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Getting personal with the last Maharaja of Punjab

Multiple narrative voices, streams of conciousness and digressing nostalgia are fodder for diplomat and novelist Navtej Sarna, writes Damini Purkayastha.

india Updated: Oct 10, 2008 22:34 IST
Damini Purkayastha

He says the desire to be a writer was always a part of him, even as Navtej Sarna, former spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, sat for the civil services exams. But he is quick to add that he also, always, wanted to be a diplomat.

“A person can want to be more than one thing,” he smiles. Most do, but seldom does anyone deliver with such panache.

Sarna’s latest novel, The Exile, is a historical novel based on the life of Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of Punjab.

Multiple narrative voices, streams of consciousness, snatches of memoirs and digressing nostalgia save the novel from the yawns of historical fiction.

He says he began working on the novel back in 1999-2000. “It is a story one has always been familiar with since childhood. It’s one those things that stays with you and doesn’t let you sleep at night,” he says about the story of Singh and his tragic life. “His story had not been told from an Indian point of view and it is needed to be done.” As Sarna says in the author’s note, “Whatever his faults, it seemed to me, he deserved better.”

And so Sarna chose characters like Mangla the maid, and Arur Singh, Duleep’s servant,who despite their minor roles in history but a front row view of it nonetheless. Their colourful vocabularies, awe-struck observations and wishful reminiscences keep the novel fast paced. “These voices come out of a tortourous process, one never gets it pat in one day, you play around and choose the most convincing voices. Mangla is a minor character but an important character in the Lahore court and using the fictional format was helpful in developing her character — Through her I could also bring in a lot of Lahore,” he explains.

This ‘process’ of writing is something Sarna says he developed over the years. “I learnt writing the hard way,” he says with pride recounting his days as newbie journalist. When in Delhi University Sarna wrote a student column called ‘Beyond The Ridge’ for the Hindustan Times for two years. “I did freelance writing, progressed to literary writing like book reviews, then wrote short stories and then I wrote novels. It was a long journey of discovering techniques.” Sarna says it was fortunate for him that both his parents were writers. “The wealth of our house were books.”

Shifting from diplomat to writer to has never been a problem for him. The trick according to him is not have a negative tension between the two roles. “No one in a demanding day job can afford to have a routine for writing. You reconcile to the fact that time has to be stolen, from sleep, on trains, on meetings, from family gatherings”.

He recalls that at the time he decided to join the Civil Services it was one of the few career options open to people.

“In our days there were very few options and if you didn't want to be an engineer, a doctor or a chartered account you sat for the civil services exam.” But it’s been a good run, and Sarna says he hasn’t had a day’s regret since.

Sarna dons his new role as Indian ambassador to Israel later this month, but that’s not an area he’s keen to talk about.
“Let’s not go there.”

Coming back to the novel — he explains over the years he made three to four trips to Lahore to get a sense of the place.

He read up on the documents of history and on several of Dupleep’s own writing in order to get a “flavour of writing for the psyhocologcal zone of the human.” He made several trips to the British Library in London, travelled to his country house and got a physical approximation of the places Duleep would have been at. “I walked the streets of Paris to get a feel of the houses and I even the visted his grave in England.”

Given all that research did he have a tough time deciding what to keep out? “There is a tendency to pack in everything you know as you don’t want it go waste, but you have to think of the reader who doesn’t want to be loaded.”

Finally, we ask the banal, but all important question. Who are the authors he reads? “Any serious literary writers… 20th century modern writers like Fitzgerald, Greene, Maugham…. Capote, Coetzee, from the Indian lot, everyone, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Vikram Chandra, Shashi Tharoor…”

Sarna has his own take on the whole ‘Indian-writing-in-English’ debate. “I think ultimately the Indian fiction, in any language, that will stand the test of time is one that has a universal appeal and not one that thrives on stereotypes.”