“The author has managed to juxtapose the historic with the ordinary. While surveyors indulge in map-making, this novel places these very mappers on the map and chronicles their lives in an endearing way, writesANANYA BORGOHAIN”
Spanning many decades and covering different generations and eras, Ira Singh’s debut novel, The Surveyor, overwhelmingly questions the sense of belonging, or, the lack of the same. Young Sikh Ravinder joins the Survey of India and forays into the world of mapmaking, discovering the unknown, exploring the unchartered. His first act of rebellion is his cutting of his hair and giving up his turbaned identity, for which his dictatorial father never forgives him. He falls in love with Jennifer in 1958 and marries her subsequently aggravating the irreparable hostility that had already generated between his father and him. Anglo-Indian Jennifer’s mother, Grace Robbins, too shares Ravinder’s father’s sentiments and resents the marriage throughout. Ravinder and Jennifer eventually have two daughters, Anushka and Natasha.
Natasha is the narrator of the novel. She is a keen observer and chronicles the times and memories of the family as they move from a small town to the city. She inherits the inclination towards cartography from her father and traces the accounts of the unsung, unfamiliar but brave surveyors who had mapped the country.
The novel begins with a mundane account by Natasha; she is constantly under the shadow of her elder sister whom she describes in detail. She talks about travelling places and lends an insight into the inner lives of her family. Her narrative is set in the present time. The second chapter of the novel goes back to August 1947, during the time of Partition, and focusses on young Ravinder. His training being suspended, he is trapped in the Wheeler’s barracks. The cooks go on leave and there is nothing to eat for two days. Ravinder diverts his attention to reading; he cultivates a sincere admiration for the written word.
The author does not indulge in any graphic description of the gory events that had unfolded during the Partition but using it as a backdrop, tactfully maps the surveyor Ravinder’s time. In an endearing moment when his father is waiting to receive him, Singh writes about the aftereffects of Partition, “Much after the slaughter ends his father waits for them: relatives straggling across a border jaggedly and cruelly drawn across people’s lands and feelings”.
Ravinder’s act of discarding his religious marker, his long hair, is also a strong metaphor that evokes two larger motifs in the narrative, the search for identity and the price for freedom. His courtship with Jennifer Robbins too is a nail in the coffin.
His orthodox family sternly disapproves of the match and Jennifer’s mother holds equally fierce bitterness (merged with feelings of racism) towards them: “Their courtship will last years, years of letters and flowers and jazz bands crooning in the spot-lit dark, of her mother’s anger, her ancient anger in full bloom now that Jenny was being courted, and that too, by one of Them”. Singh also has the habit of stressing on words by using capital letters, as in “Christopher had left with Another Woman…”, “The Displaced, particularly from Punjab…”, “Grace’s other relatives were going to immigrate or Go Back…”, and so on.
His sections reflect the sociological facets of the time as well. There are references to Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, or the mundane Calcutta landscape sketched thus: “He is in love with Calcutta, its great maidans and its old buildings, he visits the Victoria Memorial, figure of winged victory atop its central dome, opened in 1921: between 1869 and 1921, he discovers, more than fifty statues of Victoria were commissioned across India. He goes to watch films and eats ghoogni off the street and he goes to Flury’s and drinks tea there…”.
Moving from the historical and socio-cultural, Natasha’s narrative on the other hand is an insightful glimpse into human psychology, how thoughts construct consciousness and how the core of human relations are centred on them.
It is Natasha who puts the mapper on the map. Learning in great detail about them from her insistent father, she sets out to map the surveyors’ histories. Her research shapes up in a healthy documentation and covers a multitude of aspects — Wilcox’s journey in 1824, an unknown surveyor of 1823 who talked of travelling on Yaks, about the plundering Pindaris, the Arab horses, and so on. As Natasha does so, she feels, “I peel off the layers of my disguise and burrow into detail, into facts, into words”.
The author has managed to juxtapose the historical with the ordinary. She narrates a surveyor’s experience during the Partition with as much ease as she does when she talks of Anushka’s visit to one Chandni beauty parlour.
Singh’s story also travels on a wide expanse across States and countries, and as the canvas expands, so do the emotions and socio-cultural configurations within the small family.
The Surveyor is rich in prose; Singh has the gift of gab which translates poetically in her writing. She is effortlessly articulate and her metaphors are strongly effective.
The context of her story is essentially mundane and she highlights the everyday life of a normal family, but she employs her rich imagination to empower the humdrum landscape and ends with a conundrum of what one’s identity actually means.