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The Exile is a novel based on history
Rediff.com
15 October 2008


Navtej Sarna, India's longest-serving spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs and a seasoned diplomat who has served in Moscow [Images], Warsaw, Thimphu, Geneva, Teheran and Washington, DC, released his third book -- The Exile -- on Tuesday.

Written from Maharaja Duleep Singh's standpoint, The Exile is a look at the life of an Indian royal who was brutally shortchanged by the Raj and by British imperialism.

When the very able and eminent Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab died in 1839 he left behind an empire in disarray. Predictably the British were standing by to scoop up Singh's kingdom. Duleep Singh, Ranjjt Singh's heir, was the young 11-year-old prince who signed away his kingdom and one of the world's most famous diamonds -- the enormous Kohinoor -- to the British and was dispatched to Queen Victoria's court in London to become her pet courtier. He eventually died in Paris, still an exile.

Duleep's life is one of the most tragic tales of Indian history and Sarna tells it poignantly.

The Exile is Sarna's third book after The Book of Nanak and We Weren't Lovers Like That. He has also written book reviews and short stories for the BBC World Service, Biblio and the Times Literary Supplement among other publications.

The Jalandhar-born Sarna, a 1980-batch Indian Foreign Service officer, takes charge as the Indian Ambassador to Israel in Jerusalem next month, after having finished his term as joint secretary for external publicity at the ministry of external affairs (he took up the post in October 2002).

He chatted with rediff.com's readers during an exclusive interaction

Hello, this is Navtej Sarna. I'm very here to be here in the rediff.com chat room. Let me try and answer what I can.

Princess asked,
Mr Sarna, good afternoon. How did a diplomat like you decide to become a writer? Is it easier to publish being a diplomat, since your job must provide access to the publishers?
Navtej Sarna answers:
Actually, I was writing before I became a diplomat. I was doing travel journalism, student journalism, literary journalism, etc. And then I joined the diplomatic service, and it has not been a contradiction. I don't think access to publishers, as a diplomat, is relevant. Otherwise, I would have been published long ago.

Ram asked,
what is your new book all about?
Navtej Sarna answers,
My new book, The Exile, is a novel based on the historical figure of Maharaja Duleep Singh, who was the last king of Punjab. And who spent most of his years in exile in England

Dilip asked,
sarna ji hope that we get more deatils about kohinoor in this.is that so in your new book.
Navtej Sarna answers,
The Kohinoor was, in some ways, a symbol of everything that Duleep Singh lost. In fact it has become a larger symbol than that now. The book contains a description of the only time Duleep Singh was actually shown the Kohinoor by Queen Victoria, even when he was in England.

ArunShankar asked,
Hello, Mr. Sarna. First, your book, 'We weren't lovers...' is wonderful. Excellent writing. Where did the idea come from?
Navtej Sarna answers,
Thank you. The idea for my first novel was with me for many years, before it actually got written, in the form in which it was published. If you are referring to the structure of the book, then the idea of a train journey to frame the book actually came during one such journey from Delhi to Dehradun.

MK asked,
sarnaji, hindi version of ur book expected in market?
Navtej Sarna answers,
The first novel is already available in Hindi. And, in fact, in Arabic. The Hindi version was brought out by Penguin and Yatra. I hope this book will also be translated, but it depends upon the publishers.

Princess asked,
Do you have a Ranjit Singh fascination too, Mr Sarna? What kind of research did you undertake for this book? It sounds brilliant
Ambassador Navtej Sarna answers,
I don't have a Ranjit Singh fascination, though he is a most impressive figure. But he is also a winning, powerful figure, one who's impressive, but not necessarily intriguing. To that extent, Duleep Singh is a more attractive character for a novelist. In terms of research, I had to do a lot of reading about the history of the time, memoirs, letters, etc.. And also, I travelled to most of the places where Duleep Singh lived, such as Paris, Lahore England and Moscow. The letters and books and files I accessed in Washington, London and in Delhi.

Mahesh28 asked,
Hi Mr.Sarna whats your next Book?
Navtej Sarna answers,
It's too early to say. I have to recover from this one.

