Sharat Sabharwal currently holds probably the most sensitive post an Indian diplomat can aspire to do. To put it straight, he is India’s High Commissioner in Pakistan. Quite obviously, anyone sent to Islamabad in that position is considered among the most efficient, experienced and brightest lot in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS). But even amidst his official responsibilities, often bordering on the very sensitive, Sabharwal seeks to follow another calling, that of studying the philosophical meaning of life and death. This and his experience of observing societies in countries as diverse as Switzerland, Madagascar, France and Mauritius and Uzbekistan has given him valuable insights into how people approach the meaning of life. Sabharwal’s debut novel Flickering Hope (Rupa & Co) has its moorings in these very observations. Sabharwal speaks with Deccan Herald’s Utpal Borpujari on his philosophies about life:
You took up a very philosophical subject for your very first novel. How did it come about?
By the age of 57, which is what I was when the novel came out, every thinking person seeks to find a meaning in all that he has perceived and experienced in his life. It is natural for a person to look through a philosophical lens at this stage of his life. Moreover, for me, if a book is to carry value, it must contain a message that offers solutions to the issues facing mankind or spurs thought on such issues.
The story has its genesis in your studies about the role of science and religion in human life. How did you get interested in this subject?
I was born in a family with deep religious moorings and yet a scientific temperament. My father was a man with an abiding faith in the Almighty. He was also a doctor, who used science in his everyday work. I grew up seeing these two streams co-exist. I imbibed faith and, at the same time, a scientific outlook from my family and education. Therefore, it was natural for me to get interested in knowing if these two streams were antithetical to each other or were both integral to human existence. I seek to resolve this dilemma in my book.
Ancient Indian philosophy about life and death is considered the most logical by many. How would you place it vis-à-vis the traditions and beliefs of other cultures that you have studied?
The phenomenon of death has struck awe among human beings since times immemorial. Cold scientific logic, as one of the characters in Flickering Hope says, regards life as a biological balance of various chemical substances occurring in nature and goes on to add that when this balance is disturbed beyond redemption, death takes place. The protagonist responds, ”I wonder if human mind can be at peace with such cold logic.” This explains the dilemma that has obliged nearly every stream of faith to talk of some sort of afterlife, which awaits humans when they die. The novel speaks of reincarnation and resurrection. In Madagascar, where I served in the early 1980s, many people observe ceremonies, called ‘Famadihana’, involving corpses of ancestors being removed from their tombs every few years. These are cleaned and wrapped in a new shroud before being placed in the tomb again. ‘Famadihana’ is based on the belief that those who die pass through to a superior existence, where they enjoy increased power and wisdom. ‘Famadihana ‘ is, therefore, not a sad but a celebratory occasion.
How deep do you think you can go into the debate about science & religion in the fictional format?
Not very deep. However, my novel is not meant to be a treatise, either on science and religion or on life and death. It seeks to look at these phenomena, not through the eyes of a scholar, but those of two ordinary persons. The message so conveyed is much easier to understand than through a scholarly work.
The debate on the role of science and religion in human life has been never-ending one. What’s your take on it?
In my view, until science can explain everything and every phenomenon around us- and it may take ages for such a day to dawn, if it ever dawns – religion will continue to have an important place in our lives. There is still a vast territory beyond the comprehension of science. Religion must begin where science ends.
In the world of diplomacy, is it possible to look at things from a philosophical viewpoint? Or, is it through your writing that you get the opportunity to explore these topics?
Like any other work, diplomacy involves both action and reflection. Therefore, philosophical reflection is not confined to my world of writing only.
How easy or difficult is it for you to wear the writer’s hat amidst the hectic work schedule in such an important posting as India’s High Commissioner in Pakistan?
Nearly impossible. I wrote Flickering Hope over a period of three years of a somewhat lighter assignment and that too essentially over weekends.
How much your life as a diplomat posted in various parts of the world has helped you in expanding your horizons as a writer?
Writing fiction is not imagination pure and simple. The perceptions and experience of an author have an important bearing on his writings. Exposure to different cultures and environment as a diplomat endows you with rich experience.