Not too late in the day, at 45, Jalandhar-born Navtej Sarna joins the rank of celebrity first-time Indian English novelists with We Weren’t Lovers Like That. A career diplomat with eventful stints in Moscow, Warsaw, Thimphu, Geneva, Tehran and Washington DC, during which period he also contributed short stories to the BBC World Service, London Magazine and reviews in Times Literary Supplement, Sarna is an instinctive writer, and that is more than reflected in his novel. Excerpts from an interview with Suresh Kohli:
Your maiden novel is in the mode of reflective fiction. Was there a pre-determined narrative strategy? No, it wasn’t planned or predetermined. The narrative strategy was more or less dictated by the voice of the protagonist. You know there is a point when you are playing around with a character, and you are wondering how this person is going to talk, and once he begins to talk it more or less begins to dictate where the story is going to go and how it is going to be told. So when I chanced upon that moment the narration became more and more reflective, maybe because of the things that are happening to the protagonist, or maybe because of the kind of person he was. But isn’t the narrative also about restrained relationships, in the sense that no relationship has been rounded up, no relationship has been developed to a logical conclusion? I wouldn’t say that they have not been taken to their logical end, but they have not been taken to their ideal end. And that, I think, is a reflection of the way things are. It is an attempt to take a realistic look at relationships in life. It is very difficult to come upon ideal relationships in which perfect things happen at a perfect time. Very often relationships are what they are. Sometimes they are not complete. Sometimes people are not always at the same point of commitment to a relationship at the same time. The relationships do exist in different phases of incompleteness. This particular book is about decisions that you take at some stage in life which may continue to haunt you later. That naturally presupposes a certain amount of regret, a certain amount of inherent mistake in the choices that people make. In that sense these are not ideal relationships. If you talk of ideal relationships then the book will finish in a page and a half. Unfortunately, that’s not always how things happen.
Now I am not suggesting that this is an autobiographical novel, but how many details have been culled out of your own experiences? It is certainly not an autobiographical novel but I don’t think that a writer can divorce himself completely from what he has seen or lived or done. Some of his experiences must flow into his work, which way and how much differs from writer to writer. In this book, the events, the characters, the stories are all fictional but what has come in is certainly lived experience. In the sense that I have lived in Delhi and Dehradun so I have seen physical characteristics of life around me. I have travelled by this train (Delhi-Dehradun Shatabdi Express), I have lived in Bombay at a certain time, I have lived in Washington and these are the places that come in the book and so my personal experiences of having lived in these places have certainly found their way here.
How big was the first, and how small was the final draft that eventually formed the book? There are moments in the book that make one feel that something must have existed there which is not there any more.Your reading and perception is very accurate. The first draft was relatively longer. Maybe another 25,000 words and when we looked at it together with the editor we saw that there were portions that were not hanging together as well as the rest. So when we removed these portions there was only about 40 per cent left. I started again with that 40 per cent and rewrote the rest of the stuff, and ended up with something like 65,000 words. There were certainly the possibilities of going into bylanes and side lanes and building up those relationships, or moods, or moments that you say you feel are missing in the present narrative. There were many characters in the first draft that now don’t exist. The main female protagonist was swept out, and Rohini, who now forms a fairly significant part of the book, was a very minor character in the first draft. So deliberately I chose not to move into those bylanes because what was compelling to me when I wrote the first draft was the central theme and the central voice, and I found that the more we went into the sides and brought in other people etc, the more we were taking away from the intensity of the central voice.
Despite these cautions and precautions there does appear to a hastening up in the last part of the novel, especially when the protagonist starts relating to and sharing thoughts with his teenage son. There is the feeling of something petering out.Yes, perhaps. But it does not really peter out in its reality, it peters out as far as this narration is concerned. What I wanted to show was that the narrator’s relationship with his son was an important compelling emotional factor for him. Also the time when he starts relating to his son is important because at that point he is reaching the end of his journey and can remember his own childhood clearly. So in that setting he seems to relate better to his son because he realises that his son is a child today, just as he was at one time and the fact that he is reliving the memory of his childhood makes the relationship easier. Now if this book was to carry on then certainly, I think that the relationship with his son would be a very positive aspect of the years that would lie ahead. But then that is pure guesswork.