Navtej Sarna, author-columnist and diplomat, tells the essential thing is to remember that you are writing about human beings; and they don’t change too dramatically over centuries
Navtej Sarna speaks as he writes — in clear, crisp sentences with a pleasing cadence. The diplomat’s love for writing led him to author works of fiction and non-fiction, including We Weren’t Lovers Like That, The Exile, The Book of Nanak and Zafarnama, a work of translation.
Winter Evenings, his latest collection of short stories, takes the reader “through the landscapes of Geneva, Paris, Moscow, Delhi and Bombay”. Winter Evenings is set in places Sarna has travelled to or lived in. “Some of the scenes came back to me from those places,” he adds.
How did he transition from writing novels to writing short stories? “I learned how to write short stories first before I learned how to write novels,” says Sarna as we chat over a cup of tea, a day before his novel is to be launched in Bangalore. “Some of these stories were actually written in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I got a chance to put them together recently,” says the former Ambassador to Israel.
Sarna evocatively captures the nuances of human nature in each of the stories; he believes that the form of the short story makes it possible to do so. “A short story is one picture of life in one moment. Short stories, in fact, stay with you much more than a novel. A short story is a very concentrated moment of emotion, which when captured in its entirety, transforms into an eternal moment. In short stories, a writer must capture the consistencies and inconsistencies of human nature. Fiction can only be convincing when the reader can recognise the consistencies and inconsistencies.”
The stories in Winter Evenings are united by a mood. “The title evokes scenes of winter evenings sitting around a bonfire listening to stories. The stories are also set in the hills and cold countries. The atmosphere the stories can be told in is the theme of the book.”
Sarna has written about historical characters, but it is the ordinary person he finds most interesting. “The essential thing is to remember that you are writing about human beings. Human beings are the same; their reactions remain the same no matter which century they live in. I try to keep the human being as the central focus of the story.” And how do stories take shape in his mind? “It starts with something happening to somebody — it could be snatches of a conversation, it could be a memory, it could be flash of a face.”
Sarna says that writing non-fiction can at times be constricting. “You have to be very strict about what you are writing. Fiction, on the other hand, gives the writer freedom to go beyond actual fact; it is an escape into imagination.” Research is central to Sarna’s works. “I like to have a complete picture before I move into a project. I feel incomplete if I don’t have a 100 per cent, out of which I can write 10 per cent.”
Sarna’s works on historical characters is a very humane representation of them. Duleep Singh, son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the last Maharaja of Lahore, for example, has been portrayed favourably by Sarna. “In The Exile I mostly stuck to the facts, but I tried to fill in the psychological and emotional elements. Duleep Singh has been relegated to footnotes in history; he must have had feelings and aspirations too, which I have written about.”
To Sarna, Duleep Singh was a hero in his own right. “He fought against the loss of control over his religion, his political identity had been taken away; he had no reference points in his life. The fact that he realised this makes him a hero. He may not be a victorious hero, but he is a hero nonetheless.”
Sarna is next working on translating 30 partition stories written by his father, Mohinder Singh Sarna, from Punjabi to English. “My father lived through the Partition. Translation is a genre by itself. The challenges are in translating those words that even Punjabi speakers these days are unaware of. It has been a rewarding experience translating these stories,” says Sarna who grew up with conversations over writing, and with books which made him want to write, more than anything else.
Winter Evenings has been published by Rupa and is priced at Rs. 350.