Daman Singh speaks about setting World War II as the backdrop for her novel Kitty's War.
Daman Singh believes it is her ignorance about the role of World War II in Indian context that inspired her to write Kitty’s War, a novel based on the war. The idea struck her in early 2013. By the time Strictly Personal, a memoir of her parents Manmohan Singh and Gursharan, came out, she was totally hooked to the idea of Kitty’s War.
“When I was working on Strictly Personal, my father once mentioned that he used to listen to news about World War II on the radio. I was quite surprised, because I didn’t think the war had anything to do with us. So I started reading up. That’s when I realised how wrong I was,” Daman, author of four books, says.
She realised only recently that India had a major role in World War II, she confesses. As she delved deep into the subject, a perfect backdrop for a historical novel began to unravel. “War period was difficult. We were supplying the army with food, fuel, and all sorts of materials in a big way. Industries were diverted to making goods for the war, trade was disrupted. So we had shortages — even rationing in some places — and prices shot up. Ordinary people had to face a great deal of hardship. But the war effort was naturally the top priority for the colonial government. Meanwhile, the freedom struggle was becoming more and more intense. So this was a time of social, economic and political tension — just perfect for the background of a novel.”
She spent around two years on the first draft amassing information about war from available sources, and another year re-working on it with her editor V.K. Karthika. “Thanks to Google, I found a vast amount of material on the Internet about the war, railways and the Anglo-Indian community. One of the books that I discovered was The Raj at War, by Yasmin Khan. It’s simply fascinating, and so beautifully written. Then, to get the details right, I also had to find out what people those days ate, drank, wore, read and all,” says Daman.
She, then, put together all those details to weave the story of Kitty, the lead character. The book is about Kitty’s search for love and life. Daman says she was nervous about writing a historical novel. “I’m neither a scholar nor an intellectual. So, I must admit that I was nervous about writing it. It took a huge amount of research to convince me that my story was credible. Hopefully readers will also see it that way,” feels the author who has been writing since her school days. “But I became a writer only after I decided that I needed a change from my career in the field of rural development.”
Daman has written two novels, Nine By Nine and The Sacred Grove and two works of non-fiction, The Last Frontier: People and Forests in Mizoram and Strictly Personal. An admirer of RK Narayanan’s simplicity and Isabel Allende’s vivid imagery, she says her life experiences reflect in her works. “They do — at least in bits and pieces, not solid chunks,” she says. But, with Kitty’s War, it was different. “I couldn’t rely on personal experience, because I didn’t have any. So I had to stretch my imagination as far as it could go.”
Another aspect of writing that she enjoys is character moulding. She says once she gets a clear idea, she knows what kind of characters should tell it. “I try to make each of them a real person with a distinct personality, attitudes, and opinions; and give them quirks, whims and fancies, thus making them more interesting. I need to know everything about them, even though I don’t plan to share all of this with readers. Normally, characters develop slowly, as the story unfolds, and as they interact with the rest of the cast,” says Daman, who is currently writing a book on metal asylums in India. “It’s a difficult subject and, again, I need to do a lot of research,” she says. “For me, the challenge is to make it both interesting as well as meaningful for the general reader,” she adds.