"Ambassador's Zafarnama" The Hindu, March 17, 2011
"DISCOVERY OF INDIA IN COLONIAL BRITAIN"
"Navtej Sarna's book on the last Punjab maharaja ou... IBN
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Interview "Ambassador's Zafarnama" The Hindu.....March 17, 2011
Diplomat-author Navtej Sarna tells
SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY that the English translation of
“Zafarnama” is an extension of his interest in Sikh heritage
Navtej Sarna hopes to bring out a collection of short stories
book of gleaming 18th Century poetry in Persian; a celebration of
valour, probity and rejection of despotism; a journey into a sliver
of Sikh history, and, of course, an example to take lessons from
“when all has been tried, yet justice is not in sight….”
on what a reader is seeking, Sikh Guru Gobind Singh's 111-canto, “Zafarnama”,
has peels and peels of denotation and understanding to it. The
Guru's valiant voice trussed with poetic brilliance can equally hold
the interest of a bard with a throbbing heart and a soldier living
only by the strength of his word and the sword. So it is to be
expected that the book by the 10th Guru of the Sikhs has been much
feted by litterateurs over generations for its sheer versatility.
Navtej Sarna joins this coterie by dint of his recent English
translation of “Zafarnama” (Penguin India). So did his father,
writer Mohinder Singh Sarna, many moons ago, into Punjabi. Navtej's
fascination, however, travels further. His is the hunger of a
product of a largely anglicised education to discern his heritage,
to hook up to the roots. In this e-mail interview from Tel Aviv,
Sarna, Indian ambassador to Israel, throws light on his third book
on Sikh history. Edited excerpts:
one looks at the subjects of your books, the dominant pattern is of
Sikh history. Is it a way of discovering your roots?
is true that three of my books have drawn from Sikh history. You
could ascribe it to an abiding interest in one's own heritage and
the fact that the relatively short history has a wealth of drama,
struggle and adventure.
In your introduction, you have talked about the challenges of
translating an 18th Century Persian text to present-day English. How
did you tackle it finally? I was fortunate that I did a course in
Persian when I was posted in Tehran, and though that knowledge may
be rusty today I would not have been able to dream of attempting
this project without that background. It helped me know at least
that I was on the right track.
to the challenge of the text, one has to counter the distortions
that can creep in when a Persian text is transcribed into Gurmukhi
script. The historical bias of the copyists or the commentators adds
further confusion. Then, of course, the divergence of Indo-Persian
from classical Persian, of which I had to be particularly careful
when depicting the Farsi version as well as the English
transliteration in the book.
has been studied by litterateurs for generations. Did you take help
from any of those works?
the Introduction, I have relied largely on Harbans Singh's “Guru
Gobind Singh”, J.D. Cunningham's “A History of the Sikhs”,
Khushwant Singh's “A History of the Sikhs” and Patwant Singh's
“The Sikhs”. For the translation of the book, I relied on the
Gurmukhi translation by Bhai Vir Singh and also consulted
non-traditional translations of Christopher Shackle and Arvind-Pal
Singh Mandair in their “Teachings of the Sikh Gurus”. When lost,
I would turn for guidance to the free translation of it by my father
as part of his epic poem in Punjabi, “Chamkaur”.
stresses on morality against the backdrop of war and mindless
murders. How do you interpret this dichotomy?
immediate context of the “Zafarnama” is the betrayal of an oath
sworn on the holy book by the Mughal commanders. This is symptomatic
of the lack of moral fibre not only in the conduct of war but also
at the heart of governance in the Mughal Empire at that time.
“Zafarnama” holds up an uncompromising mirror to Aurangzeb and
at the same time spells out Guru Gobind Singh's vision of true God,
eternal values, qualities of leadership, valour, honour and so on.
It is written from a moral high. That is why it is called “Zafarnama”,
the epistle of victory, even when the Guru had lost men, family,
home and hearth — everything of temporal value.
being a work of verse, “Zafarnama” is also a celebration of
fearlessness. What impression has this exercise of translation left
has been an exhilarating experience. I have revelled in the rhyme
and cadence of its verses and the challenge of trying to find the
equivalent in English. Its fearless tone is uplifting. The moral
strength behind this fearlessness symbolises the spirit that brought
about a major spiritual renaissance, enabling ordinary men to die
like heroes for freedom, for equality, for dignity.
are you planning any other book?
certainly. And I hope it will be pure fiction, perhaps a collection
of short stories.
