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A king without a throne
Sakaal Times
Friday, October 24th, 2008 AT 6:10 PM
Tags: The exile


The last monarch of Punjab, Duleep Singh, finally gets to have his say in Navtej Sarna's new work of researched fiction, writes Jyoti Sharma

Duleep Singh would not have approved. Navtej Sarna doesn’t either. The former spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs and now India’s envoy to Israel is miffed that the shadow of the Bollywood blockbuster Singh is Kinng is looming large on his book on the last Maharaja of Punjab, The Exile. "Reviewers are coming up with headlines like ‘Singh who was king’ or ‘Singh who never was king’," Sarna says with a wince.

Sarna, understandably, would want a very different treatment for his tragic hero, a man who has long been seen as highly indecisive and a wastrel. "He had honesty. For a man who was taken to England when he was a child, had his kingdom taken away and was even made to change his religion, he still had the ability to figure out for himself what he wanted to do in life," Sarna says.

Duleep Singh is not the first loser-protagonist that Sarna, the author, has dealt with. His first novel, We Were Not Lovers Like That, also revolved around an out-and-out loser. "Yes, I am fascinated by such characters. Neither of my protagonists is really a hero. They are weak, erratic and irresolute. But they are honest and they show courage eventually. They turn around; they rebel and decide to do things on their own terms. They cling on to hope in the end, whether they achieve what they set out to do is beside the point. Just the fact that they tried is enough," the bureaucrat-author says.

Not satisfied with telling the story of Duleep Singh, Sarna got inside the head of this king without a kingdom. "I have known the story of Duleep Singh for years but it was only now that I decided to write about him - and not as a historical character but as a real person. Since the book is a mix of fiction and non-fiction, the most difficult part was to find the right structure for it," he says.

Sarna read through Duleep Singh’s correspondence, what historians have said about him and visited Paris, Lahore, Moscow and Elveden, where the king had spent his life. "I did exhaustive research about visa processes, train timings and even 19th century travelogues about how long travelling from one place to another took," Sarna reveals.

It was getting inside the head of Duleep Singh that proved to be the most difficult. "Duleep and his contemporaries have been treated as historical personalities till now, and that tends to be two-dimensional. Now I had to get inside his head and present him as a rounded character. I got hold of whatever memoirs, letters and pictures of him I could and kept his portrayal within realistic limits. Even then, I checked and re-checked everything I wrote," the author says.

Ironically for a book that addresses the theme of India's royalty being mistreated by their British masters, Sarna’s first promotional tour was of the UK. Considering Britishers don't exactly come out smelling of roses in the book, what kind of reactions did he get there? Sarna takes a philosophical view, "History cannot be written only by victors. If lions won't tell their story, hunters will."

As Sarna gets ready to take his post in Israel, he is set to juggle his day job and his writing. "My day job remains my primary responsibility. So it is quite a struggle to balance writing along with it. Sometimes this balancing act leads to frustration as well. But finally it is all about time management, discipline and a bit of sacrifice. I don't get time for other things when I am writing the book and that's why I am not a very popular person around the house," he says with a smile.

His "sacrifices" will continue. If the author has his way, up ahead would be a book of short stories. He has earlier written The Book of Nanak and Folk Tales of Poland. "I like writing fiction as it gives me more freedom to play around with characters and write according to the demands of my imagination," he says, "Or maybe because it is just easier."