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Saturday, 17 November 2012

Prof Gopichand Narang -- an interview

A recent recipient of the Moortidevi Award given by the Bharatiya Jnanpith as well as the Sitara-e-Imtiaz given by the Government of Pakistan, Prof Gopichand Narang is no stranger to awards and honours. In a long and illustrious career as a teacher of Urdu, a writer and critic of depth and gravitas, an engaging and eloquent speaker, a tireless organiser of seminars, symposiums and academic interventions, an indefatigable champion of the cause of Urdu, Narang sahab has single-handedly done more for the cause of Urdu in India than many anjumans and associations. His list of publications is formidable, and so is his command over the intricacies of linguistic theory and cultural praxis. What is most heartening, however, is his lifelong belief in the innate ability of Urdu to build bridges, to forge interfaith harmony and emerge as the pre-eminent symbol of composite culture.

Tell us, how does it feel to receive this honour from the Govt. of Pakistan?
I was surprised.  Of course it was overwhelming.  One does not work for awards but if your work is recognized and especially by another country, it is extremely heartening. I am grateful to the Government of Pakistan and the people of Pakistan for the honour.

From your birthplace, Dukki in Balochistan to your present home in Delhi, does it feel like a long journey? Briefly, could you pick out a few important milestones along the way?
Traveling down memory lane is a painful journey; to be uprooted, to go through all that suffering and tragedy which was on both side of the divide, and to get settled in Delhi was not easy.  My father had opted for Baluchistan Revenue Service, my mother with nine young children migrated.  My love for Urdu took me to the historic Delhi College at Ajmeri Gate, where once Maulavi Abdul Haq used to teach.  From there to a temporary teaching position in St. Stephen’s College and then Delhi University and eventually to the University of Wisconsin, each milestone is marked with a deep sense of commitment and struggle.

The Doomsdayers have been predicting the ‘death of Urdu’ for a long time now, in fact for almost a century or more. What is your take on this? Do you believe that Urdu is dead or dying in India?
My sense of historical linguistics led me to believe that Urdu is at the heart of India’s lingua franca, structurally being akin to Hindi and Hindustani, my faith in the composite cultural genius of Urdu never faltered. Unfortunately, Urdu had been the victim of politicization and communalization.  This has created difficulties for Urdu in India, but Urdu being a dynamic language has been coping rather well with the changing reality.  I have never believed with the doomsdayers.  Urdu is a living entity in India but its place in the three-language formula and equal status with other regional languages in the school system especially in the North Indian States still needs to be guaranteed.  Hindi lovers and our policy makers have to realize that even today Urdu is a great source of strength to Hindi, and it is in the interest of Hindi to protect Urdu in plural India, because if Urdu is strengthened Hindi is strengthened. Further, if Urdu is strengthened our democratic-secular structure is also strengthened.

Has music, especially light classical such as the ghazal, helped?
Undoubtedly the Gazal-Gayeki has helped. The fact is that Bollywood movies, satellite TV serials etc. have played a historical role in sustaining the currency of Urdu.  But it is a dialectical process; Urdu being at the heart of the lingua franca in South Asia, plays its role in reaching out to the people, and in the process Urdu itself has benefited too. Urdu’s greatest strength is its power to connect; its appeal lies in its closeness to the medium of aam aadmi. The electronic entertainment industry has made liberal use of Hindustani, which is close to Urdu. But lately the ground is shifting; regional dialectal idiom is coming in more and more for innovative purposes and to meet the demands of ethnicity and grass roots identity.

Tell us, as a critic, theorist and literary historian, what, in your opinion, is the single most important quality for a language to not merely flourish but evolve? By that yardstick, would you say Urdu is an evolving language or a static one in India?
Had Urdu being a static language, it would have died long ago.  It is a dynamic language; it has been changing right from the times of Khusro and Kabir. Anis and Dabir’s Urdu is not the same as that of Ghalib. Similarly, it has travelled a long distance from Premchand and Firaq and Josh to Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Ahmad Faraz. Today Javed Akhtar's Urdu is different from Gulzar's and Nida Fazli's. It is an evolving language flowing like a river, changing its banks at times to meet the social demands. The present situation in both India and Pakistan is complex and the challenges are of different nature.