OF INDIA IN COLONIAL BRITAIN WITH
04, 2010 03:00 AM - Mail Today (India)
As the city prepares for Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, which starts on
January 7, the story of the Indian diaspora in colonial Britain
finds aplace of its own in a spate of new books
PAST never ceases to be present in the world of books. As the New
Year unfolds, it has resurfaced with its many tantalising
possibilities in the much-anticipated first big book of 2010. It's
the story of the tender relationship between Queen Victoria, who has
forever been a source of salacious tattle for historians, and her
Urdu tutor, Abdul Karim.
has been a mystery waiting to be unravelled. London- based
journalist Shrabani Basu got drawn into the unlikely love story
while writing about the history of curry in Britain. "I learnt
that Abdul cooked curries for the Queen, had been chosen to be her
Indian secretary and even taught her Urdu. I realised then how much
he meant to the Queen and how much she loved India," Basu says.
book, Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest
Confidante (Rupa), will be released on January 11. Her characters
are compelling: Here was the Empress of India with Abdul Karim, who
had come to London to wait tables during her Golden Jubilee
celebrations as a 24-year-old. Abdul had earlier served as an
assistant clerk at the Agra Central Jail. Within a year, he had been
catapulted to the position of the Queen's munshi —
became the object of jealousy in the royal household. The love story
was catalysed by the fact that the Queen was a widow, had lost her
favourite Scottish 'ghillie' (John Brown), and was too old to travel
to India —
loved. "Abdul, in a way, was India to her," says Basu.
over the Queen's letters, Basu found that she wrote to Abdul every
day, and would mark the letters with three Xs on occasions.
"She was friend, mother and companion to him," says Basu.
Close on the heels of Basu's book comes another Rupa title —
based on a relationship that never was, despite the Queen
conspiring with a battery of aides to make it happen. Victoria
Gowramma: The Lost Princess of Coorg by coffee planter and
engineering college administrator CP Belliappa is the story of two
blue-blooded Indians in London who had embraced Christianity. The
tale of an unknown Coorgi princess adopted by the Queen and the
exiled and effete Maharaja Duleep Singh has rescued an unplumbed
world from history's footnotes in a decade when everyone's obsessed
with vision of what lies ahead.
year, it was Navtej Sarna, India's ambassador to Israel, who was in
the news because of his book, In Exile: A Novel Based on the Life of
Maharaja Duleep Singh ( Penguin).
Sarna, " Duleep Singh and Gowramma were seen as exotic
which demonstrated the victory of the Empire, not only in political
terms, but also in spiritual terms." So swayed was Gowramma by
the British, says Belliappa, that she didn't regret the fact that
her godmother, the Queen's matchmaking efforts didn't result in
She wanted a blue- eyed lover —
who she got in Colonel John Campbell, three
decades her senior," according to Belliappa.
Basu and Bellippa's books aren't without precedence.
members of colonial Britain's colourful Indian community are
steadily being extricated from the woodwork and the passage of time.
who arrived in Britain on the wings of circumstance, have appeared
in paintings —
like the favoured Bengali maid of Edward Holden Cruttendon, an
East India Company nabob who had returned home from Calcutta in
1759. She appears in a painting by the acclaimed artist of his time,
Sir Joshua Reynolds. Then there was Sake Dean Mahomed, who opened
Britain's earliest curry restaurant ( Hindostanee Coffee House) in
1810, and became a part of his adopted country's folklore. And there
were others —
like Yusuf Khan, a high- ranking army official
from Awadh, or the writer- adventurer Mohan Lal Kashmiri —
who left behind
lively accounts of their interlude in a nation that had colonised
world comes alive, despite the academese, in Counterflows to
Colonialism ( Permanent Black), a seminal work by Michael H. Fisher,
a professor of history at Oberlin College, Ohio. The period Fisher
covers extends from 1600 to 1857, much before the time when the
wellknown stories of Dadabhai Naoroji, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal
Nehru unfolded. Nevertheless, his tapestry is crowded with servants,
sailors, scholars and sojourners whose passages through Britain had
blurred into obscurity.
CAST of characters includes sailor- servant- gentleman Joseph Emin,
who had befriended Edmund Burke much before the Englishman became
the famous parliamentarian and writer.
the obese and somewhat mad son of Begum Samru, David Ochterlony Dyce
Sombre ( 1808- 51), whose life oscillated between "
shagging" women and a stormy marriage, a parliamentary career
that lasted all of nine months, bouts of lunacy, and an unlamented
end in Boulogne, France.
story is no less riveting than that of the social reformer Raja
Rammohan Roy's son, Rajaram, who socialised with London's elite but
then spent his last days in Calcutta living in debt, managing to
keep his body and soul together by skimming off money from a fund
collected in the memory of his father's patron, Sir David Hare. Then
there was one of Tipu Sultan's younger sons, Mahomed Jamh ood- Deen
1842), whose life in London was spent schmoozing with the high and
mighty ( including King William IV and Queen Victoria) and lobbying
for a higher pension from the East India Company.
