The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
— Seamus Heaney
These lines of Irish poet Seamus Heaney from 1966 still holds true for a writer who understands the complexity of writing as a means of documenting lives of real people. Ira Singh’s debut novel The Surveyor by Picador India earnestly searches ‘for the good turf. Digging.’ Ravinder, the surveyor in the book goes far and wide to find the ‘good turf’. His daughter Natasha, the narrator of the novel, hopes to capture his father’s journey with her ‘squat pen’ but it can’t happen as the distortion of reality and the memory of it results in impregnable abyss. Parkinson freezes Ravinder’s mind and body at the end of the novel symbolising the abyss.
If you are reading this review and you haven’t read The Surveyor, here is a little teaser and the rest of the review will help you to see why you should or should not read the book. There is a small girl who narrates the story of her family that includes, her father Ravinder who is the surveyor and part of a family displaced after the partition in 1947; her mother Jenny, who is Anglo-Indian but very much a typical middle-class Indian housewife slogging her life away either in the kitchen or at her sewing desk; her elder sister Anushka, who is a regular glossy-lipped teenager with dreams of flying away one day; her mother’s mother Grandma Robbins, who is a grumpy granny who remained back in India after the INdian independence in 1947 but never could accept the idea of Britishers going away; and relatives from her father’s side who were all scattered after the partition to eventually find abode in foreign lands.
Title: The Surveyor
The surveyor in the novel is Ravinder but it’s his daughter Natasha who maps the fragmented territories of the family’s past by documenting their present. She is the surveyor of their history and the memory of it from whatever she can gather from her family members. What Ravinder does in the fields- color-coding strange terrains and unknown mountains, Natasha does so by going through the collective psyche of the family.
Who is a surveyor anyway? A surveyor is the first person to arrive at an unknown and undocumented land. He connects a barren land to a city, a city to a capital, a capital to a country, and a country to all continents of the world. He places the unknown within the known and gives it an identity. But unlike a taxonomist who can name new species of plants adding his own signature, a surveyor gets no mention. He has no footprints. Allowed not to carry any memory of the lands he leaves behind. Memory can’t be afforded to a surveyor, it jeopardises his credibility to enter the next unknown.His sole aim is to forever search for the unknown, tag it, map it and move on. Ad infinitum. A surveyor, for a postmodernist, is as close one can get to an objective narrator. So it’s only fair that the surveyor Ravinder maps and tags until his legs freeze with Parkinson. He is unable to create, or, should we say re-create an account of his days in the field from his memory, when his daughter Natasha wants to write about it.
One of the reasons why Ravinder must traverse the unknown- whether identity or a memory- is to make sense of his life. He is part of a displaced family who always longed for the left behind time and space. His nationalist father who cut him off for not keeping a turban, who still waited for his suitcases lost at the time of partition, ironically, ends up living in London with his daughter. Most of the characters are trying to get home. Home – which is always a hypothetical creation of memory for them.
Present Tense Narration: Here and Now and Some Motifs
‘Writing is above all an act of pretense’, says Stephen Pinkler, a well-known linguist and cognitive scientist. Verbal communications, Pinkler believes, comes naturally to us than writing, where a writer has to think and act within a simulated world. Can you ever document the ‘half knowledge of when and where’ was the eternal theme in Samual Beckett’s writing underlining the temporal and spatial challenges of narration. World that’s continuously receding into past poses questions of credibility when recalled by memory of an individual or a generation. What’s gone instantly falls into a world that can only be simulated for the purposes of reconstruction for whatever reasons. Postmodern writing is conscious of pretentiousness of the written word. It’s conscious of the challenges of fiction, of simulation, and of reconstructing the past. Literary fiction with all it’s literary tropes and figures of speech even more so.
So, to tackle the eternal dilemma of making sense of ‘half truths of when and where’ Ira chooses present tense narration. Writers are increasingly using present-tense narration but primarily for the effect of immediacy. But The Surveyor has deeper reasons to employ present-tense. The prologue sets the scene with a description of a family snapshot. To get as close to finding an objective narrator, Ira picks the youngest member of the family- Natasha. She has little personal baggage of memory. Her narration tends to be ‘as-is’, just like the snapshot description in the prologue. It’s no coincidence that the narrator is a female and most characters in the novel are feminine. Even the male lead Ravinder is not a masculine symbol of patriarchy, which his father is. His father’s position at the patriarchal top is destabilized and he eventually has to take refuge at his daughter’s house in London.
Continuing upon the theme of feminine side of the novel, one of the recurring initial motifs is that of ‘imperious snail’. It is only mentioned a few times in the first part of the novel when the girls are growing up. It can be interpreted as coming of age perception of masculinity as ‘ snails curled patiently in their shells, excreting and oozing silently.’ It’s an example of an amazing symbolism applied to describe human life from a feminine perspective.
Another recurring motif that relates to spatial and temporal displacement is that of dogs. ‘ …did he always have to leave something behind ‘, is how Ravinder thought about one of the dogs.
Ira’s mastery of using various literary tropes is second to none as is evident from delicate handling of the imagery, whether that of surveyed terrains of Ravinder’s field trips, or, the life at the valley.
Overall, a delicately put together book that masterfully captures a world of people imprisoned in their own abyss.