How do you think Urdu has coped in India and Pakistan in the post-1947 period?
In Pakistan Urdu is not the language of the soil. The natural speeches are Punjabi, Sindhi, Pushto and Bulochi. Urdu is a cultural-political necessity, and the link role it can play no other language can play. Both in India and Pakistan Urdu’s greatest asset is its highly cultivated idiom which is akin to the genius of common man’s speech.  Its (a) power of communication, (b) poetical idiom, (c) adaptability, and (d) aesthetic charm are its main characteristics and the main reason for its survival.

Would you agree that an enforced, almost cosmetic, Persianisation has done it harm rather than good? Has accessibility not become a casualty as language, especially of literary discourse, has become dense and opaque?
Persianisation of Urdu has always co-existed with the process of indigenization the nation. Technically, for different disciplines any language has to have a particular register. But if it has to serve the needs of the grass roots it has to be simple and close to the everyday speech of the people. The present problem is not only Persianisation but enforced Arabicisation for political reasons. Language is a social entity; whenever vested political interests try to interfere, things get distorted.  It is not a service but disservice to language.

Your work on structuralism and post-structuralism (sakhtiyat and pas-sakhtiyat) is considered your seminal contribution to Urdu criticism. In simple words, is meaning subservient to the act of creativity? Is there an inevitable and unbridgeable chasm between the intended and perceived meaning of any creative work?
The greatest contribution of the theory is the awareness that meaning is in flux. There is nothing given in meaning, essentially it is a socio-cultural ‘construct’. The meaning of every given word is another word and so on and so forth. It is the product of the differential value which is as much present, as much as it is absent, i.e. the meaning is not only produced by ‘difference’ but it is also ‘deferred’. There is no chasm between the intended and perceived meaning, but meaning by itself is differential. The creativity which is basically innovation plays on this difference. But actually it is the reader that causes the meaning to exist. Since the socio-historical context is infinite there can never be a finite or a fixed meaning. The author creates; the reader makes it exist. The beauty of poetry or art is that the play of the intended and perceived meaning goes on. If literature means the same thing to all readers at all times, then it is no literature.

What are you working on at the moment?
There are a couple of things which always go on. Presently, I am finishing a book on Ghalib, the greatest of Mughal Indian minds; I am trying to present a fresh, close reading, maybe raising questions about preconceived notions.

Finally, tell us what you make of the movement in India to make Urdu texts available in Devnagri? Can we splice a language from its script and expect it to live? Or, on the other hand, kya yeh waqt ka taqaza hai? In order to reach out to younger, fresher audiences, must Urdu agree to be written in Devnagri?
As you know, Urdu books are in great demand in Devanagri. This testifies to the plurality and the charm of Urdu fiction and poetry.  We certainly cannot splice a language from its script. At the same time, the phenomenal popularity of Urdu texts in Hindi is driven by the market; evidently, it is a matter of demand and supply. The commercial value is the driving force. We the Urduwallas must read and teach Urdu in the Urdu script. Our own script is self-sufficient and inevitable for us. Our school and college education is run in the Urdu script. We are not changing it, nor should we want to change it. Nonetheless, the fact of the matter is that this goes to establish that the structures of both these languages are the same and Urdu can be read in Devanagri and vice-versa. You can’t read Bengali or Tamil in Devanagri.

