ndian diplomat Navtej Sarna's latest book pieces together the history of an Indian "hospice" in Jerusalem. Spread over seven thousand square metres near the Dome of the Rock, the property has its origins in a visit by Sufi saint Baba Farid about 800 years ago.
Farid, a pioneer of the Punjabi literary tradition, supposedly meditated for 40 days in an underground chamber in Jerusalem. His presence brought followers to this site and it "expanded through the centuries as a place for Indian pilgrims to stay."
Thus begins the journey of "Indians at Herod's Gate - A Jerusalem Tale", a travelogue through the crowded, narrow lanes of the ancient sacred city.
It is also the story of the retreat’s caretakers, the Ansaris, who have their roots in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, India. In 1924, Sheikh Nazir Hasan Ansari, the son of a police inspector, left his dusty village in northern India for Jerusalem. Around 45 years old then, he was deputised by leaders of the Khilafat Movement to look after the hospice.
As Sarna “unpeels” a little Indian corner in Jerusalem, the story intertwines the histories of this large family and the hospice, including the Israeli shelling of 1967 that claimed the lives of three Ansaris.
Speaking to India Insight at his office in Delhi’s South Block, Sarna says it was a “very instinctive decision” to write about a “centuries-old connection between India and Jerusalem”.
Sarna, 56, is special secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs. He wrote the book during his stint as Indian ambassador to Israel between 2008 and 2012.
Here are edited excerpts from an interview.
Q. Why did you think a story on an Indian hospice in Jerusalem needed to be told?
A. I felt that we had never really explored a deep and a centuries-old connection between India and Jerusalem. And secondly, of course, once I learnt about the origins of the hospice … it went back to Baba Farid, the Sufi saint of the chishtis, who is a very well known figure in Punjab and northern India at least, and in terms of his contributions to Punjabi literature, poetry. It was a very normal reaction to pursue this story a little further.
Q. Would it be a fair assessment to say that your writing is largely preoccupied with ideas of home and journeys away from home?
A. Well, yes, maybe. Because I have always been journeying away and back home. Maybe this is a predominant thought. Now that you put it in this way, even Exile [about Duleep Singh, the last king of Punjab] was like that and many stories are like that. But not only. I would say this story … it’s meant to be a travel story and a historical travel story. So naturally it involves a journey. But well then, writers write and it is for critics and reviewers to classify what they do.
Q. Would you call yourself a biographer?
A. I don’t think so, frankly. I don’t think I have really done any biography in that sense. Yes, there is a lot of biographical content in this book and there is a lot of biographical content in the Exile. But biographies, by and large, as we know them, tend to be very academically structured … books which are based on very long interviews with the subject. So mine are books … these two books …may have biographical content, but they tend to have a larger landscape around that and a more of a broader, I hope, literary value.
Q. To what extent has your profession contributed to your writing? If you weren’t in the foreign office or if you weren’t travelling as much as you are now, would you still have been a writer?
A. I always wanted to be a writer and I would have ended up writing … definitely. What my writing would have been if I had not been travelling, I cannot say. But I dare say that it would have been different. Because my travel and the opportunities that my job offered not only of travelling or staying in different cultures for long periods of time, that certainly has influenced what I have produced. It’s only natural. We are products of what we go through. And certainly in my case, both my job as well as my writing have fed each other. So even my writing perhaps has influenced my job.
Q. You’re obviously not the first diplomat who’s [written books]…
A. Not the last either.
Q. So what is it about this profession that makes people turn to writing?
A. I don’t know. I think perhaps this is something which is made too much of. Because it is true that many of us in the foreign service have written books. But I am sure people in other professions also have. You know perhaps it’s so few that it stands out so much. Perhaps I am sure there are a set of lawyers who are novelists. Politicians, who are novelists and poets. So double professions exist. Having said that I think a diplomatic career addressed in the right fashion can be a very, very creative career because it provides you opportunities to study people, different cultures, different languages. It opens your mind.
Q. How do you see your writing changing over the years? What has influenced your writing? A. I started writing the hard way. I wasn’t one of those people who produced a novel at age 22 and never look back. So I started writing small pieces for newspapers and longer pieces for newspapers, human interest stories. Essentially journalism. And then I moved into literary journalism. And thereafter I moved onto short stories. And then I moved to a novel. And then I moved to translations. So it’s been a long journey of experimenting with different genres.
Q. Did you ever anticipate this book in any other form, like historical fiction?
A. No, I didn’t actually because the protagonist of this book Sheikh Munir Ansari himself is such an impressive man, and he has a compelling story. So there was no way I could have fictionalised him. And I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to tell a straight story of his life. I wanted to put his life in a context. So I struggled a lot with how this book would finally happen.
Q. How does it feel to have finished a book and see it in its final form, apart from the fact that it’s fulfilling?
A. You feel a certain emptiness, a certain vacant feeling because you’ve actually lived with that book, those characters, those dialogues for so long in the process of writing. And often it takes you years and years … and then suddenly when the book is done, you have this empty, vacant, almost lonely sort of feeling. Because you really wonder, “what am I doing now there is nothing to do with this book”. I always hand the final manuscript to the publishers with great reluctance because I want to keep on tinkering with it. At some stage, the editor said it - no, forget it, we are not showing it to you again. So you are reluctant to leave [the book] because you’ve lived it so long. So you feel a sense of emptiness and then I suppose there is this sense of relief.