Man of few words | Second Thoughts Interview

First thoughts on “Second Thoughts”: It is an engaging collection, one that rides on nostalgia. Often giving you the feel of a family album you periodically wipe the dust from, smile and sigh, the book is a reproduction of Navtej Sarna’s monthly column he did for The Hindu for seven long years. Yet it almost did not happen. “I did not plan it as a book but I am glad it has come out as a book. The columns are of a piece, they can hang together,” says Sarna as we start chatting about authors, contemporary and classic, over a leisurely lunch at Tamra, Shangri-La’s-Eros level one restaurant that encourages conversation, assuages nerves. We are seated a little removed from the window and happily shut out the traffic outside. We are not too close to the chaat counter either. The smoke from the kabab corner can be seen, not sniffed. Sarna is in a zone. We have our sips, he of fresh lime soda with salt, I of watermelon juice; that delectable treat that never goes out of season.

“I started doing the column in 2006 and continued till 2013. I would not have missed more than a column or two. I had around 70 columns. `Harper-Collins showed interest. Then I pruned it to 60 chapters for the book with each piece not requiring more than a few minutes to finish. We have sketches to go with the pieces. My idea was to give that literary feel.” Sarna is talking of this “literary travelogue” immediately after an office meeting. Mercifully, he has left the boardroom well behind. Must be tough to lead two lives? A seasoned bureaucrat dealing with weather-beaten and often uncouth politicians, and an illustrious writer who would love nothing more than peace and quiet, and maybe a work by Oscar Wilde? “It is,” says Sarna in an understatement that reminds me of those inscrutable jottings on files in government offices. Sarna though decides to be generous to me, adding, “It is difficult but I won’t have it any other way. As a bureaucrat I get to travel so much, go to places I otherwise won’t go to, and importantly, spend time there. For instance, I went to Shiraz that finds space in this book. I went to Dublin and one afternoon found myself with not much to do. So, I decided to go down to Oscar Wilde’s house.”

On another trip, he went to Hemingway’s nest. “I found Hemingway’s home in Havana. He stayed there for many years. I visited the bars he frequented. He used to be obsessed about his weight and used to keep a weight chart in his bathroom which I discovered.” He talks of Wilde and Hemingway, Rumi and Faiz like one discusses school mates. Ah! The joy of being a writer, the privileges of being a babu. Sarna and I can talk for eternity. He loves his books, I love his writing. But then there is the small business of lunch to be taken care of. He opts for prawns, dim sums – “I just love dim sums, courtesy my stint in Bhutan,” he says. I am happy with my kabab platter, one with chicken, mutton, fish. He is at ease with his forks and knives, I struggle with mine, simply because the knife is too gentle, the mutton not so. We arrive at our own chemistry soon – Sarna talks, I listen. He apparently went to the abodes of many of the greats of literature simply out of curiosity. “What is it about writers that makes me curious? Umm. Do they write in the morning? Do they write with a pen or on a computer? Do they scribble notes or have neatly stacked up sheets,” he says, his eyes half asking the question. I pop it right back: When does Navtej Sarna, the prolific author who has managed to have five books under his belt over as many years write? Does he withdraw into his little cocoon in official meetings? Or does he write in the bathtub? “Ideas can come in meetings too,” he allows himself a little confession. “I write as and when I can.” Does that mean boardroom too? Shh. Sarna is in a zone.

Meanwhile, the stuff from our plates is polished off; the ever smiling chef suggests we move on to main course. The tireless writer will have none of it, preferring to repeat the cycle of momos and dim sums! Ah, the things some of us love! There is an addition to the platter this time, Sarna, who can just about make an omelette and boil an egg, opts to try out a tikka and a kabab. He nibbles; I eat.

So, on second thoughts, would he rather have done “Second Thoughts” any differently?

“I was clear that the column should not appear to be a series of reviews. So I brought in a bit of history, a bit of literary tradition and the like. For instance, I wrote about a second hand book store. Now the columns appear in the form of the book in exactly the way they were penned for The Hindu. Today, when I read them, I discover how the writing changes over a period of seven years. Now I believe I have become more analytical. But yes, I have been told there is a dearth of women authors in the book. I did not realise it then.”

Before we depart, I can’t resist a tertiary question around the book. How is “Second Thoughts”, more of a niche choice, likely to be positioned in the market? “A book has to be intelligently positioned,” is all Sarna offers. Writers, they can be men of few words. Sarna is out of his zone.

As Sarna, headed to the U.K. as the High Commissioner, steps out, a couple of fans step forward, shake hands with him, keen to preserve the moment for posterity. Life is beautiful. No second thoughts on this.