His new book Winter Evenings has just entered the stores. Obviously then, the conversation opens with it. The mid morning sun is raising its head, spreading its soft rays unevenly on the lawns of the India International Centre, and he recalls as we settle down, “We are occupying the same seats the last time we met.” It was to chat on The Exile, his fictionalised version on the last Maharaja of Punjab, Duleep Singh.
Since then (2008), a lot has happened in Navtej Sarna’s life, both as a diplomat and as a writer. He has returned recently to New Delhi after serving as the Indian ambassador to Israel for four years. Concurrently, his career as a writer swerved into newer genres after The Exile, a novel. He brought out two non-fictions and translated Zafarnama to English. And now is time for Winter Evenings, short stories he has written over a period of time, bunched together by Rupa. “Of the 19 shorts, I think five or six of them are unpublished,” he weaves it in.
Though it is now that he has come out with a compilation, short stories have always held a special place for Sarna. They offered him the first window to try out the art of writing. His shorts began to broadcast on the BBC World Services, beginning1988, giving him the vital pleasure of being heard as a writer. Some found space in the London Magazine too.
“Many first time writers experiment with short stories, a novel often becomes too big a project for them because of many characters, and you need a set of themes. To spin out a short story, one idea, one theme, is enough,” he says, indicating the reason he tried out the genre in his formative years.
“Doing a short story is like doing a miniature painting though; it needs a lot of detailing.”
So sometimes, he finishes a short story and realises, “it doesn’t have the necessary tension, the suspense, the mood.”
“I don’t feel like deleting them though, I only hope my computer hard disc will erase them when it crashes some day,” he says, laughing.
Having seen both his parents writing alongside their regular jobs, discussing authors and books, Sarna took to writing naturally. “With so many books around, I became a voracious reader and then began writing. If I would have hated writing, it would have been considered strange,” he looks back at his early days in Dehra Dun. A few moments of silence before he adds, “My ambition was to get printed. I am glad I learnt the hard way, I began by writing newspaper articles, doing book reviews.”
Later on, being a diplomat, getting postings across the world, has certainly facilitated him as a writer, he states. “You need that, the triggers of a journey, new settings, different languages, they regenerate the writer in you, they help create that creative impulse.” But then, “isn’t India a cornucopia of ideas for a writer, with so many contradictions, fault lines, many Indias co-existing?” he asks, almost to himself. Many of his stories in Winter Evenings are set in hill stations. His Dehra Dun days are clearly of help here. “Personal knowledge is helpful to create your fictionalised landscape, fill it up with details…weather, terrain, particularly in a short story.”
But, if being in foreign service has handed him the meadow mottled with characters and settings, the writer in him has definitely benefitted his job as a diplomat. “Diplomacy is no cut and dry job, it is about the inter-linkages of the cultures of the world. So you need to be a good communicator, you are ultimately dealing with human beings; you need a wide open mind to be a good diplomat, not with an entrenched mindset. So my being an author helps. One feeds into the other, there is advantage to both.” His conflicts begin only when he had to write when he could. “There are frustrating times as a writer when you have a full time job but the trick lies in finding the windows. I cajole myself at times by observing things and people, telling myself, it is necessary for writing,” he says.
Times were different
Times were different when he was growing up. “Those days, it was difficult to follow only where your interest lies. You had to work towards a certain job security in mind.” And if you are doing academically well — like he was doing — and you are a boy at that, you have all the societal pressures to join a stream that gives you “a good job”. So he sat for IIT entrance exam, “got it too.” Disinterested, he finally settled for commerce at Sri Ram College. “I didn’t join IIT Delhi because I realised I just can’t make an engineer, I knew what I was not going to do,” he reflects, grinning.
Sarna went on to do law in Delhi University “though law was not regarded as it is now, (my friends were doing accountancy, he says)”, and sat for competitive exams, got through it in the first attempt, in 1980. Looking back, he sounds happy that the writer in him “fades into the diplomat in him and vice versa.” And yet “I have been able to keep them separate.”
Alongside the conversation gaining pace (our second cups of coffee are half empty), the sun’s vigour too grows, a welcome respite from the cold and gloomy morning. You could almost hear faint twitters from birds frolicking about in the nearby Lodi Gardens and we talk about Delhi the city. Sarna recollects Delhi of his college days, “What I miss most about Delhi then was its openness, low houses, no flyover, reasonable traffic, trees. The pressures of population on the city are so overt now.”
The banter continues, touches many topics, one among them is of course what is rolling out next from Sarna’s pen. “I am about to release my translation of my father’s (Mohinder Singh Sarna) short stories in Punjabi. They essentially bring out the situations during Partition, but also highlight how there was still show of humanity on both sides.” About his own work, “a couple of things are in pipeline.”
Yet another genre? Well, he is not telling you anything.