Singh was also bargaining hard with the East India Company and the
Government of India for a higher pension in accordance with the
Treaty of Lahore.
He was given the impression that everything Christian was fair. But
living in Victorian England, he realised the extent of his loss, and
the hypocrisy and cheating around him," says Sarna. This,
despite enjoying the confidence of Queen Victoria. The new
generation of English civil servants saw him as an irritant. "
Punch magazine carried cartoons depicting him as a buffoon,"
Khan, the Awadhi adventurer, may not have had a royal lineage, but
he had an eye for observation, which puts his travel account, Tarikh-
i- Yusufi, in a league of its own.
evaded the Royal Customs by hiring a small boat that took him, for
£ 5, to a small seaside village. He had his first physical contact
with an Englishwoman who was " fatter than a mountain,"
but thereafter he had better experiences —
some with amusing results.
one such occasion, Khan offered to share a coffee with a "
beautifullooking woman," but when she declined, saying "
another time," he said: " What confidence is there that we
will meet again?" Our continuing national obsession with gori
chitti women clearly goes back to those days when English women
unfailingly drew the Indian male gaze. I• their Journal of a
Residence of Two Years and a Half in Great Britain ( 1844), the
Parsi cousins Hirjibhoy Merwanjee and Jehangir Nowrojee wrote
sanctimoniously about the " swarms of well- dressed, highly
painted but unhappy females, who, having lost their virtue, resort
as a means of maintenance to the saloons of the theatres, and with
much wantonness draw young men into the snares of vice and misery of
which they themselves have been the victims." For expatriate
Indians, the exposure to contemporary English society also helped
remove the cultural baggage with which they had come. More than
anything else, they realised how women back home were being denied
their fair access to the world. " Every man constantly thinks
this purda bound life appropriate for the chastity of his
wife," wrote Yusuf Khan. " In truth, they restrain them
from knowledge and science." But something about the expats
remained intrinsically Indian. When Gowramma moved into England, her
father's entourage sprinkled the house with water drawn from the
Ganges. Duleep Singh tried to recreate the chambers of his Lahore
fort in his Elveden estate. " His drawing room was modelled to
look like Sheesh Mahal in the Lahore Fort. This, despite his
outwardly English lifestyle of hunting pheasants and partridges,
smoking cigars, and becoming a member of British conservative
clubs," says Sarna. For the itinerant Indian, life in 19th-
century England was an interesting mélange of cultures —
and it continues to fascinate
us, two centuries on.
bhattacharyya@ mailtoday. in neha. mehta@ mailtoday.in
Man Behind The Facts
Sarna explains why his novel about Duleep Singh is not a
Duleep Singh became the last king of the Punjab at the age of
five, and gave Queen Victoria the koh-i-noor diamond after the
British annexed his kingdom. In The Exile, diplomat Navtej
recreates Duleep’s turbulent and quixotic life as an English
gentleman, including the time he tried to return home and lead a
rebellion against the British. In an interview with ATUL
Sarna discusses why he felt compelled to write about Duleep Singh,
his relationship with the British, and his historical importance
Navtej Sarna in New Delhi
made you write about Duleep Singh, a relatively obscure historical
obscurity by itself is not a disqualification. In fact, sometimes
there is more of a need to tell the tale of obscure figures
because history may not have done justice to their dilemmas.
Duleep is one such figure; history has not been fair to his
a novel, and not a biography?
I am not a historian or a biographer. Besides, some journalistic
histories and biographies have been written but I felt that they
did not bring out the emotional or psychological dimensions of a
life that was actually full of drama and tragedy. A novel, I felt,
would allow the freedom to move behind the facts and explore these
did you research the story?
did a fair amount of reading — of the histories of the time,
memoirs by British writers, the other books on Duleep, files in
the archives, his private letters, visits to all the major places
that he stayed: Lahore, Elveden in England, Paris, Moscow. Also,
travelogues of 19th-century Europe, descriptions of old
Aden...anything that could give authenticity to the voices and to
isn’t only Duleep who tells his story. Why did you resort to
the story only in his own voice may once again have resulted in a
unidimensional picture. Besides, I wanted it told by narrators who
would convincingly know the part of the story that they were
talking about. For instance, Mangla the maid tells the story of
when Duleep was a very young child and had no idea what was
happening to him. Similarly, Carol Tevis the spy tells the story
from his own point of view, of which of course Duleep was
pp; Rs 450
comes through as a very conflicted person, at home nowhere.
