Gopi Chand Narang, the Urdu literary critic, thinker, and linguist, died in the United States on June 15 at the age of 91. He was a versatile scholar whose research work dominated the Urdu literary landscape for over half a century.

While Narang is known for his exceptional work on literary theories, criticism and stylistics, he also contributed significantly to the study of Urdu as a language. His work on Urdu linguistics has helped me think through many sociolinguistic issues of the language in Independent India, especially the maintenance and growth of its script.

Narang was born in Balochistan in present-day Pakistan and later moved to India where he completed his doctorate at the University of Delhi. He grew up in a multilingual household: his father knew Urdu, Persian, and Sanskrit, and the family spoke Seraiki at home.

Language, identity

About his linguistic journey Narang has said: “My journey with Urdu is a journey of ishq. Urdu was not my mother tongue; my paternal and maternal families spoke Seraiki. But I never realised that Urdu is not my mother tongue”.

His statement shows that the concept of mother tongue in a multilingual society like India is not an objective fact but an ideological construction, an important component of which is how the speaker chooses to define their identity. Narang proudly chose to define himself with and in Urdu. He wrote: “Meri pahchan jo bhi aur jaisi bhi hai, urdu ki badawlat hai.” My identity, whatever it is, is because of Urdu.

After Independence, when he began his scholarly journey, he was faced with the divisive political rhetoric on Urdu, which, unfortunately, continues in many circles even today. Many proponents of Hindi branded Urdu and its script as alien.

Narang, instead, described it as a “civilisational gain” from the linguistic and cultural contact with Muslims who spoke Persian, Turkish, and Arabic. He argued that Urdu is “that element of our shared cultural ethos that has shaped and groomed us over the years”. For him, it was a marker of Indian civilisation. Here, he was presenting an inclusive view of Urdu that was not predicated upon religious identities.

Urdu and Hindi

Narang wrote extensively promoting Urdu language and culture in post-independent India. After the Bihar government’s recognition of Urdu as a second official language in 1981, he made an insightful observation about the antagonistic attitude towards Urdu in post Independent India.

He said the challenges faced by Urdu were fiercest in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan, where Hindi is also spoken. By contrast, in states such as Maharashtra, erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka, the institutional support and political will for teaching of Urdu are better than the states where Hindi is a dominant language. He attributed this difference to some “misunderstandings” among the Hindi-speaking majority.

As a scholar, he was fully aware of the antagonistic attitudes that many politicians and educated people had, but to advance the cause of Urdu and not get trapped in the rivalry, he described that antagonism as a misunderstanding.

Narang did not see Urdu and Hindi as competing against each other. In fact, he argued that the growth of Hindi was Urdu’s growth too.

In a paper titled “Urdu, Hamari Urdu”, which translates to Urdu, Our Urdu, presented at a conference in Lucknow in 1981, he argued: “Hindi is our national language; we want that Hindi grows because if Urdu gets its rights on the national and civilisational levels, the growth of Hindi is our [Urdu’s] growth and its promotion is actually our [Urdu’s] promotion too”, because according to one estimate, about 70% of its words have come through Prakrit, which is Hindi.

He further reasoned that out of 40 sounds in Urdu, only six have come from Persian and Arabic while the rest are common between Urdu and Hindi. This holistic perspective is needed today more than ever before in the time of attacks on Urdu and other cultural symbols, for instance on the usage of riwaj, or tradition, in a FabIndia advertisement in October.

Urdu and its script

Another issue that Narang wrote stridently about was the script of the Urdu language. In the 1960s, some figures, including writer Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, proposed that Urdu speakers should adopt the Nagari script to amplify its reach. Narang opposed the proposal, giving sociolinguistic arguments.

In an article in 1961, Narang challenged the assumptions which underlay the proposal and the danger it posed to Urdu. One premise was that Hindi and Urdu were not different languages.

This ideology goes back to the early 20th century. Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi, the editor of the Hindi literary journal Sarasvati, described Urdu as a style, shaili, of Hindi. Narang argued, Yeh bat jitni sahih ai utni sahi nahin bhi hai. This statement is as true as it is not.

From the structural point of view, Hindu and Urdu are undoubtedly similar but during their evolution, the two languages separated. They should, therefore, be considered related and mustaqil, or independent, languages.

Gopi Chand Narang with Abdul Qavi Desnavi, an Urdu linguist and writer. Credit: Bpldxb, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

A second argument often put forth by the advocates of Nagari was, and continues to be, is that this would increase the reach of Urdu literature to those who did not know its script. Narang countered this saying that if this were true, Odia, Bengali, and Assamese would have the same script. He called for translation as a means to provide others access to the literary and cultural heritage of Urdu.

I have argued elsewhere that merely writing Urdu in Nagari does not really make it accessible to Hindi speakers. An understanding of the following couplet, even when written in Nagari, does not automatically become available to Hindi speakers:

Mojiza wo jo masiha ka dikhate jate, kah ke qum qabr se murde ko jilate jate

If they showed the miracle of Jesus, they would bring the dead to life by saying qum “stand up”.

To understand the couplet, one must be familiar with the cultural and historical universe within which this poetry was composed and to which it speaks. Without knowing of the miracle of Jesus Christ, known in Urdu as Eisa and referred to as masiha and his ability to resurrect the dead, it is impossible to understand this couplet.

Language diversity

Moreover, Narang contested the thesis that the adoption of one script will achieve national unity. He argued that India was a land of diversity and prescribing one script for many languages militated against the idea of rangarangi diversity.

The status of all regional languages is equal, and all of them must have the right to develop with their own scripts, he reasoned. He criticised those who described script as libas, or an outfit, which can be discarded at will. Instead, he described the script of Urdu as its khal, or skin, which is integral to the language.

At a time when individuals and organisations have adopted Nagari for Urdu and abandoned its original script, the best tribute to Narang would be to first to ensure that the language is given its due rights in the educational system, and second to protect Urdu from being skinned as it will not survive without its khal, its shield.

Rizwan Ahmad is Associate Professor of sociolinguistics at Qatar University. His Twitter handle is @rizwanahmad1.

A video by Rekhta Publishing in which Gopi Chand Narang talks of his love for Urdu.