature, and criticism will continue to get their inspiration.

(Surinder Deol is an author and a literary translator. He has authored books on poets such as Sahir and Faiz, besides translating three books that Professor Narang originally wrote in Urdu. He lives in Potomac, Maryland?

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