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Published in the 16-31 Mar 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

High priest of Urdu: Gopi Chand Narang 
By Firoz Bakht Ahmed

Gopi Chand Narang, Sahitya Akademi president, bestowed with the Padam Bhushan this year, happens to be the most noted Urdu litterateur globally. Prior to the Padam Bhushan, he remained the only Urdu critic to be awarded the Padma Shri earlier. The Maharashtra Urdu Academy awarded him Sant Gyaneshwar honour. Besides, there’s hardly any Urdu forum that hasn’t honoured him — including even Pakistan’s Iqbal National Open University. So many Urdu and Persian awards have been heaped upon Prof. Gopi Chand Narang that now it is he who adorns the awards national and international and not the awards that adorn him.
Gopi Chand Narang

"A writer’s forte is his freedom of mind," emphatically reiterates Narang. Literature’s role mainly is oppositional and anti-establishment. A genuine writer’s voice is the voice of his inner-self and truth as he sees it. Most writers who display political badges, in fact, want to make mileage in the name of ideology. 

Strangely though yet interestingly enough, Prof. Narang happens to be the only Urdu critic from India interviewed most by the Pakistan T.V. In 1977, he was awarded the national gold medal of Pakistan for his research on Iqbal. 

Even today in Pakistan’s literary circles, Gopi Chand Narang is known as India’s cultural ambassador. 

The community of the pen wielding, know that Narang has always raised his voice against parochialism, religious fanaticism and social injustice of any kind. In fact his opponents, during his election, were disturbed as for the first time, a writer belonging to a "minority" language, happened to be a strong candidate for the post of the president of the Akademi. 

Communalists be they from the Hindi lobby or the Urdu one, have always tried to deter him from the path of constructive work. He refused to be dragged into unnecessary political controversy and instead reposed his trust in the discretion of his voters who all are celebrated writers drawn from 22 languages of India. In fact his tremendous work paid off. 

On the issue of secularism Narang asserted that again it was a charge that did not stick, since a writer should be judged not by euphemistic labels, but by the values reflected in his writing. He maintains that his record of work, dedication to subaltern and minorities causes, and 56 books of solid scholarship, literary and cultural criticism, and linguistic studies were more than enough to establish that he was a secularist and socialist to the core. He points out that there is a basic difference between a writer and a political worker. 

According to Narang, one may be an activist, but in a democracy one does not need to be a card carrying member of a party to enter the field of letters. A writer’s basic commitment is to the sanctity of shabda, concern for humanitarianism and sense of nationalism. 

Narang accepts that ideology may be a source of inspiration, but literature goes beyond the narrow confines of ideology. 

"A writer’s forte is his freedom of mind," emphatically reiterates Narang. Literature’s role mainly is oppositional and anti-establishment. A genuine writer’s voice is the voice of his inner-self and truth as he sees it. Most writers who display political badges, in fact, want to make mileage in the name of ideology. There are no concessional marks in literature.

Sahitya Akademi happens to be the biggest literary body anywhere in the world looking after 22 languages and activities associated with them but the fact remains that even today it is extremely difficult for the writers of Indian languages to make both ends meet by being a writer full time. 

Over the years it has been noticed that the Akademi has become the haunt for language mafia dons deteriorating in the quagmire of moribund rituals and not real preservation of heritage. More than being redeemed, the Akademi has been sinned against. 

Narang’s priorities include purging the Sahitya Akademi of rampant corruption at all levels within the set up and furthering the cause of Indian culture, especially the tribal arts. 

A project is already on the anvil, a centre of tribal and oral literature based on folklore and folk tales, is being opened to facilitate translations into Indian languages in Shillong. 

Besides, Narang is also taking interest in compiling an Encyclopaedia of Indian Katha Sahitya and Encyclopaedia of Indian Poetics. The renowned Bengali intellectual Sisir Kumar Das is on the job. National Bibliography of Indian Literature from 1954 till date, is another project that Narang has almost finished.

Gopi Chand Narang, a writer of eminence writes in Urdu and Persian. He has authored umpteen books and states that the 300 odd books published in the 22 Indian languages fetch the Akademy a sum of more than a crore rupees but the department needs to be put in order after doing away with some haphazard policies. 