If the readership of Urdu is enlarging and if the younger, fresher audiences are hungry for Urdu books available in Devanagri, then for reasons purely lingual, can we stop the march of times, or the force of the market dynamics? The moot question is to take it as a plus point or a minus point? What we Urduwallas must do is further consolidate and modernize our Urdu education in the schools, colleges and universities in the Urdu script and take pride in our own heritage as this script links us not only with our immediate neighbour Pakistan but culturally links us with the whole of the Middle East. Our scripts are the signature of our plurality. The South Asian cultural situation has always been for multi-lingualism and diversity. Further, Urdu script, especially the Nastaliq and Naskh form are developed over centuries and are so beautiful to look at. Our calligraphies are part of the beautiful Mughal and Rajput miniature painting traditions.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis -- a review

Dum Maro Dum: The True Confessions of a Bombaiyya Opium Addict

Set in pre-liberalisation India (or to be more precise the Bombay of the 1970s before it became Mumbai and Maximum City), Narcopolis takes us into a world of dark opium dens redolent with the sickly sweet scent of dissipation and dissolution. Newly sent away from the Upper East Side, where he was caught stoned on downers and buying dope, our young man (a Syrian Christian from the southern state of Kerala like the author himself), finds himself on Shukla ji Street ‘new to the street and the city, separated by [my] lack of knowingness’. He finds himself at Rashid’s den where the transvestite Dimple initiates him to the etiquette of the pipe: of how to hold the pipe in relation to one’s body in a ‘lunar ebb and pull of smoke that filled first the lungs and then the veins.’ Discovering the big O boat, ‘sailing on its treacle tide’, he takes a long pull, settles down on a pallet and prepares to tell his ‘lovely stories’.

Appropriately enough, the very first chapter opens thus:

‘Before Dimple came to be called Zeenat, she worked part-time for Rashid and disappeared every evening to the hijra’s brothel. I smoked at her station even if other pipes were free, and we talked the way smokers talk, horizontally, with long pauses, our words so soft they sounded like the incomprehensible phrases spoken by small children. I asked the usual foolish questions. Is it better to be a man or a woman? Dimple said: For conversation, better to be a woman, for everything else, for sex, better to be a man. Then I asked if she was a man or a woman and she nodded as if it was the first time she’d been asked…’

What follows is a pastiche of images and ideas, people dead and living and a narrative that teeters between morphine-induced hallucinations and the gritty reality of life in the bylanes of Old Bombay. A somewhat inexplicable interlude in the China of Mao Tse Tung with references to workers’ centres and people’s revolution makes a small bump in the otherwise smooth ride on the highway to nowhere. Back in the backstreets of Bombay, Narcopolis resumes its heedless mindless journey from one drug-induced fantasy to another, from one erotic (mis)adventure to the next.

Twenty years later, the narrator – having introduced us to an eclectic cast of characters comprising madams, whores, pimps, pushers, poets, eunuchs and the flotsam and jetsam of the western world that ends up washed ashore in Bombay – settles down, with lit pipe, to tell the story of a ‘great and broken city’. The telling is important for it is only in the telling of this story that the past – a strange landscape that is ‘not fiction or dead history but a place you lived in once and cannot return to’ -- comes alive once again. A lot has changed in these years; from sailing the opiate sea of a chandu khana, the action has moved to harder drugs and harsher people.

Thayil is described by his publicists as a musician and a performance-poet; I must confess I am stumped by the latter moniker for I have grown up to believe poets to be second only to visionaries. This is Thayil’s first foray into long fiction and, again I must confess, for a first novel it is a clever book, cleverly written, for clever people. It left me feeling unmoved and, singularly, un-clever.

Also read:

1.     Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta (Random House, 2004), Part-memoir, part-travelogue, an intensely personal look at the city and its people

2.     Baumgartner’s Bombay by Anita Desai (Alfred Knopff, 1988):  A German Jew flees Europe to find a safe haven in Bombay where he lives in the company of stray cats

3.     Shantaram by Gregory Davis Roberts (Abacus, 2005), An escaped Australian bank robber and drug addict  finds a new life in the maw of Mumbai
This review was first published in The Herald, September 2012.