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the surveyor by ira singh picador indiaThe Surveyor, Ira Singh’s debut novel, is both an intimate portrait of family life as well as an exploration of more public histories. The author, who teaches English Literature at Miranda House, Delhi, tells Renu Dhole what drew her to the subject.

Please tell our readers a little bit about your book and the central concerns that you wanted to draw out in the story? Often it is an image or a character that sets the novel going in a writer’s mind. What was it for you?

The Surveyor has two protagonists, a father and daughter, and it is their stories, intermeshed, that I wanted to write. Ravinder, the father, joins the Survey of India in 1947 and lives an unconventional life. His daughter Natasha absorbs his stories and becomes the voice of their family, steadily marshalling their experience into a narrative. There wasn’t one trigger or image: novels, I think, are the product of moments of illumination, of layers of experience.

What do you think of the value of fiction illuminating some part of history? What is it that you get out of novels that you don’t get out of history books?

There are as many different kinds of novels as there are people, so history can be dealt with differently by different writers, or left out of the frame, as it were, altogether.
I chose to use political events as pointers, as frames: seeing how they affect characters lives. I also wanted to write the cultural history of a certain generation, so that’s another way of using history altogether. I’ve used music, primarily, but also the history of the photograph to comment on the passage of time.
Some of the central themes of the novel (childhood, time, solitude) have always been of interest to me. I was also trying to trace an arc, through the stories of the two protagonists, father and daughter, an arc that travels from 1947 to 1991.

You’ve been writing short stories. Was the transition to writing a novel difficult?

Yes, it was extremely difficult. To write a novel, as one of Coetzee’s protagonist’s remarks, you have to be like Atlas — you have to keep that burden on your shoulders for years.
Telling a story is one task; the other is constantly editing, selecting, deciding how to shape your material.

Independence and Partition have been used as backdrops in quite a few books. But you chose cartography as a tool to carry your narrative forth. Any special reason for this choice?

I didn’t want to treat a subject — Partition — which has been written about so movingly and wonderfully by those far more competent than I.
I was also very clear that I wanted to write a novel that did not use history as backdrop. Cartography interests Ravinder because it provides him with worlds he can imagine. Mapping provides him with precision, with technique. Cartography in the novel, then, is one of the modes through which I have my protagonists look at the world.

When dealing with history and a specific kind of knowledge (cartography in this case), what care must a fiction writer take?

One must read and one must think a great deal about how to use what one has read and learnt. I had a great deal more material on both the survey and cartography in earlier drafts; I gradually whittled it down. The material mustn’t overwhelm the narrative, I think, and besides making sure your facts are accurate (which I really hope mine are!) you must let the reader breathe.

This is your first novel. Any other projects in the offing? Any genres close to your heart?

I am working on a collection of stories and I have a draft of a second novel. The novel is the form I think most about