A diplomat’s tale
The Telegraph,
October 26, 2008

How does one juggle foreign policy with the writer’s muse? Or switch from daily briefing sessions with newshounds on the latest from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to writing about love, longing, betrayal and exile? For Navtej Sarna, the won’t-give-anything-away diplomat-author, it’s all in a day’s work.

Recently, he stepped out from the corridors of power to unveil his second novel, The Exile (Penguin), even as his six-year, high-profile term as MEA spokesperson drew to an end.

The novel, the poignant tale of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last Sikh ruler, has been received well and the usually tight-lipped Sarna is relieved. For, while visibility gave him an edge over other writers, his high profile also meant that the critics were all watching him with hawk eyes.

"There is an advantage to being a familiar face, but at the same time (if the book got panned) you could have more egg on your face," says Sarna, who is poised to take off for Jerusalem as the Indian ambassador to Israel.

The Exile took him nearly a decade of research, and seven years in writing. He managed to squeeze other books in-between — his debut novel, We weren’t Lovers Like That (in 2003) and two non-fiction works, The Book of Nanak and Folk Tales of Poland.

Sarna began researching on Duleep Singh, the youngest acknowledged son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, some nine years ago, but he began putting pen to paper only in 2001. He wrote in bursts, whenever possible, over weekends and on-board long flights. "I don’t have the discipline or the luxury of giving myself a fixed schedule as I do a full-time, day job."

Sarna’s novel is clearly different from the other well-documented accounts of Duleep Singh’s life. For one, it offers Duleep’s point-of-view, in his own voice. His story is also narrated by Mangla (his mother’s favourite maid), Sir John Login and his wife Lena, under whose guardianship Duleep is placed after he is dethroned, his trusted servant, Arur Singh, and General Charles Carrol-Tevis, Duleep’s confidante. These players enter and fade out of the narrative seamlessly.

So Lady Lena Login recounts episodes from Duleep’s life in England, General Charles Carrol-Tevis unfolds the Maharaja’s life in Paris and Russia and Mangla tells all about his days in Lahore and Jammu.

Sarna dubs The Exile as fiction that’s based on history. So while all the events, dates and characters are all true to life, he has fictionalised the gaps and recreated Duleep’s moods, his conversations and his feelings.

Mangla, who was a minor historical figure of whom little was known except that she was his mother’s favourite maid, is also given a story created by Sarna.

Through them, Sarna recounts the chaos unleashed with the death of Ranjit Singh under whom the Sikh kingdom had bloomed with its capital in Lahore. He dwells on Duleep’s succession to the throne at the age of five and his deposition by the East India Company’s Lord Hardinge and Punjab’s annexation in 1849.

Sarna follows him in his exile from Punjab to Fatehgarh and from there to England under the guardianship of Sir John Login, to the time he dies in Paris, in a cheap hotel room.

Books on Sikh history, 18th and 19th century Punjab, on Duleep Singh and on Maharaja Ranjit Singh armed him with all the facts. He took copious notes and kept loads of books (passages highlighted and pages flagged) with him all the time.

It helped that his work-related travels took him to the places associated with Duleep’s life. "I had access to the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. where I was posted at that time. Surprisingly, I found a lot of material here," he recalls.

His job had also taken him to Lahore, London and Paris where Duleep had spent fragments of his life. In Lahore, Sarna took time off to spend hours walking around the fort. This helped colour his description of Lahore and its fort that Duleep knew. In Paris, Sarna went about visiting the bars and clubs that Duleep was known to frequent.

He also visited Elveden Hall, Duleep’s country estate in Suffolk, England. At the museum there he got to read letters written by Duleep.

For Sarna, diplomacy and writing don’t contradict each other. "I don’t write to escape my job but it is a natural extension of it," he says.

Looking back he says that his "very normal" 1960’s childhood was all about post-school afternoons spent playing cricket/football in the searing heat, and the evenings spent burrowing into novels in his Dehradun home. He recalls: "Mine was a simple childhood spent largely in the company of books."

His father, the eminent Punjabi writer, Mohinder Singh Sarna, ensured that the young Navtej and his sister never lacked in reading material.

He finished his schooling in Dehradun, graduated from Delhi’s Sri Ram College for Commerce and followed it with a Law degree from the Delhi College of Law.

Since he had ruled out engineering and medicine, he decided to appear for the Civil Services’ entrance examinations and "made it".

Writing was an integral part of his life all along. As a student in the late ’70s, he wrote the bi-weekly column ‘Beyond the Ridge’ in Evening News, a much sought after paper in Delhi around then. His began by writing in youth magazines and Sunday papers and graduated to book reviews, literary writing and short stories. He continued his writing even as he enjoyed each foreign posting.

Now that he’s off to Israel, his children, both published poets who have found their way into Penguin’s First Proof series, won’t be travelling with him. His son, is a corporate lawyer practising in Delhi, while his daughter is in high school.

But ask him about the high points of the last six years and the impregnable mask falls back into place. He hands out in stilted tones, “It has been an exciting six years, a privilege to see foreign policy in action.” He pauses and says with a half-smile: “And I’m not going to say anything about my next assignment either!” You can take the diplomat out of the MEA (and make a writer of him), but you can’t take diplomacy out of a die-hard foreign officewallah.