Besides, Prof. Gopi Chand Narang happens to be that celebrated rare intellectual who has spurned the lure of office to pursue his scholastic work. A proof of this is that he has turned down umpteen offers of vice chancellorships. 
In the words of Shahid Siddiqui, editor of Urdu weekly Nai Dunya, Narang has published a string of pearls during the last three decades. The truth is that in Urdu language there is no other authority today.

Narang, according to senior bureaucrat-cum-author Pavan K. Varma, is noted for being brutally frank where the question of defending Urdu is concerned. His "literary adversaries" (of whom there is no dearth!) can do anything but ignore him. 

Prof. Narang holds the view that in literature as in politics, dissent and debate are a duty of the seekers of truth and not a crime. Controversy today has become a part and parcel of life according to Narang.

In his childhood, Prof. Narang never dreamt of being a world-renowned Urdu celebrity though he never took the language seriously. It was only at Delhi College that the litterateur really fell in love with Urdu. 

Having been brought up in the dry, mountainous terrain of Balluchistan and his mother tongue being Saraiki (a blend of western Punjabi, Sindhi and Pushto), his background conspired against him. Even at his school Musa Khail, Pushto was the medium but he held the fort for Urdu.

A few of the famous award winning books of Prof. Narang include Hindustani Qisson se Makhuz Urdu Masnawiyan, Urdu: Dilli ki Karkhandari Boli, Urdu ki Taleem ke Lisani Pehlu, Puranon ki Kahanian, Ameer Khusro ka Hindvi Kalaam etc. amongst others. He finds Urdu to be one of the finest products of composite literature. 

"Presently I am busy working on the history of Urdu literature and structuralism which is at par with the work done in French, German and English," quips Narang. Even the staunchest of his intellectual rivals and critics like Dr. Khaliq Anjum, director of Anjuman-e-Taraqqi Urdu feels that this work of Prof. Narang has been a contemporaneous one and some thing unparalleled. It also deals with post-modernist and post-Marxist structuralism.

Amongst today’s Urdu scholars, Prof. Narang is head over shoulders above others when it comes to spoken Urdu, a department where he is simply unassailable—and loveable of course! The truth is that no one today not even the ahle zaban (people who speak Urdu), can match his stylistic vocabulary. He also happens to be the unquestioned master of Urdu phonetics according to Dr. Aqeel Ahmed, the director of Ghalib Academy. 

Urdu, according to Prof. Narang has been the language of inter faith harmony and has served as a common bridge between Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims right from Ameer Khusro in the 13th century to Munshi Prem Chand, Firaq Gorakhpuri and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. He feels that the politicisation of Urdu has resulted in its downfall. The Urdu card played by the vicious politicians to serve their vested interests, has resulted in its degradation. 

"Urdu is not the language of Muslims. If at all there is any language of Muslims, it should be Arabic," opines Gopi Chand. Urdu belongs to the composite culture of India.

Being an illustrious student of Delhi College (now Zakir Hussain College), Prof. Narang has taught in various universities of the world including University of Wisconsin and University of Minnesota. 

Not surprisingly his grasp of Hindi and English too is superb. 
He is also a class apart and an authorised linguist like Jakobson and Claude Levi Strauss. In a set of four books published by the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL), Narang has used the best methods to teach Urdu for the "Certificate Course" for beginners. 

The beginner’s "Manual" for Urdu script is meant for those who are conversant with spoken Urdu and Hindi and want to learn Urdu script in the shortest possible time. The Urdu script has been introduced in a graded and systematic manner. 

Once while speaking to his Pakistani poet friend Ahmed Faraz, he said, "Do not monopolise and politicise a language. Urdu is one of the national languages of India and not a natural language of even a single region of Pakistan from Karachi to Lahore and Quetta to Peshawar. The litterateurs of the two countries must interact with each other." 

Linguistic ability seems to have firmly been ingrained in Narang’s family for his wife teaches Hindi and his son is well on the way of being a Sanskrit scholar. Only the eldest son is stationed in Canada as a dentist. 

"Hindi and Urdu are supplementary and complementary. They are like sisters strengthening each other," points out Narang. Now fed up with his foreign assignments, he wants to be at home to guide the Akademy and devote his time to research which will be a precious legacy for posterity.

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