Creative literature can influence the way people feel and think about social issues

Daman Singh (PRM05) is the 2nd daughter of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. She graduated in mathematics from St Stephen’s College, Delhi. On a whim, she went to the Institute of Rural Management, Anand, for further studies. She is married to Ashok Patnaik, an Indian Police Service officer. They have one teenage son Rohan, and a dog completes the picture. She worked for 20 exciting years in the field of rural development sector. Eventually when she felt she had done all she could in the field, she quit. Now, she is a full time writer. Arpit Shah (AS) and Burra Naga Trinadh (BNT), both belonging to PRM30, interacted with her about her post-IRMA life.

AS & BNT: Can you tell us about your life before IRMA? Your childhood experiences and meaning of rural for you before joining IRMA, and the incidences that made you join IRMA?
DS: I grew up in Delhi and had a fairly sheltered, protected childhood. Life consisted of school and home. I went to an all-girls’ school, a convent, where discipline was strict. It was an unspoken rule that one had to do well, so I studied rather hard. At home I had my two sisters for company. We lived in a government bungalow in a sparsely populated locality, so generally lacked for friends. This meant that we had a lot of time on our hands. My interests were in reading, gardening, and nature-watching.

Going to college was a big change for me, especially as I moved into hostel. I studied Mathematics, and also managed to fit music, fine arts, and a considerable amount of socialising into my life. Hostel was where I made my closest friends. Studying Maths was an enjoyable, but isolating experience. So I emerged with an honours degree in Maths, but with no exposure into the world outside the university campus.

I was keen to continue with Maths, but unfortunately, didn’t manage to get a scholarship to study in the US or UK. My other option was to go to IIT Kanpur (which had an impressive flying club). However, I happened to break my leg while skiing, and couldn’t make it to Kanpur for the interview. So it was either Maths at Delhi University, or IRMA.

IRMA was only four years old, and I knew nothing about it. Spending another two years in Delhi University sounded dull. In contrast, IRMA sounded like an adventure. So that was where I went.

AS & BNT: How was your time at IRMA? What were some of the striking features? How did IRMA transform you both as a person and as a writer?

DS: For me, the most striking think about IRMA was that it forced me to engage: with diverse subjects, with teachers, with students, and with myself. And in the process, I discovered rural India, an entirely new world for me. I found many classroom sessions exciting and challenging. The months spent in fieldwork and MTS segments were an education in themselves. Looking at managerial issues through a complex web of social, cultural, economic, political, and inter-personal aspects proved to be a fascinating experience. Each of these aspects influenced my writing.

AS & BNT: What was your key learning from the extensive field visits in the villages of India, and what key lesson may be worth telling to interventionists from your experience of working with various NGO’s and developmental agencies?

DS: While I was at IRMA, I did my fieldwork in Bikaner district of Rajasthan. Later, when I started working, I travelled extensively in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (now Jharkhand) and less extensively in West Bengal, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh.

 Having worked in, and with, several NGOs, I am a firm believer in the non-profit sector. I feel privileged to have seen the work of some of the finest organisations in the country, and to have interacted with the truly talented people who work there. The development sector is full of ideas of empowerment, equity, participation, innovation, transparency, and so on, but it is only the finest NGOs that apply these concepts to their own structures and functions.

Among donors, I can think of very few that are willing to design their agenda according to local needs. Instead, the fund-seeking NGO is often compelled to tailor its approach to that of the donor, in letter if not in spirit. Also, monitoring and evaluation becomes a punitive tool in the hands of the donor, rather than an instrument of programme improvement in the hands of the NGO.

AS & BNT: Your work in Mizoram is famous. What was your major observation from your extensive research at Mizoram?

DS: In Mizoram I was working on a book titled The Last Frontier: People and Forests in Mizoram, that was published in 1996. The contrast between life in the Indian mainland and the northeastern hills is so stark, that it was like living in a foreign country. Hence it was an ‘unlearning’ experience.

Through my research I realised that the Indian mainland is enormously ignorant about its northeast. So my work was, in a sense, that of an explorer. I was able to document for the very first time, the existence of village safety and supply forests. Mine was possibly the first critical review of the new land use policies in the state. And I think that I successfully dislodged the myth that shifting cultivation is universally damaging, unremunerative, and primitive.

 AS & BNT: How did you evolve as a writer after you left IRMA?

DS: I have always loved to write. Unlike my colleagues, I would take a lot of pleasure in writing my tour reports. I had to do a fair amount of writing, especially towards the late 1990s when I was a freelance consultant. I was very choosy about my assignments, only accepting those that I thought would make a difference. But after a point I felt that my role as a consultant was totally peripheral to the real decisions and the real action. So while I was learning a lot, I don’t think I was contributing very much.
By this time I was 40. I thought I had learnt enough to get a senior position in the NGO sector. But there are very few positions, and clearly I was not in the running for any of them. So I decided to move on, and to write.
AS & BNT: Can you share us about your books you have already completed? What are the themes of these books, the source of characters, the plot of novels etc.? We have also heard about your plans for ‘a biography’ of your parents.
DS: The characters in my books are loosely based on people I have known. But no single character is based exclusively on one single person. I have taken the liberty to chop and change, bringing together different facets of various real people, and adding elements out of my own head.
My first novel is called Nine by Nine (2008). It is the story of three young women (Tara, Anjali, and Paro) living in a university hostel. Each has her own hopes and dreams, and her own battles to fight. The story traces Tara’s struggle to complete her phd, Anjali’s dilemma on whether to apply to study abroad, and Paro’s wait for her parents to find her a suitable groom. Mental illness is an underlying theme in the book.
The Sacred Grove (2010) is a story told by Ashwin, the 12-year old son of the district collector in a small town of central India. Ashwin is at an age when he is outgrowing motherly affection, is condescending about fatherly views, and is generally resentful of parental authority. His friends are his world, particularly those whom he plays cricket with. The story moves beyond Ashwin’s home and school, to a sacred grove, whose ownership is being contested. This contest takes on shades of religious conflict.
The biography I plan to write of my parents will be an entirely different adventure. I hope to explore the lives of my father and my mother as individuals, rather than solely as my parents. But while I will have to stick to the 'truth', I do not plan to unearth personal or professional secrets. So this is not going to be a juicy account with startling revelations.
AS & BNT: What is your response to the role of creative literature in bringing social change?
DS: As a reader, I enjoy reading fiction that makes me re-examine my own views, and that also entertains. Such books may be set in an interesting time or place. Or they may be about interesting people and situations. They could delve into history, society, culture, or the entire gamut of human relationships and behaviour. So they do not necessarily deal with social issues.
However, I do feel that fiction has the power to influence the way people feel, and think about social issues. Whether or not it influence the way people act, is an entirely different matter.


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