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Our diplomats are notorious for writing deadly-dull, self-serving memoirs. When they attempt fiction, they usually fall flat on their faces. Navtej Sarna is a rare exception, as is Pavan Varma.
Sarna had several postings abroad, and this is reflected in Winter Evenings, a slim volume of 19 short stories. A marriage breaks up in Paris for no good reason. A Russian woman on her deathbed phones Delhi, hoping to contact a former lover she has not seen in years. The person she calls has the same unusual Indian name, but he is not the one. Two lonely men, a bank manager and a doctor posted in a small snowbound town, have a silly quarrel over rummy and part company. Sarna’s prose is precise and economical, as it should be in short stories. It is also elegant. “The evening fell quickly in Jalgaon, especially in winter. It rushed over the tiny town as if it had been hiding at the outskirts, waiting for a signal.” That is the beginning of a story set at a customs post in a border town.
“The evening fell quickly in Jalgaon, especially in winter. It rushed over the tiny town as if it had been hiding at the outskirts, waiting for a signal.”
Twenty-five years ago, Sarna sent three of his stories to the editor of London Magazine. All three were accepted, and he was on his way as a writer. Some of the stories in this collection have been broadcast on BBC. Others have found their way into literary magazines abroad. My only advice to the author is to forego the pleasure of reading excerpts from his work at book launches. He is not good at it. When I heard him read at one such promotional event, I was persuaded not to buy the book. Only when I received a copy by courier did I realise what a fine writer Sarna is.