Daman Singh on writing a Family Story

Daman Singh Daughter of Manmohan Singh
Daman Singh

Daman Singh is an accomplished author of 4 books – 2 fiction and 2 non-fiction. She is the daughter of ex-prime minister of India Dr. Manmohan Singh and her latest book Strictly Personal – Manmohan & Gursharan talks about the life of her parents. I had the opportunity of being on the same panel as Daman Singh at the Indian Non-Fiction Festival in Delhi in November 2014 and listen to her talk about the book. Here she talks about her books and writing.

Your book Strictly Personal is about your parents – people you knew all your life and grew up with. How easy or difficult was it for you to write about them?

Daman Singh – It was very difficult. We are an extremely private family, so even the idea of the book was hard to take – at least in the beginning. I only started working on it after my parents and sisters said it was fine with them. Once I started writing I remember feeling very odd referring to my father as ‘Manmohan’ and my mother as ‘Gursharan’. It seemed so disrespectful, it took me a while to get used to it.

The book is their story – it’s a real story about real people, who have strengths as well as weaknesses, who go through good times as well as bad. Of course, I’ve known my parents all my life, but I simply took them for granted. I didn’t think about them as individuals. Writing this book was my way of getting to know them better. There were plenty of surprises along the way, pleasant as well as not so pleasant. So it certainly wasn’t easy. But the pleasure in talking to them about their lives more than made up for the difficulties.

Being a daughter, you obviously knew much more about your parents that the book could contain – did you use any parameters or thumb rules to draw boundaries of what can go into the book and what must remain private?

Daman Singh: I guess my biggest concern was not to hurt people I care about. But that doesn’t mean that I say nice things about everyone and everything. I do criticize, I do point out negative things, but I do this in a way that is not hurtful. There is no doubt that Strictly Personal is an affectionate book. But it’s also an honest book.

You are right, I didn’t put everything I knew into the book. I left out aspects of my parents’ lives that I had no right to share. I also left out certain aspects that involved other people – friends and relatives – because I hadn’t asked them for permission to write about them. As a writer, I must have ethical boundaries. This is something I feel very strongly.

Dr. Manmohan Singh comes across as an Economist first and then anything else. It appears that he was very happy talking about the work he did in the field of economics and would rather do without your other questions. Daman Singh Your comments.

Daman Singh: Not at all. We talked a lot about his work in the field of economics – both academic and policy-making – because it’s such a huge part of his life. But I found that he actually enjoyed talking about several other things as well. I think the chapters about his student years are particularly lively, they convey a very different side of him. He also had a lot to say about the institutions he worked in, the people he worked with, the friends he had. All of this put together helped me to understand how his ideas took shape, how he thinks.

Manmohan Singh - Ex Prime Minister of India
Daman Singh, Manmohan Singh, Gursharan Kaur with Strictly Personal

I think a lot of us who grew up in the 1970s and 80s would find the story of our mothers in Gursharan’s story – supporting the husband, single-handedly raising children, and managing extended families. How do you compare this to the role the women in generations play?

Daman Singh: I’m not sure I understand the question fully… Yes, a lot of people do come up to me and say, ”Your mother reminds me so much of my mother.” In fact, women of my mother’s generation seem to have really connected with my book. Of course, things are different now. These days women have far greater access to opportunities to develop their own talents, to fulfill their own aspirations, whether in the home or in the workplace.

You mention Dr. Manmohan Singh’s open heart surgery just before he became finance minister. For the next 15 years, he had the most stressful job on earth. How did he manage his health?

Daman Singh: Basically, my parents lead a very disciplined life. After my father underwent bypass surgery in 1990, they became even more disciplined. They are vegetarian, their meals are very light, they rarely eat out, they don’t drink, they go for regular walks. And my mother watches over my father like a hawk. Also, they are both spiritually inclined. I think this helps them deal with stress.

Why did you choose to stop at 2004, when 2004-14 were the most significant years in your father’s career?

Daman Singh: Frankly, I find the first 70 years of my father’s life truly fascinating. These are the years that reveal the kind of person he is, what he stands for. Ideally, I would have liked to write about the next ten years – when he was Prime Minister of India. But I realized that there were so many complex political, economic and social issues that needed to be covered. There was no way I could do this meaningfully in one or two chapters. I believe that the period 2004-14 deserves a book of its own. And I really don’t think that I’m the best person to write that book.

You are one of the few writers who dabble in both fiction and non-fiction. Tell us how different are these two forms of writing and how to do you approach them as a writer

Daman Singh: I am not a natural story-teller. My instinct is to write non-fiction. It gives me a lot of pleasure to dig up facts, sift through them, analyze them, and put them across creatively. This was how I wrote The Last Frontier: People and Forests in Mizoram – that was in 1996 – and later Strictly Personal: Manmohan & Gursharan.

But sometimes I get interested in a subject that tempts me to play around with facts, that’s when I turn to fiction. Writing fiction gives you so much freedom, so much control. In a novel, I can experiment with ideas that lie outside the actual world. I can invent characters and make them do pretty much what I want. My first novel, Nine by Nine, is the story of three young women in a university hostel during the 80s. Their story allowed me to take a close look at the subject of mental illness. And The Sacred Grove is about an adolescent boy growing up in a small town – but the underlying theme is religious prejudice. In both cases, fiction allowed me to explore a subject in a way that non-fiction wouldn’t have.

You and your sisters grew up in multiple places across the world. Looking back what were the advantages and disadvantages of this spread out growing up?

Daman Singh: I think travel takes you outside your comfort zone. It forces you to adapt to new surroundings, new people, new situations. And it helps you to understand yourself better. It certainly helped me to broaden my mind and to appreciate different cultures. It also gave me the confidence that I can fit it, wherever I go. In that sense, it’s been a wonderful education.

What changes did your father’s high profile job bring to your life? Did you do anything to minimize or leverage the impact on your and your son’s life?

Daman Singh: I was very careful not to let my father’s position change the person that I am. And I didn’t want my son to grow up with a false sense of importance. I deliberately stayed away from the official side of my father’s life. And I made sure that my lifestyle continued just as before. Still, I did have to make some adjustments. The major one was having round-the-clock security. This made me terribly uncomfortable, but I didn’t have a choice.

But then I made an effort to get to know the men who were protecting me. We would talk about their background, their families, their work. I learned to accept them as fellow-travelers, sort of. And I learned to appreciate them as dedicated professionals. After all, they would have given their life to save mine. So I guess I found a way to deal with my discomfort. And in the process, I became aware of how our paramilitary forces serve the country, and in such difficult circumstances. Every time there is an incident where they lose their men anywhere in the country, I feel a deep personal loss.

Daman Singh, Please tell us about the next book you are working on? (I am assuming you are working on one)

Daman Singh: I’m working on a novel set in India during World War II. But I don’t want to tell you more. I find that it’s unlucky to talk about a book that’s still in my head.

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