If indeed he does, then I am glad because that was the facet that
I was trying to portray, the dilemma of a man who was in exile and
could simply not belong.
about his relationship with Queen Victoria? It comes across as one
between a mother and child.
the initial years in England, he was very close to the royal
family before the bitterness and regrets had set in. Victoria was,
indeed, very fond of him. He never really turned against her even
in the worst years of disagreement. Also, we must remember that he
was separated from his own mother for 14 years.
well-known was Duleep’s reconversion to Sikhism and attempt to
reach India at that time? Did it evoke any reaction at all?
supporters in India helped him to baptise as a Sikh again so they
obviously knew. He issued public proclamations of his intentions,
so his plans to come back and his appeals for support to other
Indian princes were also wellknown. And the British knew
everything as it happened.
was a pawn for the European powers, but how seriously did they
actually take him?
had supporters in Russia, in France — people who tried to
promote his cause. Perhaps because they had sympathy for him, or
perhaps because they saw his potential as a weapon in their own
fight against the British or supporters of the British. Even the
Czar noted that he could possibly be of use at some stage.
Ultimately, however, he did not get any serious support.
PRINCE IN TROUBLE
The Financial Express
Posted: Oct 12, 2008 at 0048 hrs IST
Updated: Oct 12, 2008 at 0048 hrs IST
INTERVIEW : NAVTEJ SARNA
Tragedies have a way of living on. And few
have matched those faced by Duleep Singh, son of the ‘lion king’
of Punjab, Ranjit Singh, who was made to sign away his kingdom to
the British before he was 10 years old. In an effort to make this
‘perfect Indian prince’ loyal to the British court, he was
separated from his mother and family, taken away to England, brought
up as a member of the English nobility.
Navtej Sarna provides layers to his torn life in his
novel, The Exile by filling in spaces not recorded by history. Suman
Tarafdar listened to him as the author explained why he chose
this tragic prince who became a favourite of Queen Victoria, later
turned away from the British Empire. But the prince never could
return to Punjab either despite living on in people’s memories,
instead dying alone in a Paris hotel.
How easy was it to write a novel on a
historical character? What about the usual charges of distortion etc
that are levelled?
I set out clear guidelines for myself when
I started by avoiding any distortion of history. The facts in the
book are all common knowledge. I have only added the human element
to these facts. What I have put is the sense of loss, regret,
bitterness, anger — and even these are not purely out of my mind.
There was a fair amount of material available — correspondence,
private letters, memoirs of Lady Login, under whose husband’s
charge Duleep was in England. The main characters already have
enough known about them, but it was characters like Mangla or Arur
who have been amplified.
Why did you choose Duleep and not his
father Ranjit Singh as your subject?
A lot has already been written on Ranjit
Singh. For my novel, I was looking for colour. Here’s a character
who is weak, has foibles, and is fractured by events. For me as a
novelist, that was far more tempting. My only concern was not to
anger historians. I had to decide how far back to go back in telling
this story. Going back 10 years was needed, for without this the
events of the book would not have made sense. The challenge was to
avoid doing it as history.
You give far more space to his mother,
She is closer to him. She is with him for
first decade of his life, before he is
taken away by the British. And, therefore in the novel too, she is
more of character for that period. She was separated from her son
for 14 years. Duleep did send a letter to her, and there is evidence
that it did reach her. It is only after the mutiny that the thinking
changed, and he was allowed to meet her, for which he travelled to
In her last few years, she instills a sense
of legacy for all he has lost, all he should inherit as part of his
private property, which has nothing to do with the treaty that he
had been made to sign as a child when he was made to give away state
property. It is this sense of loss that starts his correspondence
for private properties, which remained his lifelong struggle.
What about the weakness and fragility
that are so apparent in the ruling cliques of the time?
It is all accepted history. We know of the
deceptions and treachery that took place.
How long did you take on research and
writing? Did you rely on oral history as well?
About nine years totally. But I did do two
books in between. I read everything that was there on him. Oral
history was important and I tried to capture the huge form of oral
traditions. I had been hearing elementary stuff from my childhood.
You have the first person in the voice
of various characters. Was it easy to get under so many skins?
Each book must find its own
framework. This was the way I thought of doing this book.
October 10th 2008
the memory lane:
What is the book about?
The book tries to put in human terms the tragedy of Punjab's hero,
Maharaja Duleep Singh. It aims to show a shade of our own history
from a very normal point of view.
Punjab is a flourishing state, even after braving many
losses and massacres. What is the cause of its undying spirit?
This is true for all of India. It isn't the story of one prince, but
of everyone who struggled for the country. It is ultimately a people
whose spirit cannot be trampled upon, a spirit derived from a
search for our
identity, an invincible belief in our own roots.
