By Rahman Abbas
Urdu literature is known for its great tradition of poetry in the form of Ghazal, Marsiya, and Masnavi, along with the great tradition of Dastaan. The novel, short story, and poetry (free verse, blank verse, and prose poem) have all imbibed Western influences. The same is true not only of Urdu but all the Indian languages. As far as literary criticism is concerned, the rhetorical basis is transformed from Perso-Arabic tradition, but the later poetics and formalistic structure and ideological tools are Western. Most Indian languages have their poetics based in Sanskrit but Urdu is a hybrid language. It benefitted from both Perso-Arabic and Western traditions. There are no original thinkers who have impressed the world of Urdu by introducing a new theory or tools to test or understand the paradigm or poetics of literature. The history of Urdu criticism is the history of transplantation, translation, and implementation of tools of Western thinkers and theorists. However, there are a number of mediocre critics who had compiled forgotten texts, wrote commentaries, interpreted poetry, and collected accounts of the lives of poets or storytellers or explained figures of speech. Despite the absence of any original tradition of criticism, Altaf Hussain Hali (1837-1914), Mumtaz Shirin (1924-1973), Muhammad Hasan Askari (1919-1978), Gopi Chand Narang (born 1931), Waris Alvi (1928-2014), and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (born 1935) have extensively contributed to the genre. They are considered the most influential literary critics of all times in Urdu.
Altaf Hussain Hali lived in undivided India and is known for his biography of Mirza Ghalib, Yaadgar-e-Ghalib and Muqadama-e-Sher-o-Shairi. Mumtaz Shirin and Muhammad Hasan Askari were important literary critics soon after independence. Now, they are recognized as the champions for the movement for Pakistani literature. Earlier they were respected for bringing fresh thinking to Urdu and standing firm with Saadat Hasan Manto, when he was slammed with obscenity charges for his short stories. Gopi Chand Narang, Waris Alvi, and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi have later emerged as the major critics in post-independence India.
In the 1960s, the latter group started exposing the propagandist and programmed agenda of the progressive movement and advocated ‘modernism’. But the perception – ‘what is modern’ –divided them soon. Faruqi launched his magazine, Shab Khoon, in late 1960s and promoted every formless, vague, and meaningless piece of prose in the name of literature just to stop the surge of progressive writings which was more concerned with the people, nation, society, and the working class. This Urdu modernism gave way to absurdity and was devoid of the flavor of identity, culture, societal realities, issues, and the nation. This fashionable and artificial absurdity damaged the popularity of Urdu modernism. Narang’s roots from the beginning were in the cultural studies and linguistics. Instead of absurdity or alienation, he insisted on a model that could meet the social and cultural needs of modern Indian conditions. He maintained that Urdu poetry stood firm with its great tradition and adapted itself with the freshness introduced by modernism, and that no one can state that Ghalib, Mir, Anis, or Nazeer were less modern than the copycat artificial modernists produced under the influence of Shab-Khooni movement.
The fake and artificial modernism in Urdu tried to influence the craft and aesthetics of fiction. The absurdity, formlessness, meaninglessness, and artificial dilemma of the self was not a natural or cultural tradition of Urdu fiction. Hence it generated resistance and repulsion. Despite the attacks on realism, the heritage of Premchand, Saadat Hasan Manto, Rajindra Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander, and Ismat Chughtai became a reality. The humanitarian motif and an attention to social conditions overwhelmed Urdu fiction and gave a shape to its aesthetics.
