the mutt

On Composting

Posted in General, Writing by grx20 on December 31, 2008


I’m delighted to end the year with composting.

Composting is what I’ve been doing for the last ten days, and it is simply delightful to say the least.

Yes, yes … you saw it coming a mile away – that composting has nothing to with any agricultural venture that I’m undertaking, and I will soon reveal its true meaning.

True meaning: composting is the process of mulling over story in one’s mind. It’s the process of turning it over, looking at it in different angles, pondering over it … cooking, stewing … composting.

Preparing the soil for the idea to grow. No wonder they say, a seed of an idea.

For over a month, I’ve been struggling with issues of voice, style and simply put, ‘what the hell to write about!’

Then, one evening, I got a germ of an idea in an introduction to Anna Karenina. And that germ has been well, germinating. I’ve planted it in my head and I keep watering it and the results are finally beginning to show.

A few conversations have already formed in my mind, a few ‘encounters’ scenes, if you like, are beginning to take shape and characters are beginning to acquire a personality.

I haven’t written a single word. I think I know how I want to begin the story, or at least at which point, but nothing has been transferred to paper yet. And for the first time, I’m finding it a very liberating and enjoyable process.

Composting is something all writers do. You toss it around, turn it around, mess with it, ask ‘what if’ questions, consider point of view issues, tone, and whole array of plots. And just because you haven’t clocked in a 1000 words a day, doesn’t mean you haven’t been working or that your story isn’t making progress.

I’ve heard of writers who have been toying around with an idea for years, some even decades, before finally getting down to writing it. One example that comes to mind rather quickly, (because I read about it recently) is Navtej Sarna’s new book – The Exile. In an interview he says, the subject has been around in his head for almost a decade.

The other thing with composting is timing. It doesn’t make sense to write it until the story is ready to be written and until you are ready to write it. The most awesome idea may require one to mature in years, experience and skill before finding scripting.

I’ve got some ideas I know I am not ready to write yet. I’ve already written some stories I should have written a few years from now. Composting is a critical critical part of writing. Not that I eschew spontaneous creativity or writing on the go, sometimes it is essential to pickle it.

Perhaps you too have been composting a thought – here’s to seeing it come alive.


Three posts about one author? I have to tell you why!

Posted in indian writing in english, Writing by grx20 on October 11, 2008

Over the last month, and more so over the last week, my two posts on Navtej Sarna have attracted a lot of attention. And WP Stats – which is quite awesome – tells me people are searching for information about him and his new book – and are being directed to my blog. That’s nice. Not because it drives traffic to my blog, because one of India’s least spoken about writers is well, being spoken about.

In my first post, I deliberately stopped short of reviewing his book – and directed readers to links that did so. I touched upon his style (albeit very cursorily) and in my second post, I merely announced the impending launch of his second book.

Judging by the interest it has raked up, perhaps it is time to have a more detailed post about his writing style and his first novel, We Weren’t Lovers Like That. (No spoilers).

The word ‘lyrical’ crops up in almost every review of Navtej Sarna’s ‘Lovers’. When I read it, I didn’t quite know how to describe it, I didn’t know ‘lyrical’ was the word. But the prose has an effect of carrying you forward, effortlessly. It’s fluid, easy, and takes you along in an easy flow. Throughout the book, small gems are tucked away, and flash when you find them, and then dim away, yielding to the next one. The point is – it doesn’t dominate the overall ambience of the story. It’s not his verbal brilliance that’s on show here. It’s the mood he creates.

For instance – the way he introduces the title of the book:
She did not say anything and our deal became clear to me. We were to care and not to show. We were to wrap up our love in banter and funny stories and if we hurt each other, it was not meant to matter. Enough people loved seriously, soberly. We weren’t going to be lovers like that.

‘Lovers’ is a love story in flashback. Aftab is running away from an imperfect past, a life of failures. He has failed his father, his wife has left him and he does the one thing he feels he can do best – run away. Aftab embarks on a journey to find the love he once ‘gave up on’. The scene when Aftab gives up on ‘Ro’ is described in a haunting way – and the last line has stuck in my head since I read it. Her eyes seemed to stare through me at some distant purple hills. I felt like I had been caught laughing in a room where somebody had just died. Behind her the sea was brutally blue in the sun, and the ships were still.

There is a sense of melancholy in the book – understandable – there is a lot of nostalgia of places taken away by time, innocence lost, simple joys of childhood giving way to new fangled ones and a past, that was so full of promise, betrayed. Given that, plus the premise of lost love, some might find the book sad – Aftab’s incessant wallowing can put off readers. It is, however, also a story of hope and faith and starting afresh.