What inspired you to write about a
maharaja of yore?
The dethroning of the Maharaja is a well known tale in Punjab. I've
heard it since childhood. The story kept gnawing at me for a long
time, because I wanted to know how the little boy felt at facing his
tumultuous life. It became an obsession, so I started researching on
A mix of fact and fiction... why?
I have used fictional devices to add feelings and sentiments to the
story, but no factual information has been distorted. Everything
that is history is original, only minor characters with major
narratives, like Mangla, the maid servant, is fiction, mainly to
depict vividly and closely the maharaja's life. Even these
characters are in tune with historical memoirs and writings, only
with added dimensions not written in history. Other situations, like
a snowstorm, have been creatively built upon to give colour. It is
meant to be read as a novel, not as a book on history.
Sikh projects, even a harmless
movie like Singh is Kinng, has attracted a lot of controversy. Are
My work isn't about bringing in politics of any religion. The
politics in this book is that of a long bygone era, so the question
Don't diplomatic strings bind you
from making comments on other civilisations, like your comment on
British imperialism in the book?
This has nothing to do with my life as a diplomat. Diplomats paint,
make music, write. They can't be held responsible for what history
Author: Navtej Sarna
Publisher: Penguin Viking
Price: Rs 450
Friday, 10 October 2008
Soliloquies Of An Exiled King
Interviewed by Sanjitha Rao Chaini
Duleep Singh's life has been one of the most intriguing topics
among historians. Navtej Sarna (50) has attempted to get
into Duleep Singh's thought process, the emotions the prince went
through in his "historical fiction" The Exile (Penguin
India). The book talks about the life of the last Sikh kings, who
changed his religion twice and who encountered deceptions and
injustice at every stage of his life. Sarna, a former MEA
spokesperson, will soon assume his new role as the Ambassador to
Israel. He tells BW Online's Sanjitha Rao Chaini the
reasons for writing this book and why it had to be in the fiction
What is the kind of research you took to write this book from
different points of view? When did you get the idea of writing
It has been on my mind for a long time and I have been actively
working on it for nine years. I had to really struggle as to what
I could do with the subject. We have had some non-fiction books on
Maharaja Duleep Singh. But they were not purely by Indians. And
they were restricted to whatever facts were available. I had to
struggle with what is the sort of format to work on.
For instance, since I was trying to do a novel I had to capture
the details. For instance, you knew that he stayed in Elveden, but
what did it feel like when he stayed there? What did he see when
he walked out of his house in the mornings? What was the weather
like? What was the scenery like? So, it was a lot of very wide
I walked around streets of Paris, into every house that he stayed
in. The man, at that point of his life, was really obsessive about
not staying in one place and also not telling people where he
stayed. I found the address and the roads. Very often, I found the
buildings were long gone. But you could imagine what it must have
I went to Lahore and walked around the fort several times. To get
what it is to look outside the fort, to see the river, to see the
brickwork on the floor of the fort. And somewhere all these go
into the descriptions. It has been a long research. Actually, I
started reading about the book much before my previous book came
out (2003). There were gaps. I was writing the other book and was
completely off this. Then I picked it up again. There was a lot of
reading to be done around the subject.
How did you manage between travelling/ researching for
the book and your job?
This is actually all the time taken beyond my job. Luckily, a lot
of my travel came work-related. For instance, I could not have
been to Lahore but for my job. We did have many visits to Pakistan
in the process and I took a few hours every time to look around.
Paris, I did it on leave. Moscow, I worked there, so I knew
What has been the response so far, from within the Sikh
I have never really thought it from the community view point as
such. The book is a broader subject purely than the Punjab and the
Sikhs. Yes, that is the core, but the book is beyond that. It does
involve the British Raj, Indians princes being usurped, Indian
provinces outside the Raj being annexed and the treatment of the
princes. It's a far bigger issue that we are looking at. He [Duleep
Singh] happens to be the last king of the Sikhs.
And also at a very human level, it was a story about someone who
had an extremely difficult and tragic life and the impact it had
on its personality. That was the main attraction to write the
book. You see the various kind of deception he undergoes and how
he reacts to them.
Having said that, there has been lot of interest in the book. The
Anglo-Sikh Heritage Trail is a week-long series of events that
they hold in England which actually commemorates events related to
Sikh history during British times. They had asked me to give a
talk on the book in London and they received it very well. So, I
think there is a considerable interest.
Do you think making it into a novel was an easier way out?