When fake modernism seemingly started to mislead the younger writers, Gopichand Narang was the first to resist the meaninglessness, alienation, and absurdity on social and cultural grounds. It has been well documented in his book, Fiction Shariyat: Tashkeel and Tanqid. Similarly, the fierce Waris Alvi who had great command over Western literature wrote a book, Fiction ki Tanqid ka Alamya to expose how Faruqi’s concept of modernism was ill-conceived and in contradiction with the poetics of literature. The debate on the aesthetics of fiction not only divided critics but also authors and poets in Urdu. I have witnessed this divide as a writer and student of Urdu literature. Although Narang organized all-India seminars on the changing literary scenario in Jamia Millia Islamia and later at Urdu Academy, Delhi, and wrote extensively and made frequent presentations on the subject, this divide turned bitter when in late 1980s and early 1990s some of the most important fiction writers denounced the fake Urdu modernism. Apparently these fiction writers had the backing of Waris Alvi and Gopi Chand Narang. These critics revisited Premchand, Bedi, Manto, Krishan Chander, Ismat Chughtai and redefined the aesthetics derived from the cultural history and ethos of the Indian civilization. Though Faruqi later shifted his attention towards the study of Dastaan and wrote a collection of short stories and two novels in support of his concept of ‘The Tahzeb of Urdu’, to create an aura that the Urdu Tehzib is different and superior, Narang saw this as a sectarian divide. He maintained that this too was a fake thesis as no Tehzib is outside the scope of pluralistic Indian Tehzib. Ironically, Faruqi didn’t practice in his fiction what he had preached as a critic. His fiction is in the traditional craft.
Around this time, Gopi Chand Narang started writing on postmodernism and for the same purpose he referred to Western thinkers such as Saussure, Roland Barthes, Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Fredric Jameson, and others. All of them were not only concerned with the nature of language and meaning, but with social conditions and also the nature of being. They were subversive and focused on human condition, power, and social conditions. However, it is important to note that Narang’s work on theory and postmodernism is not his only identity in Urdu literature. He obtained his fame and place as the top most living critic with his seminal cultural and linguistic works such as Hindustani Qisson Se Makhuz Urdu Masnawiyan (1971), Saniha-e-Karbala Ba-taur-e-Sheri Isti’ara (1986), Amir Khusro Ka Hinduvi Kalam (1987), Adabi Tanqeed and Usloobiyat (1987 ), Usloobiyat-e-Mir (1985), and Ghalib: Maani Aafrini, Jidaliyati Waza, Shunyata aur Sheriyaat (Ghalib’s Thought, Dialectical Poetics and the Indian Mind) – in my view his greatest – published by Sahitya Akademi in 2013. The latter was praised by eminent figures in literature like Intezar Hussain, Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, Iftekhar Arif, Saaqi Farooqi, Zafar Iqbal, Anwar Sen Roy, Nasir Abbas Nayyar, Shafey Kidwai, Farhat Ehsas, Mirza Khalil Beg, Rakhshanda Jalil, Satyapal Anand and scores of others. Lately this book has been translated into English by Surinder Deol of Washington D.C. and published in 2017 by Oxford University Press, as Ghalib: Innovative Meanings and the Ingenious Mind. I’m of the opinion that this book is the finest work of criticism in the history of Urdu literature and there is no other book as scholarly and seminal as this text.
A critic of Narang’s calibre was accused of referring to the quotations of the Western authors without giving the due credit to them in his work, Sakhtiyat, Pas Sakhtiyat aur Mashriqi Sheriyat, (Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Oriental Poetics, 1993), for which he was conferred the Sahitya Academy Award. I wanted to revisit the whole controversy to know the facts. I was aware that nobody was interested in this issue anymore, and if it was a conspiracy to challenge the credibility of Narang, it failed. However, in my view, nothing is stale in the history of literary criticism, especially if it is about an eminent intellectual. In my search, I came across an interesting issue of a magazine, Jadeed Adab (Editor, Haider Qureshi, Issue No-18, January to June 2012).
Haider Qureshi had published the article by Imran Shahid Bhinder in which Bhinder had alleged that Gopichand Narang had referred to the quotes of the Western theorists but didn’t give the credit to the same, or below the text. The magazine itself convincingly states that that Bhinder, who earlier was Haider Qureshi’s close friend, is a dishonest person who had cheated readers and also the editor of the magazine, and had conspired to malign the credibility of Narang in India. In this design, a bunch of people covertly or overtly affiliated with the Faruqi group of modernism took part enthusiastically to appease Faruqi. Qureshi claimed that critics such as Altaf Hussain Hali, Shibli Naumani, Allama Niyaz Fatehpuri, Dr Muhiuddin Zor, Hamidullah Afsar, Sajjad Qaqar Rizvi, Dr Salim Akhtar, Malik Hasan Akhtar, Waqar Azim, and many others had followed the same pattern, i.e., used contextual information in their own language. Here, we may differ on the principal argument (so, let’s keep it aside) but the question is: if over a dozen critics in Urdu had followed a pattern, then why only one of them was targeted and victimized?
