Author, Ira Singh:
‘August 1947. Ravinder joins the Survey of India, about to devote his life to mapmaking, traversing unchartered territories, braving the elements. Alone in his tent he devours books by the light of a lamp. He militates against a tyrannical father and a faith he cannot be true to.
In 1958 he falls in love with Jennifer, an Anglo-Indian, the daughter of Grace Robbins–a woman who will never accept this marriage. But marry they do. They have two daughters, Anushka and Natasha.
Natasha is the chronicler of this family of outsiders, peering from the wings as her older sister takes centre stage. Hers is a journey from the small town to the city. Her father passes on to her his fierce love of the written word and a curiosity about cartography. She traces, as he did, the histories of those relatively unknown surveyors who mapped the country, putting their lives at risk. She also, in the process, traces his life.’
Author Ira Singh lets us in on what went in to write her debut novel, The Surveyor.
When did your romance with the written word begin?
I’ve been a reader all my life. I started writing short stories in my twenties. I had always written, of course, the-article-full-of-big-words kind of writing; the school magazine, the exam essay, but it wasn’t till my late twenties (late to be a prodigy, very late, in fact) that I thought–I want to be a writer. Those short stories–almost inevitably, it seemed–all went on to be rejected by various newspapers, journals and even a publisher, later, when I daringly decided to put some of what I thought were the better ones together in a collection. Simultaneously, I started writing a novel. I wrote 30,000 words and trashed it, started over, junked it. The voice was wrong. By this time I was in my mid thirties, reading a great deal, as always, teaching, as I had been for many years, but dissatisfied. I applied to do an M.A. in creative writing. I thought it might help. I applied for the Charles Wallace Fellowship. I got it and they sent me off to summer school. The supervisors there said I wrote well.
I got admission to the M.A, on the strength of a writing sample. It felt good. I couldn’t go, couldn’t afford it, life intervened, but that wasn’t the point. I started writing what became The Surveyor. I wrote the first draft one summer quite a long time ago. After that came the work, of years.
What inspired your debut novel The Surveyor?
It’s hard to say what inspires a novel; it’s a series of accretions, moments, epiphanies that you try to make coherent.
The Surveyor spans decades and generations–what kind of research went into it?
I did research a fair bit, but mostly on the Survey of India. I quite consciously chose not to write a novel using history as a backdrop–the net result of that sort of research seems to me intrusive when read. Instead I chose to use crucial historical moments in the life of the country (partition, assassinations) to frame characters lives.
What is about cartography that fascinates you?
Cartography as a way of negotiating the world, if you will; cartography as interpretation; mapping as representation.
How much of your own reality is reflected in the novel?
My father was in the Survey, I knew about it early on. He wasn’t passionate about his job, unlike the protagonist of the novel. I thought, however, that it would be interesting to write about it and it was. As to the rest; much that I have seen, absorbed, much that I have learnt has gone into this novel. I hope that’s one of the advantages of being older and of writing a first novel relatively late.
What is it about writing that evokes emotion in you?
The act of writing gives rise to several contradictory, conjoined emotions; caution and pride, anxiety and great, great happiness, despair and complacency. At its purest it gives solace, even though, as Yeats pointed out helpfully in Adams Curse, it’s the labor of hours.
Lastly can you give us a blurb on your debut novel?
The Surveyor attempts to explore memory, belonging and the meanings of freedom.
Published by Pan Macmillan India, The Surveyor released early this month. Get your copy soon!
Click here to read the entire Platform magazine interview of Ira Singh