Not because I have done it, but I don't think it is an easier way
out. You see, one is to stick to historical facts that are known
and write the history — I am not a historian. So, I don't even
have pretentions to want to do that. I am not an academic, I
cannot even claim to do the kind of research that academics would
have done. I won't say it's lesser, or better, or worse. I won't
use any comparative terms.
I used the novel format for two reasons. A pure non-fiction work
does not allow you to bring in the emotional dimension. You cannot
say what he was thinking, what he was feeling. I could not explore
these dimensions in a non-fiction format. So, there are areas
where you can write what you want, purely in terms of what you
think he would have seen and would have felt. You can create
characters which are not major. Like for instance, the Mangla
character in the book. She was a historical figure, she was
actually a footnote in history. You don't know much about her. You
don't know what she thought. You know that she was extremely
influential, that she was the favourite of Rani Jindan. So, I had
to really invent her entire story. And I could give myself the
freedom to do that knowing it was not distorting history.
The line that I had to draw for myself was — yes, I will use
everything that is available in history and where it is not
available, I can create and fill in the gaps. The idea was to tell
Maharaja Duleep Singh's story from his point of view. Or at least
from points of view of people who would be able to throw some
light on the emotional aspects of his life and this was the only
way to do it.
So, how much of this is fiction and how much non-fiction?
I would say it's fiction. Fiction based on history. So, every time
when we are talking about any real events, they are all correct.
The dates, the places, the story in a sense — are all correct.
Where the fiction comes up is in the colouring of the minor
characters and the emotional aspects of the protagonist. But even
in this, where I could get history to shed a light on that, I did.
For instance, I used his letters to show what he felt at some
stages. I used his conversations recorded in the memoirs by Lady
Login. She writes, he came to me, he was laughing, he was feeling
like this. That is all history.
But it is difficult to draw an exact line in every paragraph
between fiction and non-fiction, as you end up mixing it. That's
the advantage of writing the novel. But what you can safely feel
is that history has not been distorted. I haven't changed
historical facts. I may have added some colour, but that's it.
This book evokes a lot of emotions. How did you find the
objectivity while dealing with the injustice of the British
towards Indian princes or the ways in which they treated Maharaja
Yes, that's true. But I wanted to bring out the fact that
annexation of Punjab was based on false premises. I wanted to
bring out the fact that Duleep Singh did not get the treatment
which was even agreed by the British in the Treaty.
There is no point in doing it with anger. I think that you have to
bring it out as an impact of characters through what happens to
them and how they manage to pick up the pieces of their lives. So,
it cannot be done as a political tirade. At least that's not what
I wanted to do. I wanted to bring it out without making it
Page after page, one reads only tragedies in the book. How did you
manage to stay detached while putting this down?
To be honest, you feel attached, and only when you feel it you can
write about it. So, I don't think I was detached. I suppose the
attempt was to let the tragedy come out to the reader without the
writer talking about it.
Why did you name it The Exile, especially when your book
says Duleep Singh went to England on his own?
First, I don't think he went completely on his own. He was only a
child, you must remember. And he was only a child when he
converted to Christianity and when he left for England. So he
would have wanted to go. He was almost tutored into thinking that
this was a better life.
Second, he was put into a situation where he had nothing left
here. He was a king, suddenly he had no kingdom left. He was
separated from his mother. And he had no religions left, no
servants that he grew up with. Each one of things were snipped
off. So there was nothing left to hold on to.
So, he probably must have thought, I may as well go. But it was
never with the intention of not coming back. He went to Mussouri
and he then left for England. In fact even, Lord Login had the
idea that he would come back and they would buy an estate in
Mussouri and live there. He had no idea that he wasn't coming
back. Thereafter, every time he tried to come back he was not
allowed to come back. So I think this was an exile.
By Manish Chand
Fri, Oct 10 10:14 AM
'Diplomacy jogs my mind, writing lets me live'
New Delhi, Oct 10 : Exile is the saddest thing that can happen to an individual, says diplomat Navtej Sarna, the author of a new novel on Punjab's last ruler Duleep Singh who died 'completely alone' in a cheap hotel room in Paris.
"When you lose your roots and identity, everything you are made of - your culture, history - it's a very sad happening in an individual's life," Sarna, who served as the external affairs ministry spokesperson for six long years and is set to take over as India's Ambassador to Israel, told IANS in an interview here.
Sarna confesses that his job as a diplomat has enriched his literary talents. His latest book, "The Exile", published by Penguin/Viking, hit the bookshops last month.
"Writing is a very essential part of my life and my living. Writing gives me an entire world in which to withdraw and in which to live in," said Sarna who now has four books behind him, including two novels.
But how does he find time to write amid the blithe chatter of cocktail parties and the serious business of diplomacy? "You do it once you want to do it badly enough," he said.