Qureshi has given a very interesting title to his essay exposing Bhinder, “The Story of Cheating and Plagiarism of Imran Shahid Bhinder.” In this chapter of the magazine, his piece “Phalsafi ki Nau-Jawani and Sheela ki Jawani” is most revealing. This indicates that in the beginning of the controversy Qureshi was unaware of what was happening in India on the ground level between the circles of Shab Khoon school of Urdu modernism and those who were looking for something new, whether postmodernism or something else. Qureshi confessed later that the fundamental point in the backdrop of the controversy was not plagiarism, but enmity against Narang.
It was shocking to read in the magazine that after giving space to fake and biased articles of Bhinder, the editor was exposed to something terrible. In the light of the accumulated facts, Qureshi ruthlessly exposed Bhinder and gave evidences that Bhinder was involved in the same practice against which he was wrongly accusing Narang. Qureshi had furnished evidences of plagiarism by Bhinder and challenged him to give explanations if he had any. (The fact appears to be that in the beginning some people joined hands in this campaign of maligning and deriding an Indian writer, but later they split and Qureshi gave out the facts and exposed Bhinder). Moreover, Qureshi questioned Bhinder’s integrity and his character by informing readers that Bhinder made false and wrong claims about his academic credentials and stated that Bhinder’s changing stances made him believe that his knowledge of Western philosophy and Urdu criticism was but poor. Again, to my surprise, Bhinder was rejected by none other than Faruqi himself, when he realized that the allegations made by Bhinder in fact had no grounds against Narang. In Urdu, not much attention was paid to this mud-throwing. But a few who had personal disagreement or rivalry or jealousy, and a few sectarian allies of Faruqi had tried to blow the issue out of proportion. C.M. Naim, a close friend of Faruqi, believing that Bhinder was right, took a leading part by writing in English and misguiding the on-line readers. Since he is located abroad, many thought he was right, without verifying the facts.
Later when Qureshi and Bhinder split and Qureshi let the truth out and exposed Bhinder, many people, who were encouraging Bhinder, were shocked, especially C.M. Naim himself and his friend Muhammad Umer Memon. They wrote sympathizing letters to Qureshi lamenting the loss of credibility and feeling sorry. Qureshi has also published these personal letters in this journal. Umer wrote that ‘the whole controversy was a wasteful undertaking’ and C. M. Naim stated that ‘whatever you (Qureshi) have written about Bhinder has disturbed me. Certainly, your allegations (against Bhinder) are not baseless. It really is saddening.’
Going through the Jadeed Adab issue has opened my eyes and provided an insight into the unwanted controversy, blown out of proportion. That was not the end. Soon I found two exciting articles in defense of Narang, the first one by a professor of Aligarh Muslim University, Maula Bakhs, and the second by eminent Bombay scholar, Shamim Tariq. Maula Bakhs has rejected allegations leveled by C. M. Naim in his article published in an online blog. In July 2009 against the backdrop of the controversy, the Outlook Magazine wrote that all allegations against Narang were like ‘endorsing a malicious, baseless and sectarian campaign against an eminent scholar.’ In his piece, Bakhs opined that the controversy was the result of personal rivalry and jealousy as Narang in fact ‘has acknowledged all his sources in his bibliographies at the end of each section, and given the names of the philosophers under each quote, and had not infringed any copyright of any sort.’
Moreover, the following paragraph from the article of Maula Bakhs sufficiently explains his argument:
Contrary to the irresponsible allegations, Narang had categorically mentioned in the ‘Preface’ of his book that the theory and theoretical discourse belongs to the philosophers and theorists whose names are mentioned, he was only introducing, interpreting and giving the gist of their thought with due credit in Urdu. And all such writers and their works are acknowledged and cited with an asterisk mark in his Chapter-wise Bibliographies. He has given full credit to theorists and has made it clear. In his words “Only the interpretation and explaining (in Urdu) is mine. I am conscious of the deficiencies of Urdu expression as Urdu lacks the necessary contemporary terminology as well as the precision and rigour of the original writers. The basic texts and sources, their titles with full publisher addresses and years of publications are mentioned as far as possible at the end of each Section of the book so that the inquisitive reader may go to the original theorists and sources for deeper thought and further study” (Narang’s Preface, P.14). It is quite evident that Narang is hardly claiming any credit for himself as he has given full credit to the original theorists and their seminal works. Naim and associates deliberately and wilfully ignored these facts, Naim did not mention Narang’s Preface, or Bibliographies, or Quotes with author’s names, because otherwise his malicious and baseless charge would not stick.
