Diplomat Sarna pens book on Punjab king
Fri-Oct 10, 2008
New Delhi / Indo-Asian News Service

Exile is the saddest thing that can happen to an individual, says diplomat Navtej Sarna, the author of a new novel on Punjab's last ruler Duleep Singh who died "completely alone" in a cheap hotel room in Paris.

"When you lose your roots and identity, everything you are made of - your culture, history - it's a very sad happening in an individual's life," Sarna, who served as the external affairs ministry spokesperson for six long years and is set to take over as India's Ambassador to Israel, told IANS in an interview here.

Sarna confesses that his job as a diplomat has enriched his literary talents. His latest book, The Exile, published by Penguin/Viking, hit the bookshops last month.

"Writing is a very essential part of my life and my living. Writing gives me an entire world in which to withdraw and in which to live in," said Sarna who now has four books behind him, including two novels.

But how does he find time to write amid the blithe chatter of cocktail parties and the serious business of diplomacy? "You do it once you want to do it badly enough," he said.

"There is a certain gypsy aspect to our life which is an extremely good catalyst for jogging your mind and opening your mind to new observations and ideas," said Sarna, who has travelled to more than 50 countries and represented India as a diplomat in places as far flung as Moscow, Washington, Warsaw and Thimphu.

Exile, with its emotional undertone of loss and homelessness, is not a state of mind one would associate with Sarna, the suave, decorous man who was the public face of the foreign office all these years.

But having consorted with the 19th century king Maharaja Duleep Singh and his cohorts in the privacy of his imagination for nine long years, the Punjab-born Sarna knows intimately "the loss of something left behind forever".

"The most tragic aspect of his life was that he was forced to stay away from home. The pathos of his exile was a very elemental part of his existence and of his appeal as a subject for a novelist," said Sarna.

"It's a story that had nagged at me since childhood. It came naturally to me," recalled the author when he first heard of Duleep Singh - "a child duped of his kingdom, a man who changed his religion twice, a king who yearned to come back to his people but never could" - from his mother 40 years ago.

The process of writing a novel based on a commanding historical figure was creatively challenging, but the author says he found a way out "to push available facts about Duleep Singh's story towards the realm of fiction, by pushing them gently, so as not to distort them."

"It involved a fair amount of research. Thoughts and emotions of Duleep Singh are based on what could be possible in different situations in which he found himself," recalls the author about his diligent efforts to forge "a fictional narrative that would fill the gaps left by history".

Did he hear the snarling hiss of historians warning him not to trespass into their turf as he set about reconstructing the life of Duleep Singh? "It's a novel that has tried to be true to history," is all Sarna would say, adding that the praise by celebrated writer Khushwant Singh, who has written "A History of the Sikhs", encouraged him to think he was on track.

"He (Duleep Singh) started off as a unidimensional cardboard box character, but as I wrote on, I discovered his fears, his loves, how he felt as a young man, problems in his personal life, his problems with the British government and games of colonial duplicity," he said. "In short, it helps me to understand him as a complete human being."

Wary of stereotyping, Sarna is not amused when asked about the "IFS school of writing" - a headline-grabbing tag that clubs together half a dozen Indian diplomats who have not allowed ponderous officialese to choke their literary talents. "If you are looking for a deeper connection, there isn't any," he said wryly.

For all his globe-trotting as a grey-suited diplomat, his favourite trip, he said, is always "that island of the soul where there is peace and writing can be a waking dream".