Ira Singh’s protagonist, a young woman born of an interracial marriage, pieces together the story of her parents’ lives much like a cartographic exercise, writes Shubhrastha Shikha.
Ira Singh’s The Surveyor is a coming-of-age narrative trying to negotiate the realities of a recently decolonised nation. Weaving a panoramic view of social, political, literary and personal histories of the mid-20th century India through the characters of Ravinder and his daughter Natasha, Singh tries to grapple with the contradictions and binaries overriding generational shifts in the novel.
Ravinder joins the Survey of India as a cartographer at the historical junction of India’s independence and the subcontinent’s partition in 1947. Much against the wishes of his father, Ravinder marries an Anglo-Indian, Jennifer Robbins, and is blessed with two daughters, Anushka and Natasha. Natasha, the protagonist of The Surveyor, inherits the passion for cartography and reading from her father, Ravinder. In The Surveyor, she creates a cinematic portrait of her life, from households scattered in small towns, to the larger world of the city. The novel in that sense is Natasha’s cartographic exploration of freedom and a search for her identity.
The almost sombre existential questions in the worlds of Ravinder’s parents, Ravinder and Natasha, are negotiated in violently contradictory fashions. There is a fiercely savage grip on tradition and religion on the part of Ravinder’s parents, Ravinder’s own absolute rejection of ritualistic tradition and unstinting love for cartography and finally, a calmness shown by Natasha as she makes her peace with the bits and pieces of these previous lives that she encounters. And through the novel, one begins to gradually align oneself with the natural simplicity of being.
Memory and the act of surveying, remembering and chronicling form the essence of the book, in terms of plot, structure and form. A free narrative shift of physical location from Punjab to Dehradun to Delhi is akin to cartographic curating. It denotes moving on as a snap from one world to the other. Indeed, the strength of the narration lies in the organic tectonic shifts that Natasha’s story takes. While lost in the rich dream-like narrative sequence of Dehradun and its hills, a reader reaches the end of a chapter. The very next moment, a chapter starts off in an upmarket Delhi space, jolting the reader as it quickly absorbs her into its enchanting fold. From one chapter to the other, one feels the narrative sliding away into wistful pasts, transporting the readers into a world of sharp images and moments punctuated by elegiac pangs.
The moments of lengthy, lisping almost relaxed recounting of details — as simple as remembering the almost forgotten Cherry Blossom shoe polish and Pears soap — have the ability to transport a reader to the real world of lost fantasies and memories fast fading into oblivion. The Coleridgean Kubla Khan experience of imagining and feeling a part of that makeshift dream which The Surveyor creates is so sensuous, delightful and rich that one genuinely wants that imagery to continue — without even a punctuation marring the effect.
Long, well knit, carefully carved and chiseled phrases and sentences mark the length and breadth of the novel. The preciseness of each word, the force of each phrase and the sensibility of each sentence is indicative of a careful craft.
Perhaps it’s the conscious decision of the author to use memory as a trope to interrogate various themes. Memory builds up the story. Memory constructs characters. Memory conjures up historical and political details of Emergency years. Memory constructs and deconstructs the larger notions of nation formation, re-formation and deformation. This flirtation with memory glosses over a few important details of events in history, but one can see that this is mostly by design.
The novel could have said a little more about the time it encapsulates. Just as each character in the novel is well rounded and well formed, so could each moment in history and politics have been crafted. Perhaps, that is the limitation of memory or this kind of memorisation. Through cartography, memory, fleeting landscapes, polyphonic voices and a language rich in historical allegory, The Surveyor provides a dream-like experience. But like a lot of dreams, it also ends up being vague at certain places.
Dreamy, brimming with lingering memories, intense, rich and fleetingly sensuous, Ira Singh’s The Surveyor is a recommendation for anyone who lives life with simplicity, honesty and adaptability. It’s a book that seeks resonance in (and provides nourishment to) all those who search for their identities in their homes, families, work, solitude, desire and freedom. Ultimately, though, it’s also about the price one pays for these things.