Similarly, in his letter to the editor, “Kargas Ka Jahan Aur…,” Shamim Tariq had also refuted allegations against Narang and portrayed Bhinder as a sectarian and biased scribe, who had gone all out in his effort to malign Narang.
It is also worthwhile to note that most of those who were maligning Narang had not read the book from cover to cover. Western theories are only half the book, the other half is on Oriental Poetics, i.e., Sanskrit and Perso-Arabic Poetics, and how to construct a new model of literary criticism for Urdu that suited the Indian pluralistic social and cultural conditions. Narang has discussed ancient Indian influences on Western theory as conceded by Robert Magliola and Harold Coward, especially his chapter on ‘Derrida and Nagarajuna’. Thus, Narang not only discussed the roots of Western postmodernism, in the second half of his book he set up a East-West theoretical dialogue to work out a new model of literary criticism to meet the demands of the changing social and cultural conditions in India. This section is his most seminal contribution, but Naim and adversaries deliberately did not mention it.
When I read further about the controversy, I understood that it was a sinister and denigrating campaign to discredit and malign Narang for his strong position against the school of misguided Urdu modernism, which he had challenged decades ago. He had openly criticized the fake modernist camp which wanted to control the democracy of literature. Unfortunately, Urdu modernism was celebrating literature sans questions of identity, national politics, societal realties, and political consciousness. Even today, the Urdu modernists sound as if they are anti-democracy of literature, and are always unnecessarily critical about realism in fiction. They are, in fact, obsessed with absurdity and formlessness. They caricatured Premchand, tried to find faults with Manto, condemned and discarded Krishan Chander for his social realism, and some modernists even tried to deride Quratullah Ain Haider and Ismat Chughtai for their social and progressive views.
I mentioned in the beginning of this article that the poetics and the characteristics of Shab Khooni Urdu modernism had not only alienated critics but also divided writers and poets. It could be easily tracked down now by reading the literary criticism written by those who breathed under the influence of this type of fake Urdu modernism. This criticism is prejudiced against progressives and many neutral fiction writers who have been cunningly avoided. Space was accorded to only those who were in praise of this fake modernism. The circle of Urdu modernism only eulogises a novel of Faruqi, which by no standard is better than the historical narrative jotted down by William Dalrymple. This also indicates prejudice and short-sightedness of Urdu modernists.
It is unfortunate that Narang was targeted by a gang of sectarian and biased literary scribes. It seems Narang was hated for his religious and cultural identity. A malicious campaign was run by a few settled in the Western countries to appease the camp which was against Narang in India on the ground of having a different outlook, a different perspective on literary leitmotif and theories. History will judge Narang and Urdu modernists in better light, when all the opportunist circles would vanish, including the theories. If Narang, in my understanding, is to survive in Urdu literature, he would survive for his unmatched work on Ghalib, Iqbal, Anees, Amir Khusro, Faiz, Bedi, and Manto, and his essays on the aesthetics of fiction and cultural history of Urdu poetry, especially ghazal, masnavi, and nazm in the context of freedom struggle of India. But I’m happy that eventually Narang, without stooping to the level of joining baseless polemics, on his own strength, survived an unethical, malicious, sectarian, and ideologically motivated and totally biased campaign which was designed as a nefarious character assassination campaign.
 Derrida on the Mend, Purdue, Indiana UP, 1984.
 Derrida and Indian Philosophy, New York, SUNY Press, 1990.
Rahman Abbas is twice State Sahitya Academy award winning novelist. He writes in Urdu and English. He is author of seven books including four novels. He was one of the authors who had returned their awards, while protesting against the atmosphere of hate in 2015.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘The importance of being a flaneur today’, edited by Maitreyee B Chowdhury, author, Bangalore India.