Reading Navtej Sarna’s stories is akin to sitting at home on a winter evening with a rug around your feet, sipping warm tea. Sarna is almost Ruskin Bondish in his narrative abilities and can weave magic from the ordinary. The stories in Winter Evenings , though varied in theme, share a poignancy of tone and delicacy of narration. This said; some are more dramatic and intense than others. “A Death in Winter”, for instance, is a powerful tale about partition, the “season of axes and swords and daggers” and of one woman’s traumatic journey through it, her strength, her endurance, and her eventual collapse.
Apart from the more common virtue of being able to universalise the particular, this story possesses another, altogether more special, virtue. It lures us away from its own centre, thereby gesturing towards it. Sarna tricks us into believing that the whole point of the story is that the protagonist should have really died in winter; that such a death would have been better, more appropriate and fitting. But, of course, there is much more to the story than this. And that something is obviously too terrible to face head on so much so that both narrator and reader are forced to shut their eyes as it approaches.
Sarna returns to the theme of Partition in “A Golden Twilight” but, while this too is from the perspective of an older woman who has experienced the horrors of the country’s division, the resolution and the tone are altogether different. Here too, Sarna takes his time to get to the point. This is no in-your-face story either. For that matter, none of the stories in this collection is. Every story has its own quiet way of posing a question or of suggesting an answer. Each brings with it a certain stillness, the promise that, though all may not be well with the world, there is pleasure to be had in making sense of it.
Quite a number of stories are about love and the loss of love: “Raya”, “The Masterpiece”, “It was Drizzling in Paris”, “Sunrise at Mashobra”, “Brute”, “A Saturday Lunch” among them. “Raya” is eminently readable, though its narrative line tends towards melodrama — a dying woman trying, after a gap of many years, to trace the man she has loved all her life. “Brute”, with its dramatic ending, is a high impact story. “The Masterpiece”, a story about an artist’s meeting with the widow of another artist, is one of the most perfectly crafted short stories in the collection, its prose quiet, almost lyrical: The writing table had been cleared and the books were stacked away in a corner. I felt a sudden sense of loss as if somebody had cleared away my room without asking me. There didn’t seem to be any conversation left to make. I had brought along a canvas to show her, and I unrolled it. She held it where it caught the light from the candles. For a long time she stood silently and stared at the scene of heavily clothed people filing out of a rough wooden church and stepping out into the thick snow.
Sarna has also obviously mined his working life for story material and there are some stories of “professional/official life” in the collection. Mr. Krishnan of “On Official Duty” is among his most memorable characters. The story begins thus: Mr.Krishnan was a senior officer in the government. Everything about him testified to the fact. He was neat and tidy. He was meticulous and organized. He was careful with his words and his money. He was deliberate and restrained, almost slow in his reactions. It did not matter whether the question was about the next major change in the country’s environment policy or simply about the best flight to take to Geneva. His mind, trained through thirty three years of a demanding bureaucratic career, would go through the automatic process of weighing the pros against the cons, and the decision, mature and well-considered, would eventually present itself.
The even rhythms of the prose mimics Mr.Krishnan’s perfectly balanced temperament. As in some of the other stories though, this balance is all set to change, even if only momentarily.
Sarna’s stories transport you quietly and without much fuss to a snowy winter evening in which everything is felt more keenly.
Winter Evenings: Stories;Navtej Sarna, Rainlight/Rupa, Rs.350.