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Write choices in the literary life

Book Review, Second Thoughts, Navtej Sarna

Shivam Saini 

On Books, Authors and the Writerly Life
Navtej Sarna

291 pages; Rs 499

If reading classics is an enriching experience, the process of decoding the secret to the writing that fills those pages is no less rewarding. Such a quest, in fact, is unique enough to spawn a genre of its own - one that packs years of effort to make sense of the minds of literary legends.

Navtej Sarna's Second Thoughts is an earnest attempt at turning the author's love of books into one such quest. Divided into about 60 chapters - each no longer than five pages - the book is a collection of essays written by Mr Sarna - who was recently appointed as India's high commissioner to the United Kingdom - over seven years for the Hindu Literary Review.

Each of the essays explores a theme that concerns the writing process and the authors that it brings to mind, interspersed with the accounts of Mr Sarna's travels to places of literary interest. In the process, bits and pieces from the lives of literary legends - and of the author - are also revealed.

One of the first essays examines the choice of a writing landscape. Even as his gaze falls on the mountain peaks and bazaars in the hills somewhere in Himachal Pradesh, Mr Sarna wonders whether enough stories can tumble out of a familiar landscape - such as a narrow bazaar - or it is extensive travel that yields the characters and settings that go into building a fictional narrative. His curiosity evokes memories of writers who set their fiction in an enclosed familiar space - for instance, R K Narayan's Malgudi and William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha county.

In this regard, Mr Sarna insists that Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk's work should be read mostly because it is set in Istanbul. He aptly summarises why Istanbul makes an ideal writing landscape: "Standing on the deck of a boat at night, going up and down the Bosphorus, floating past minarets and palaces, Asia on one side, Europe on the other. The darkest romance, the deepest contradictions, the sharpest conflict could occur in such a landscape." He contrasts this lot with the more "footloose" authors who have travelled extensively and written about a variety of places.

Another essay takes the reader on a tour of the resting places of literary greats. Mr Sarna recounts his expedition many years ago to Peredelkino, south-west of Moscow, in search of the grave of dissident Russian poet Boris Pasternak. After he asks an elderly Russian woman for directions, she points him to the only recognisable signpost: "three pines" in a sea of birches. The other graves he visits are those of Graham Greene, with no epitaph and only the writer's name and the years he lived marked on the tombstone; Scott Fitzgerald, with the last words of the The Great Gatsby carved on the tombstone, "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past"; and Edgar Allan Poe.

The author is as thrilled to spot the graves of literary legends as he is to meet some of the veteran writers in person. As a young student, Mr Sarna dropped by Ruskin Bond's cottage in Landour unexpectedly and walked away with a copy of the writer's poetry collection Lone Fox Dancing. Years later, as a diplomat in Moscow, Mr Sarna had the opportunity to meet Faiz Ahmed Faiz in a hospital. His impression of the poet: "A boyish smile still lit up his deeply lined face, a denial of sadness in his eyes. In a year and a half he would be dead." In another chapter, titled "96, not out", Sarna visits the now-deceased writer and journalist Khushwant Singh, who confesses that at 96 "it is work, my writing that keeps me going", even as he sips his whiskey.

Mr Sarna is equally intrigued by the odd reclusive writer, one who yields a masterpiece only to turn away from all the attention that follows its publication. In an essay dedicated to J D Salinger and Henry Green - the nom de plume adopted by Henry Yorke - Mr Sarna wonders about successful writers who quit writing. Yorke, an aristocrat and industrialist, said goodbye to his writing career at 47, because, as he told an interviewer, "I find it so exhausting now I simply can't do it anymore".

In stark contrast to the stream of literary icons who acknowledged the sheer exhaustion that the writing process entails are the authors of Twitterature, a book that reworks literary classics to be read in 20 tweets or fewer. The literary concept does not sit well with Mr Sarna, who often reminisces about the days of his childhood when he would buy classics for 25 paise each from a small shop in Dehradun. In a chapter - also titled "Twitterature" - he laments that "forty years on some reader may only recall the classics through the tweets". Mrs Dalloway, he fears, for instance, would open as: "Ah! A party tonight! Should be a fine time - fun, friends, nothing stressful, nothing awkward. Should be a blast!"

In the bleak future that Mr Sarna envisions, a book such as this one might serve as a fitting introduction to the world of classics - and those who made it possible.

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First Published: Thu, February 18 2016. 21:30 IST