The strength of the book, I feel, lies not so much in the story, as it does in Sarna’s language. While Rohinton Mistry gives me the impression of being a careful writer who deliberates and ponders over the choice of every word, Sarna’s writing has an easy feel to it. As if you and I could easily write the way he does. When asked in an interview how long it took him to write the book, Sarna replied, three years and another ten to get there.

Another key strength of Sarna’s novel, is that it doesn’t fall into some of the typical traps Indian Writing In English (IWIE) tends to – the diaspora drama, the partition saga, glorification of regional idiosyncrasies to make them appealing to a Western audience or family saga/family tragedy. It’s one of the few books that doesn’t labour under any heavy baggage – there is neither any intention or pretension of capturing the Indian psyche, the ethos of India … or any such jazz that IWIE sometimes gets caught up with.

It’s just a poignant story. One told very very well.

New book! New book!

Posted in Writing by grx20 on September 9, 2008

Navtej Sarna's new book
Navtej Sarna’s second novel, The Exile is scheduled to be released this month!
Naturally, I’m excited like a parrot on steroids.

Sarna is one of my favourite writers. His voice is unique, and … wait, wait, don’t get me started.
Read my earlier post for more about him and his first novel.

The Literary review of The Hindu (September 7, 2008) has a small excerpt from The Exile. Read it here.

In an earlier interview, (from Anglo Sikh Heritage Trail), Sarna had revealed his second novel would have a historical theme. The Exile, is about Maharajah Duleep Singh, widely honoured by Sikhs as the last Emperor. In Sarna’s own words, “… this fictionalised account reveals the tragedy of a man who went from being a King to a supplicant, who changed his religion twice, who had a late realisation of his lost destiny and was ultimately unable to return to his land and people. His life is one of the most poignant chapters in Sikh history, as well as the history of British India.”

Penguin India has a little more on the book here.

And lots more from The Telegraph here.

To be honest, the premise of the story doesn’t exactly give me goose bumps. His first novel, We Weren’t Lovers Like That, was deep, probing and haunting. But a historical? Will he be able to pull it off? I’m not too worried about not liking it. I’ve not worked myself into a ‘must-like-sarna’s-books’ frenzy, but I’m nervous.

I’m really looking forward to another lyrical excursion into human foibles, political skullduggery (as spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, he knows a few things about it, I’m sure), and his style which was best described by Vikram Chandra as ‘shimmering’. These things, shouldn’t change, no matter the theme.

But 450 bucks for only 264 pages! Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories are longer! 😉

Who is Navtej Sarna?

Posted in indian writing in english, Writing by grx20 on August 14, 2008

In my first post, I’d like to introduce you a wonderful writer, who very few (lucky few I might add) have heard of – Navtej Sarna.

He’s the former official spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs. Recently, he’s been appointed the Indian Ambassador to Israel. I won’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of him. It’s a little difficult to find any information. Even his own website, sheds little light. This article from The Hindu here, give a little more.

We Weren’t Lovers Like That

I found his first novel, ‘We Weren’t Lovers Like That’ purely by accident. I was browsing through the Indian Writing section trying to find an author I had never heard of. I found this thin book wedged between two other fat books, almost invisible, and it seemed obscure enough to bother reading the blurb.

From the very beginning, it is evident Sarna is a tuly gifted and talented writer. His word choice is amazing – you feel, no other word could have worked. There are many brilliant parts in the book, and it’s a sheer delight to stumble upon them. The writing is beautiful and the story flows effortlessly. I particularly like the way he introduces the title.

I don’t want to get in to an in-depth review of the book – perhaps another time – but I would highly recommend it. (If you do want reviews, you will find enough in the very first page of a google search).

Interview snippet

From an interview with the magazine Outlook

Q. How long did you take to finish We Weren’t Lovers…?
A. Three years and another ten to get to the point where I could do it in three.


Full interview here.

Second Thoughts

Navtej Sarna’s column, Second Thoughts, appears on some Sundays in The Hindu’s supplement, Literary Review. And thankfully, it gives us his email id. His website is so outdated, most of the links don’t work, like  his email id. I know. I wrote him, but didn’t get a reply! Some of the articles are available online – most are scattered. I might put together a collection of links. The website of the Hindu (Literary Review section), has archives. But you have to plod through each Sunday to find his article. One of my favourites – The allure of Cote d’Azur. I love the way he ends it – Such a small town, with such long shadows. Full article here.


He’s got two short stories. Each in a different collection. I’ve read one and it’s just as good. In fact I bought that book, only for that story.

Navtej Sarna is one of the finest Indian writers writing in English. In fact, I would put him on the top rung of writers, period. Sadly unknown, his book is very very hard to find. But if you find it, keep it.