"There is a certain gypsy aspect to our life which is an extremely good catalyst for jogging your mind and opening your mind to new observations and ideas," said Sarna, who has travelled to more than 50 countries and represented India as a diplomat in places as far flung as Moscow, Washington, Warsaw and Thimphu.
Exile, with its emotional undertone of loss and homelessness, is not a state of mind one would associate with Sarna, the suave, decorous man who was the public face of the foreign office all these years.
But having consorted with the 19th century king Maharaja Duleep Singh and his cohorts in the privacy of his imagination for nine long years, the Punjab-born Sarna knows intimately "the loss of something left behind forever".
"The most tragic aspect of his life was that he was forced to stay away from home. The pathos of his exile was a very elemental part of his existence and of his appeal as a subject for a novelist," said Sarna.
"It's a story that had nagged at me since childhood. It came naturally to me," recalled the author when he first heard of Duleep Singh - "a child duped of his kingdom, a man who changed his religion twice, a king who yearned to come back to his people but never could" - from his mother 40 years ago.
The process of writing a novel based on a commanding historical figure was creatively challenging, but the author says he found a way out "to push available facts about Duleep Singh's story towards the realm of fiction, by pushing them gently, so as not to distort them."
"It involved a fair amount of research. Thoughts and emotions of Duleep Singh are based on what could be possible in different situations in which he found himself," recalls the author about his diligent efforts to forge "a fictional narrative that would fill the gaps left by history".
Did he hear the snarling hiss of historians warning him not to trespass into their turf as he set about reconstructing the life of Duleep Singh? "It's a novel that has tried to be true to history," is all Sarna would say, adding that the praise by celebrated writer Khushwant Singh, who has written "A History of the Sikhs", encouraged him to think he was on track.
"He (Duleep Singh) started off as a unidimensional cardboard box character, but as I wrote on, I discovered his fears, his loves, how he felt as a young man, problems in his personal life, his problems with the British government and games of colonial duplicity," he said. "In short, it helps me to understand him as a complete human being."
Wary of stereotyping, Sarna is not amused when asked about the "IFS school of writing" - a headline-grabbing tag that clubs together half a dozen Indian diplomats who have not allowed ponderous officialese to choke their literary talents. "If you are looking for a deeper connection, there isn't any," he said wryly.
For all his globe-trotting as a grey-suited diplomat, his favourite trip, he said, is always "that island of the soul where there is peace and writing can be a waking dream".
Interviewed by V. Sudarshan
India’s suave spokesman at the ministry of external affairs on his debut novel,
We Weren’t Lovers Like That
Q.Are you the first spokesperson at the MEA to write a novel while holding the post?
A. Probably not. And that's a comforting thought.
Q. How long did you take to finish We Weren't Lovers...?
A. Three years and another ten to get to the point where I could do it in three.
Q. Graham Greene did 400 words a day, Flaubert did eight. What's your average?
A. A daily word output is the enviable luxury of a professional writer. I write whenever I can.
Q. When do you find time to write now?
A. Honestly, I don't.
Q. Why a first person singular narrative?
A. It takes me deeper into the protagonist's mind, helps me sound more bitter, more lonely, reach for that last nuance.
Q. Do you identify with the novel's hero?
A. Like him, I went to school in Dehradun, and like him, I once took the
Shatabdi. But that's it.
Q. Are you a compulsive re-writer?
A. Sometimes I do. At times, I don't want to remove a comma from what I wrote in the first go. But in writing, you learn to kill your darlings.
Q. Do we see your short stories in print soon?
A. Just find me a publisher.
Q. Is the art of writing short stories dying?
A. I hope not. A good short story is like a photograph: it captures forever where something changes forever.
Q. What's your count of rejection slips?
A. I've not done too badly. I even have one from The New Yorker.
|Of love... irreverent, infidel
Navtej Sarna's "We Weren't Lovers Like That" is not a shot of heady rum but tickling dash of soothing gin which doesn't give us a bad aftertaste. OM GUPTA speaks to the author to know the real taste of love and all that goes with it in this new publication... .
IF NAVTEJ Sarna had not taken to writing, he might have ended up as a miniaturist. The graphic details with which he has filled his 214-page yet to be released debut novel, "We Weren't Lovers Like That" - published by Penguin India - speak volumes about his minute observations, sensitive portrayal, inner dimensions and above all how people around us behave and why.
The novel is set in contemporary lives but it has a timeless universal flavour of places, persons and things. Time moves, life goes on but nothing changes. Wives like Mina with their infidelities were always there and will always be. There is Rajiv, for whom she deserted
a 14-year marriage with the main protagonist (One won't call him the hero because there are no white heroes and black villains in the novel. All of them have been painted in different shades of grey like all of us).
