Bio Profile of the Writer
Navtej Sarna is a diplomat and author. He graduated from Delhi University in 1980 with degrees in Law and Commerce and joined the Indian Foreign Service the same year. He has served in various diplomatic capacities in Moscow, Poland, Bhutan, Geneva, Iran and Washington . His recent appointments were as the Foreign Office Spokesman and India’s Ambassador to Israel. Presently he is serving as a Secretary to Government of India in the Ministry of External Affairs.
He is the author of the novels ‘We Weren’t Lovers Like That’ (Penguin India, 2003) and ‘The Exile’ (Penguin India, 2008) as well as the short story collection ‘Winter Evenings’ (Rainlight Rupa, 2012). His non-fiction works are ‘The Book of Nanak’ (Penguin India, 2003), ‘Folktales of Poland’ (Sterling 1991) and ‘Indians at Herod’s Gate’ (Rainlight Rupa, 2014). He has translated Guru Gobind Singh’s ‘Zafarnama’ (Penguin India 2011) from Persian to English as well as the Punjabi partition stories of Mohinder Singh Sarna in ‘Savage Harvest’ (Rupa, 2013). He has been contributing regularly to journals and newspapers in India and abroad including The Times Literary Supplement, London Magazine, The Hindu, India Today, Outlook and so on. His literary column Second Thoughts that appeared in The Hindu for seven years is being brought out as a collection by Harper Collins.
I suppose it all began that late summer morning when I paced the empty corridors of Jubilee Hall hostel in Delhi University at dawn waiting for the Sunday edition of The Hindustan Times. And when it finally came, I would have paid its weight in gold. It carried my first article, a feature on the history and romance of coffee houses titled ‘Over a Cup of Coffee.’ The joy was not only of seeing one’s name in print which, as my father- himself a prominent Punjabi writer- warned, could be addictive. It was in finally doing what one wanted. Hitherto, it had been one compromise after another, though they had all been successful compromises. I had passed out from St.Joseph’s Academy, Dehradun with a decent score in science subjects without really having a passion for science but remember, those days everybody was expected to study science. And then I had stumbled through-rather successfully to my own surprise-through a Commerce degree at Shriram College because it wasn’t as ‘flaky’ as literature would have been and because, as one well-meaning gent advised, it would always ensure a lucrative if soul-shattering career in Accountancy.
Finally I knew it was possible to write and be published. From then on, while everything else was going on- a law degree from Delhi University, slogging for the civil service exams, French classes in the morning- I wrote. Everything and anything that I could think about, banged out on an old Smith and Koroner portable that one kind soul donated to me. Middles, humour pieces, human interest stories, interviews.....I got my own column in that great institution of those days-the Evening News. Nobody who went to Connaught Place came without his copy of Evening News and to be writing on University matters twice a week on its third page in columns alternatively titled Beyond the Ridge and Univ Buzz was a thrill quite unmatched.
The mood turned literary- and less political- when I joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1980. It was easier to do book reviews and mood pieces; unconsciously I was training to write fiction by analysing how others wrote it.
But it was not until 1988, when I was well into my second diplomatic posting in Warsaw, having cut my teeth in Moscow, that I wrote my first short story, The Masterpiece. It was broadcast on a short story programme that used to run on short-wave BBC World Service radio, as were a few others in the years that followed. A few more were published in the London Magazine by the India-loving editor Alan Ross; the story of how that came about has been told elsewhere.
But nobody wants to publish short story collections of unknown writers and the way they say no is by asking the writer to write a novel. So ultimately, I put pen to paper to pull out the novel that had been tossing and turning inside me for many years. Every time the light turned a certain colour or a jagged memory cut a vein, as I did my day job in Bhutan, Geneva, Iran and Washington, that novel would ask to be out. Finally it came out in 2003 as We Weren’t Lovers Like That from Penguin India who promptly tasked me to write The Book of Nanak, which I did in three months between jobs. When these books came out, I was reminded that I had actually published, and almost forgotten, a slim book entitled Folktales of Poland in 1991.
The Exile, a historical novel based on the life of Maharaja Duleep Singh stayed with me nine years as I read around it, travelled in search of it, struggled with its format, voices, moods. The year 2008 was the end of many things including my long years in the position of the Foreign Office spokesman and The Exile. I moved to Israel on an ambassadorial posting and by the time I returned in 2012, I had four books to show for the quiet Sabbath days. A translation in rhyme of Zafarnama, Guru Gobind Singh’s epistle of victory in Persian to Aurungzeb; Winter Evenings, a collection of my short stories; Savage Harvest, a translation of thirty of my father’s Punjabi partition stories and lastly Indians at Herod’s Gate, a historical travel narrative that explored the Indian connection to Jerusalem. All these books did not come out together but they were, for the most part, finished in that four year period. The Hindu newspaper gave me the extraordinary privilege of contributing a monthly literary column Second Thoughts for more than seven years from 2006 to 2013. A collection of these columns is in the works.