Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Book Review: The Surveyor

The Surveyor,
by Ira Singh

Reviewed by Kavita Devgan

Ira Singh is a lecturer in English in Delhi University and The Surveyor is her first book. That she is easy with the language she teaches becomes clear from the prologue itself with her eloquent descriptive of photographs in an album taking us through a family's portraiture in poetic prose in one and a half pages. A rather nice and novel way of introducing readers to the main characters in the book, I think. The family seems as normal as any of ours - a dad, a mom and two daughters, one beautiful and one plain…
And then the story begins. Via this very regular sounding family, Ira takes us through generational changes, not just in the family but also in the country at large. The story begins in August 1947 with independence and partition and ends in present time Delhi. As one devours her writing - smooth, intense, haunting and metaphor laden -- it becomes clear that the family might be ordinary, but their story and circumstances aren't.
In the first half, the focus is on Ravinder, a Sikh who gets disowned by his family because he cuts his hair and then goes on to marry an Anglo Indian. He works for the survey ofIndia and that adds a rather unique, engrossing angle to the story. The writer spells out in simple language a lot about cartography, its history and anecdotes as she charts Ravinder's career path that takes him to many parts of India and even Nepal and Malaysia. She opens up a world of maps, navigation and charting not many people know about (I didn't) and to her credit makes this seemingly staid topic sound rather interesting, mysterious even. There are lots of sweet references about how his marriage pans out; this to most people of my generation will ring quite similar to the married life of our parents - tolerant, patient, giving!
Slowly, the focus shifts to his two daughters; the elder, mercurial Anuskha who gets dazzled by her own beauty and tries to escape from her middle class roots, and the younger, more grounded Natasha who inherits Ravinder's love for the written word and cartography. The latter part of the story is told through Natasha's eyes. Though the milieu and the language changes, the transition is absolutely seamless. All the characters in the book are well sketched, have a life of their own and 'participate' in the story. The reader gets a peep into the heart of all, including the talented caught-in-the-middle Jennifer Robbins, the Anglo Indian wife of Ravinder, and mother to Anushka and Natasha.
Ira's writing is masterful all through. It's very real, yet intensely sublime. Nowhere do history and facts overwhelm the main narrative, which is essentially a family saga and the most real coming of age story I have read in a while. The end is a little unexpected, and the only thing I'd probably have liked changed, being the eternal optimist that I am. But then that's just me. Ira to her credit has given the book a natural conclusion. A very impressive debut that explores memory and the meaning of freedom at multiple levels. Already looking forward to the next world Ira will take us into.