The Surveyor, published this year is Ira Singh’s first Novel. Set in the 1970s-80s the Surveyor maps the journey of Ravinder Singh through the eyes of his daughter, the plain Jane, Natasha. The Novel is a quest for one’s identity. It chronicles the lives of a part Sikh part Anglo Indian family, where the younger, demure, plain daughter of Ravinder and Jenny tries to find her true self, much like her father.
‘And here a formal photograph in a studio, to immortalize them, the parents in their best clothes, the two girls in green brocade with sashes. Anushka, hair curled and dress flounced, smiling widely. Courting that old friend, the camera: Natasha staring into it as if trying to fathom its artifices’. These lines from the Epilogue pretty much set the stage for the rest of the novel. The parents are Ravinder and Jenny, the former a non-practicing Sikh, the latter, an Anglo Indian. Ravinder marries Jenny much against the wishes of his family. They have 2 daughters, the beautiful & confident Anushka, and the plain & quite Natasha, who is also the narrator of the story.
‘She is a quite baby who seems to court solitude and rarely cries, she is perfectly healthy but some children emerge from the womb wounded, and she one of them. She has tufts of black hair and a brown skin. Like him, she is like him.’ Natasha inherits her father’s love for the written word and is automatically drawn to his world of Maps and decides to chronicle the lives of surveyors and her father’s. Tracing his journey from 1947, when he joins the Survey of India. In doing so she finds herself asking the same questions as her father, struggling to belong, just like him.
The story and characters might remind you of Hindi Films in the 70s or soaps that once aired on Doordarshan. Set in the late 70s/early 80s a lot of people, who have grown up in the era, would find it so relatable. A middle class family trying to achieve their small aspirations, a rebellious father, a grief stricken mother ‘her grief is for what could have been’. An outgoing older sister blinded by her own beauty, who longs for the lives of her rich NRI cousins and an inconspicuous younger sister. Despite these Clichés, the author spins a story which is poignant and rich with emotions without being melodramatic. Be it Jenny mother’s anguish that her daughter is getting married to one of ‘Them’ or the tension between Ravinder and his father due the latter’s religious beliefs [or rather the lack of it] or the fragile relations between Jenny and her sister which finds a reflection in Natasha and Anusha’s relationship as well, the author handles them with a lot of compassion. There are no villains in the story, just a bunch of people who are humane and flawed at the same time.
The language is beautiful and poetic. She creates lovely imagery with her writings.
‘Soon it will be time to go to field again, but now the rain falls and the mist comes whisking upto the wooden houses and it covers them as they sleep’
‘They woke up, he said, as it struck and soon the outdoors were indoors, fires raged, smoke plummeted into the air. The mountains yawned around them. The stars were bright, and there was full moon. The earth rumbled gently, playfully, a mild shudder passed through the remains of houses, people cried out’
The story moves at a slow, dreamy pace, which goes well with Natasha’s character since she is the narrator, however that, at times might deter you. As we reach part VII of the book, things suddenly start happening at a faster pace, a pace you were not used to so long, hence it looks a little hurried. We see a Natasha, who is more confident and has found her calling at last, however you wonder what triggered the change?
A question that I have for the author is the reason for calling the book ‘The Surveyor’, yes we do have Natasha following the lives of the surveyors, documenting their history and it indeed is an interesting read, but it could have been any other profession. Especially because it is mostly small facts and anecdotes about the surveyors and about the journeys that Ravinder undertook, but these are few and far between. Even when she is talking about Ravinder’s experiences, they mostly talk about his inner conflicts, his being a surveyor does not add to the story in any big way as one would expect.
Do I recommend the book? Sure, the language is rich, the story is beautiful. Pretty fit for Autumn I must say, because it leaves you with a sweet sense of melancholy.