Diplomat-author Navtej Sarna has always felt a creative kinship with exiles. This time round, he has penned an English translation of Zafarnama – 111 spiritually resonant Persian verses of impassioned plea for justice composed by Guru Gobind Singh, the last Sikh guru, while on the run from Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s soldiers in the early 18th century.
“It’s a blistering indictment of Aurangzeb’s policies and statecraft, the lack of morality in governance and war during his tenure,” says Sarna, who is at present India’s ambassador to Israel, in an interview here.
“At the same time, it is a stirring praise to true god. Guru Gobind Singh was a prophetic poet, writer, a warrior poet and a polyglot who was well versed in Persian, Sanskrit and Brijbhasha,” says Sarna, who also served as spokesperson of India’s Foreign Office for six long years. Choosing from multiple texts and versions, the author (Sarna) has relied to a large extent on the version used by Bhai Veer Singh for translating the Zafarnama into Gurmukhi. “Writing in verse was a tremendous creative challenge,” says Sarna, while stressing that he has stuck to the tone and tenor of the original in these austere verses to the extent possible.
The book, published by Penguin India, also includes an essay that gives a broad overview of the historical and spiritual background of the Zafarnama right up to the early 18th century when Guru Gobind Singh fought against the minions of Aurangzeb who regarded him as the potent enemy of Mughal rule.
What drew him to a book of verses by Guru Gobind Singh? “Issues of morality and justice are as old and universal as man,” he says pithily. Centuries after Guru Gobind Singh wrote “Zafarnama” or “Letter of Victory” and sent it to Aurangzeb in March 1705, it speaks of the thirst for the divine and transcendent as powerfully as it did then. “The Zafarnama is in a sense a timeless text. It deals with the true nature of god, the meaning of creation, the importance of a moral and spiritual underpinning to our lives in thought and in action,” said Sarna. “I think these are issues that are faced by the present-day world too and are relevant for the 21st century as they were in the 17th and 18th centuries,” says Sarna, who returns to a religious theme after “The Book of Nanak” written eight years ago.
The verses evoke the sense of moral victory Guru Gobind Singh felt even after losing all he had – his four sons, his mother, his soldiers – to the bloodthirsty killers sent by the Mughal emperor in violation of his pledge. Verse 22 of Zafarnama encapsulates the poet-saint’s search for justice: “When all has been tried, yet/ Justice is not in sight/It is then right to pick up the sword/It is then right to fight.” Sarna’s last book ‘The Exile’ recreated the life and times of Punjab’s last Sikh ruler Maharaja Duleep Singh who died “completely alone” in a cheap hotel room in Paris. Zafarnama is, in a sense, about a warrior-saint-poet in exile. What draws him to the theme of exile and exiles? “In very different ways both do deal with Sikh history – ‘The Zafarnama’ is from a time of the formation of the Sikh faith, and ‘The Exile’ relates to the demise of the Ranjit Singh’s Sikh kingdom,” he says, while stressing that the two books are “quite different”.
“In different ways they deal with mettle of character being tested by severe adversity. Perhaps that is when true character, true courage show up and maybe unconsciously I am searching for these moments.”
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