Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has found his Boswell within the family. His daughter Daman Singh is writing a biography on the journey of her parents.
Daman, who claims to have simplified her life (to the extent that she affords the luxury of not carrying a mobile phone), has written Nine by Nine, a novel with three women protagonists. Sacred Grove, her second novel, consists of monologues from the life of a 13-year-old boy, offering his worldview as he grows up with his parents in a small town in India.
After graduating in mathematics from St Stephen's College, New Delhi, Daman went to the Institute of Rural Management at Anand, Gujarat. Based on her extensive field experience of villages, she wrote a non-fiction work The Last Frontier: People and Forests in Mizoram. She is married to Ashok Patnaik, an Indian Police Service officer. She lives in Delhi with her teenage son and a dog.
Daman Singh speaks about the latter's upcoming book, which is a biography of her parents.
What prompted you to think of writing your father's biography?
Actually, I am writing a biography of my mother as well as my father. When I was through with my last novel, The Sacred Grove, I was thinking about what to work on next. At that time, I thought that it would be fascinating to write about my parents. Over the past few years, I have begun to realise how little I know of their lives. There is so very much I want to know and understand as a daughter. As a writer, it is a challenge for me to tell their story to a larger audience. They have lived in complex times, at interesting places, and have got to know so many remarkable people. My father's experience of public life is actually a very small part of the whole picture.
How different is Dr Manmohan Singh as a father to communicate with? The general perception is of him being a terse communicator.
My father has always been economical with words. He prefers to speak only when necessary and is not given to idle chatter. When asked a question, he listens carefully and gives a precise answer. He neither evades the question, nor does he digress. I think his thoughts are so well organised that he simply cannot ramble. If he does not know the answer, he simply says so. This is the way he is, whether in public or private. I would say that he is a measured communicator rather than a terse one.
Did he drop you to school, could you share your little squabbles you had at school with him (like Ashwin in The Sacred Grove shares with his mother), did he help you in your homework, project work etc?
When we were in school, my sisters and I did not really need help with our studies. Except that my father did help Upinder, my elder sister, with maths, of which she had a great phobia. My mother could be relied on to hold a book while one rattled off things that one had mugged up. I think we sisters probably helped each other out quite a bit though. There was a time when our school bus dropped us off a good 2 km from home. My father used to drive to work, pick us up in the afternoon, drop us home, and dash back to office. This continued for a few weeks until the bus route changed. If there was anything particular bothering us, we confided in our mother. She has always been very sensible and practical, and generally gives good advice. The time that I feel closest to my parents is when we sit together quietly, reading the morning newspapers, and drinking tea.
Which aspect of his life you think would make an interesting read? Do your parents share their journey and their relationship with each other with you for the book?
It's hard to say which portion of my parents' life is most interesting. Personally, their early years are special for me. It is great fun to try and visualise their lives before my sisters and I arrived on the scene. I really want them to talk about things that interest them, rather than those that merely interest me. This way I hope to understand what shaped their thoughts, views and actions.
Are you taking the help of your father's diaries, etc to research his life?
I am basically relying on conversations with my parents, and their friends and colleagues.
Of the three sisters, when you were growing up, did you think he had a favourite daughter?
Definitely not! My parents have always been very careful to treat their three daughters alike.
Did he make an exacting father, for self-made people are often very demanding on their children?
My mother and father let us grow up on our own. We had a lot of freedom to believe what we wanted, and do what we liked. They certainly have not been demanding parents. But they are very demanding of themselves. So I think all three of us learnt to set high standards for ourselves at an early age, and tried to do well in whatever we took up.
Will you be under pressure (subconsciously) to be politically correct while writing his biography?
I am conscious of the fact that I do not want to hurt anyone by anything I write. It's possible that I may talk about some controversial matter, but I intend to do so in a sensitive way. I must, however, point out that I am not looking for inside information, juicy stories or gossipy tales. This might make the book somewhat dull, but I'll just have to liven it up in other ways.
Will the biography include politics as a backdrop, or is it going to be a personal memoir?
I see the book as a personal memoir of my parents. Though I do plan to cover their experience of public life, without launching off into a separate discussion on political affairs.
Which biographies are among your favourites?
The most powerful biography I have read is A Beautiful Mind, by Sylia Nasar, also Nehru by MJ Akbar, and Vikram Seth's True Lives. There are so many, I could go on and on.
It is interesting that after graduating in maths you have become a writer. Did you take up some course in writing?
I have always been keen on writing. But I didn't really see it as a profession. I was a fanatical letter writer right through school and college, and also wrote short stories that nobody wanted to publish. During my career in the field of rural development, I did a lot of writing: articles, reports, papers, including the book: The Last Frontier: People and Forests in Mizoram. But once I decided to give up my job then I took to creative writing in a serious way.
Did you read literature as a young student or your interest developed later?
My sisters and I took to the world of books very early in life. And our parents encouraged us to do so, even though it sometimes got excessive. My mother would sometimes complain that whenever she needed any help, we had our nose buried in a book. Our most exciting outing was when our father took us to a bookshop. Our birthday presents were always books. There was a time when we lived walking distance away from the Delhi Gymkhana Club, which has an excellent library. I recall fighting with my sisters over the library cards, borrowing two books, hurrying home and racing to finish them just so that I could borrow the next two.
You said somewhere that you have simplified your life? Is it simple to be PM's daughter? How do you keep yourself free of that baggage?
I am not a very clever person. Complexity confuses me. And I simply cannot handle two tasks at the same time. My instinct is to clarify, simplify and sequence things. Maybe this is why I was pretty good at mathematics. Or maybe this is what mathematics taught me. So it was a rather confusing time for me when my father became Prime Minister. It complicated my life. I had to make a very serious effort to remain true to myself. It took me a while to figure things out, but I think I managed things quite well.
Do the everyday brickbats blared through the media on the PM, affect your writing? How does your son take it?
I think it is very important to be able to take criticism of oneself, as well as that of people one cares about. Of course, this is not easy. But one has to try. Though my son does get terribly upset when he hears negative things about his grandfather, I try and help him to rationalise his response.