Sandrup asked,
So, is this book a historical fiction novel or a biography of Duleep Singh?
Navtej Sarna answers, This is perhaps best described as a novel based on history. I have used all the available facts and tried not to distort any. I have used fictional devices to extend these facts in a reasonable manner. And also to bring forth a sense of time, place and the psychological dimensions of the historical figures.

ArunShankar asked,
And Mr. Sarna, what's on your bookshelf now?
Navtej Sarna answers,
Recently I have been reading Nadeem Aslam's novel "Maps for Lost Lovers". I've also been reading a collection of old, international short stories.

Vishal asked,
Mr. Sarna, how does your book treat Dulip Singhji?
Navtej Sarna answers,
I think the readers will have to decide whether I have told his story in a fair manner. My attempt was to tell his story from largely his point of view and an Indian point of view, without romanticising him unnecessarily.

MaheshIyer2 asked,
Hi Mr.Sarna. Didnt your Book Exile was Read by the Maharajas Family before you release them. What was their reaction?
Navtej Sarna answers,
Well, the Maharaja's family does not exist anymore. He had eight children. Interestingly, not one of them left an heir.

Critic asked,
Hello Sarna, What inspires you to write? Who are your fav. authors?
Navtej Sarna answers,
I suppose once a writer, always a writer. You're always looking for newer and newer ways to express yourself. As regards to favourite authors, I always go back to the twentieth century greats of English writing, like Somerset Maugham, F Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene and so on.

Vishal asked,
Does the book also indulge on his supposed turn to Christianity?
Navtej Sarna answers,
His conversion to Christianity, as well as his ultimate rejection of that religion and return to Sikhism, are both very important dramatic moments in his life. And naturally the book covers them both.

ArunShankar asked,
Don't mean to sound maudlin, but I feel you are one of the most underrated Indian writers, writing in English - just my opinion. Do you think, to be 'popular' you need to write about mangoes and Indian monsoons, if not about the Indian diaspora?
Navtej Sarna answers,
Yes, I suppose, one has to pay some price if you decide not to try to build on Indian stereotypes that may be acceptable to certain audiences. I try to write about what I feel strongly enough. I love both Indian mangoes and Indian monsoons and would like to enjoy them rather than try to sell them.

Shefali asked,
I love history and enjoyed the excerpt of The Exile that you shared in the Hindu. Are you planning to travel with the book in India? Bangalore? Would love an autographed copy.
Navtej Sarna answers,
Thank you. I am travelling with the book, but only launches in Chandigarh , Delhi and Mumbai have been planned.

Vinod asked,
Sir, how would you like you known in future? A) A successful diplomat or B) A reputed writer
Navtej Sarna answers, It would be too vain to answer that. I just hope I don't end up being unsuccessful in both.

Princess asked, What is with Indian diplomats and writing, I wonder, there are so many of them. Does Mussoorie include a crash course in creative writing!
Navtej Sarna answers,
I don't think there are as many diplomats writing fiction as may seem. We do have a sprinkling, and that is perhaps a very happy coincidence.

Shefali asked,
When do you write? And do you write long hand or do you key it in. How many drafts? Who do you share your thoughts with? Who do you ask if you're iffy about something? If an interesting thought occurs while you're at work or occupied elsewhere how do you hold on to it?
Navtej Sarna answers,
One tries to write in any stolen moments when you have a demanding day job. It may be late nights or early mornings or long flights. Usually, when working on a novel, I tend to write on the computer. There's no fixed limit to the number of drafts that one may have to do. Some things come out right the first time, while others don't.

MADHU asked,
Hello. Are you answering only literary questions
Navtej Sarna answers,
Yes, I am with you today only as a writer, and not as an Ambassador Designate. So I would prefer to answer only literary questions.

Navtej Sarna says, Thank you very much. It's been very interesting being in the chat room today to answer questions on my new book, The Exile. I apologise for not answering many of the questions, since they dealt with foreign policy, since I am not here in my capacity as a diplomat.