Aftab is incidental. He takes us to a train journey from Delhi to Dehra Dun via
Saharanpur, Roorkee and Haridwar. And through this train ride he takes us to another journey - the one of his life. He narrates the events through people and places with microscopic precision without passing any
judgment in the process. With him Navtej Sarna is able to put together a tale that keeps the reader interested all the way through. Here is a conversation with wordsmith:
Q. It is said that all of us have a book in us. And those of us who choose to write are depleted after that. If they decide to write more then they repeat themselves. After writing your first novel are you feeling the same?
A. I am only too well aware of what you are saying. There is natural tendency to rework, usually unconsciously, the same emotions, the same obsessions. At the moment though I feel that I have put so much into this book that there may be nothing left. My other books in the pipeline therefore belong to different genres.
The second one is non-fiction and the novel in the planning stages is a historical novel. Both of them rely far more on research and fact than the present novel; they will be different.
Q. Is there any co-relation between the stopovers of your train journey and different phases of life?
A. Inevitably. As the protagonist passes through the train stations he relives, in the present, or the immediate past or in fact the distant past, aspects of his life. And one wouldn't reach a particular station if the train had not gone past the previous station. The past never leaves us, memory is always watching over our shoulder.
Q. You have left the quest of Aftab at an ambivalent note. Can we call it a mirage or you didn't want your readers to feel sadder?
A. I would imagine that when we leave Aftab he is moving towards a slim hope, fearfully, hesitatingly. It's never too late to hope, never too late to tell yourself that you should be doing what you really need to.
Q. How would you like your readers to remember your hero, an escapist, a week-kneed, emotional wreck, daydreamer, drifter or something else?
A. Perhaps he is all of what you say and yet he is something more. He is a man who has the courage, despite his obvious weaknesses, to face his own reality without flinching. His life in shambles, he can pick out his long held guilt and recognise it. He can understand that he no longer belongs to the world around him, his disconnection is complete and that he has to feel neither incompetent nor sorry. He has to simply state his own terms.
Q. At places you have caricatured and lampooned certain characters like Jamshed in the mould of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Is it because of an influence?
A. Perhaps. Sometimes caricature is the best way of making all the edges stand out and lampooning some aspects of our life was the best way of expressing the disgust that Aftab feels.
THE HINDUSTAN TIMES
|Demystifying Myths About
Interviewed by Meenakshi Kumar
There is something about the Ministry of
External Affairs and particularly about its spokesperson – many of
them have known to have discovered or sharpened their creative
skills while serving in the office. Either they have written books,
like Pawan Verma or discovered their singing talent like Nirupama
Rao. Navtej Sarna, the present spokesperson at MEA has also followed
in his predecessors’ footsteps by writing his first novel but the
only difference is that We Weren’t Lovers Like That (Penguin India)
was completed much before he took up his new assignment.
“The book had been in my head for years but it was largely during my
stint as a press officer at the Indian Embassy in Washington that I
wrote this novel,” says the soft-spoken Sarna as he takes a break
from his rather pressurised job at the MEA.
The novel is a story about a 40-year-old man, jilted by his wife and
on his way to Dehradun trying to run away from his present problems
with a distant hope of reclaiming his long-lost love. “It’s
basically a story about the twists and turns of relationships,” is
how the Shri Ram College of Commerce product sums up his novel.
Writing, incidentally, has been in his genes. Both his parents have
been literary figures – his father, late M.S. Sarna, an Indian Audit
and Account Service officer, was a respected name in Punjabi
literature while his mother Surjit Sarna, has established herself as
a reputed translator. So, for young Sarna, it was growing up in a
house where volumes of Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham rubbed
shoulders with the best of Punjabi literature. Naturally, Sarna took
to writing early, beginning it with Hindustan Times when he reported
on the Delhi University campus and later wrote serious feature
stories for the newspaper. That was nearly 20 years back. Opting for
the Civil Service didn’t stop his love for writing as he continued
with short stories and articles for various newspapers. “The reason
I chose the Indian Foreign Service was because it provides a rich
bank of experience, from which one can draw later on for one’s
writings,” explains Sarna, who is also an amateur photographer. “In
fact, travel unloosens the creative spirit.”
Fiction is actually an escape from the drudgery of state politics
and complex international affairs that form a large part of Sarna’s
life. And even if his present job doesn’t leave him with much time,
he has his next novel – a historical one this time – already worked
out. And in between, he has already completed Book of Nanak for the
Penguin series on saints. And that certainly wouldn’t be the last
from Sarna, if one trusts his literary genes.