With beautifully-crafted prose, Ira Singh in her debut book The Surveyor (Picador India), brings to life the story of Ravinder on his years in the Survey of India, albeit through eyes of his child, Natasha. The narrative is a journey in itself — it straddles several decades and generations, starting with Natasha, moving to Ravinder and then back to Natasha again, travelling back and forth through memories and conversations. There are also individual stories of Ravinder’s wife Jennifer Robbins and two children, through which Ira examines the perplexity of their identities using historical events as frames. The vein of the book, however, is the cultural commentary of various generations, capturing the zeitgeist of the Loralai community and Anglo-Indians through 1947 to 1991, the pain of separation and belonging and of freedom and accomplishment.
Speaking about the book, Ira notes, “I wanted to write a story about a father and daughter — their separate stories and the story of this family, of the sisters and the peculiar position the family occupies, as well as writing about particular, cataclysmic historical moments in this country.”
Each sentence in the book is written with literary precision, layered with elegiac prose and poetic semblance, each instance, well crafted and each character, well etched. The evocative beauty of the country’s topography are also given their due — her characters travel far and wide exploring various aspects of the subcontinent and beyond. Ira says that, for the purposes of the book, she read the historical records of the survey and other related material. This and her interviews of her father and his colleague gave her a deep understanding of cartography. She says, “My father was in the Survey of India, but he was not, like Ravinder, passionate about it. Talking to him and his colleague helped me get a sense of the lives they lived when they joined the Survey.”
For Ira, who now teaches English Literature at Delhi University’s Miranda House, her literary journey started when she was in the twenties, writing short stories. Soon after, she started working on a novel which bore resemblance to The Surveyor. But it was not something that she pursued. She confesses, “It was Ravinder’s story, but told in a very different voice. I couldn’t persevere, it felt wrong.”
Around the same time she also started to pen Natasha’s story, but it too was a futile attempt. In her words: “It was a random, disconnected fragmentary form.” She adds, “In order to keep writing something — and also to make a quick buck! — I wrote book reviews, many of them. I found reviewing very pleasurable, for a variety of reasons. Writing articles, too, interested me, as specific responses to issues, some of which I dealt with all the time in the classroom, with students of Literature in the University.” She discovered a voice for the novel later, in what has now become The Surveyor.
One of the authors Ira admires the most is Javier Marias, essentially for his style of writing. “His sentences, they’re very long, with clauses studding them, but he exhibits absolute and perfect control over them,” she expresses. In the last few years, she has been smitten by a diverse mix of writers, all of whom have had a bearing on her psyche. “At this point, I devour Coetzee, Carver, Bellow, McGahern, Bolano. But at other times, there were Anita Brookner, Lessing, Morrison, Delillo, Cormac McCarthy, Martin Amis, Mishima, to name a few. I also consumed biographies, gulped them down. I read a lot of detective fiction, particularly Nordic crime. And then in recent Indian writing in English: Jeet Thayil and Jaspreet Singh. As a writer all you have loved and read stays with you and shapes you.”
First published in The New Indian Express on October 14, 2014