The first time I had met diplomat and author Navtej Sarna was at Elveden Hall, England, the former residence of Maharaja Duleep Singh. The Anglo Sikh Heritage Trail had hosted a dinner at the Durbar Hall, where Navtej Sarna had read excerpts from his novel, The Exile, which is based on the life of last the Maharaja of the Sikhs. Frankly, I had not been listening to his narrative, as I had been busy gulping wine and flirting with a pretty lady sitting next to me.
A latest interview with Navtej Sarna leaves certain statements by the diplomat and author resonating in Khushwant Singh’s mind. HT Photo
My second encounter with Navtej Sarna was a few days ago at a function organised by the Chandigarh Literary Society to launch his new book. I invited him to be my guest on a TV show that I have started hosting recently on a news channel. The conversation turned out to be an engaging interaction, as he shared his work, his diplomatic life, but ducked questions that had the slightest diplomatic overtones.
Son of a renowned Punjabi poet Mohinder Singh Sarna, Navtej’s latest work is a translation of his father’s Partition stories. Titled Savage Stories of Partition Harvest, it is a collection of 30 short stories. “Since my father was a witness to the carnage of 1947, he had been deeply impacted by the events,” said Sarna, explaining the contents of his seventh book. Yes, seven books is a daunting number, especially for someone who has an active career as a diplomat. “If you really want to do something ‘badly enough’ you can always find time and create a balance,” says Sarna.
We soon get talking about his acclaimed works, the translation of the Zafarnamah that Guru Gobind Singh wrote to Aurangzeb in 1706, and his novel, The Exile. “So, what was the challenge while translating the Zafarnamah?” I ask him. “The challenge obviously was to reflect what was meant to be said. Guru Gobind Singh in material terms had lost everything. He was out on his own with no followers or family and yet, he wrote this letter of victory to Aurangzeb. To translate it, one had to understand the context of it very carefully. Zafarnamah is not a letter written as part of a military exchange, but it is a different spiritual and philosophical framework,” he says.
“So, is the pen truly mightier than the sword?” I ask him. “Definitely, the ink lasts longer than blood. The Zafarnmah is a classic case where a person who is sitting with no swords, can still take a stand and write to Aurangzeb — you have lost and you need help. What the pen writes is remembered far longer. You can say — ink lasts longer than blood.”
We shift gears and move almost 150 years forward, to the era where a tragedy of great political relevance for Punjab was unfolding — the life and times of the last Maharaja of Punjab.
At the end of the epilogue you ponder whether Punjab will be left only with a memory of a Maharaja in exile. “How would you yourself wish for him to be remembered?” I ask Sarna? “Well, I want Duleep Singh to be remembered, in a well-rounded way. Very often, he is reviled; hated as somebody who changed his religion and left Punjab. He was clearly a man whose destiny was not in his own hands. He should be judged with a fuller knowledge about him,” replies Sarna.
“Sir Lepel Griffin in his book, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, claims that Duleep Singh was not Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s son. What’s your take on it?” I ask. “Record keeping being what it was in those days, these are questions that will very often remain open,” he says. “I have dealt with this question in the book, but, what is important is that Duleep Singh was Ranjit Singh’s acknowledged son. Whether he was his biological or acknowledged son, it makes him his heir,” helping me clarifying my own position on the issue.
I throw another question at him, which he astutely ducks under the diplomatic garb, a service he joined in 1980 when he got selected in the Indian Foreign Service. “Do you agree with the thought that Duleep Singh’s remains should be exhumed from the Elveden Hall churchyard and brought to Punjab for a befitting cremation, since he had become a Sikh again?”
“It is a very complicated idea and process, though it has been floated time and again. However, having said that, there certainly is a sad feeling when you visit the churchyard,” says Sarna.
I refuse to give up and ask him about the Kohinoor being brought to India. But the typical diplomat he is, he shrugs it off by saying — ‘That was a very difficult question to answer, both as a diplomat as well as a writer given the complexity of the issue.”
“So, what’s the latest you are writing?” I ask him, realising by now that he will only talk about his literary journey. “Since I was posted in Israel for almost four years, my new work is my personalised travel narrative about the Indian connection to Jerusalem,” he replies.
Even though we bid goodbye, his line — ‘Ink lasts longer than blood’ will remain with me for long.