Amandeep Sandhu Interview
Both your books are a memoir, though you have wrapped the second one as fiction, and both come out of your intense emotions. Tell us how difficult or easy is it to write about your extremely personal moments that are bound to make you feel exposed, and that too while you are still young.
Amandeep Sandhu: Actually both books are labeled fiction. Though they can be read alone. They both are parts of the same protagonist’s story. Writing has been difficult, I have lost my voice many times. I have debated whether to state some things or not. But I have been most relaxed when I have gone ahead and expressed my honest self. At the same time, I take care to mask everyone else, except my parents on whom I have a measure of ownership, in my stories from being identified as real people. Thanks for calling me young, I feel ancient.
Sepia Leaves was almost about 3-4 people, your family, and some very close people. Roll of Honour is about many people, some close, some in distant past, some loved and some hated, some formal and some informal relationships but all of whom had an impact on you and it seems to continue to have. Between the two books, which one was more difficult to write and why?
Roll of Honour was the more difficult to write. The reason being with Sepia Leaves I was learning how to make books. I wrote that one to explore my family. And I knew that however, I wrote it my love for my parents and their love for me went beyond the book. When I came to this one I was dealing with a bigger subject – a school and a community at loggerheads with a nation. The time span was vast, 7 years until I decided to limit it to one year. It was also the period of one of the bloodiest decade of Punjab. I was talking about taboo subjects like sodomy and terrorism.
The hardest part was that Sepia Leaves worked on an inherent honesty in the narrative voice, to keep that honesty while telling the story of a bloody Punjab being eroded from within in Roll of Honour was tough.
Shiv Kumar Batalavi said De ja meri Kalam nu ik hor hadsa – Give my pen one more tragedy. For a writer, is tragedy a boon or a bane? Your thoughts.
Comedy or peace is good but tragedy makes us pause and reflect. Of course, one can also reflect in times of peace if one is aware of the cost of the peace, sometimes the costs are tragic. I do not think one condition as better than the other. What is needed is an equanimous mind which can go beyond the apparent, the external and look for deeper patterns and meanings.
Appu of Roll of Honour is confused, confused about what is happening in his immediate surroundings in his school and what is happening outside the boundaries of the school. The present voice in your book still seems to be dealing with that confusion or is still holding on to that confusion as a prized memory. Was this book about dealing with that confusion, did you want to clear that or did you want to treasure it by putting in on paper?
I do not think the tragedy of Punjab or even the nation has passed. We have not reached any better times. Yes, the external bloodshed has reduced in some parts of the country. But the calls for separatism, the ad hoc behavior of state and state machinery have since erupted in Kashmir, Manipur, Telangana. And there seems to be a resurfacing of the Khalistan movement (the attack on Lt Gen Brar, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee’s proposal to erect a memorial to the martyrs of Operation Blue Star inside the Golden temple premises). I wrote the book to explore how violence plays out on young adolescent minds, inside state-funded schools. How bullying takes place, at the physical and the ideological level.
If there was a need to do something it was to create a memorial for a bloody decade. So we can learn that violence cannot and should not be paid forward.
Do you think not being a school perfect is such a big thing that Appu can not deal with it even after decades? Why was it so important? Was it because his all identity is linked to that one decision?
No. And I say it in the book on Page 78: I am not writing this story to talk about the mere loss of status from senior to not senior. That is just the cover, the peg. This is really about something else. It is a story of invasion and loss.
The reason for choosing that angle was to bring about the sense of entitlement that some of us feel we have in a situation. The class feels they are entitled to be declared senior most. Because they have taken the beating for six years. To me, that sense of entitlement is akin to the sense some of the members of the Sikh community had when they wanted to create an independent nation Khalistan. Where they would be, according to them, ‘first class citizens’. While the nation India treated them, as perceived by them: with lesser rights. Appu’s external identity is linked to being born Sikh. But as the novel progresses we learn that he has taken a journey beyond labels, beyond being reduced to a label.
Is there anything like a perfect teenage?
I can’t answer that except rhetorically, is there anything called a perfect life? The notion of perfection is flawed. Each of us is a different human being. And I feel we must celebrate our diversities instead of trying to fit ourselves into a straitjacket.
Why did you choose the chapter headings from Yeat’s Second Coming that was written post first world war?
Three poems in English that I read in my last year at school stayed with me. They were ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling, ‘Snake’ by D H Lawrence, and ‘The Second Coming’ by W B Yeats. I mention all three in the book. I chose the titles of the chapters from Yeats because he evokes the Spiritus Mundi slouching towards Bethlehem, ushering in a change. For a long time, even after school, I looked for the figure of:
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs …
After all, it was in reference to the European Renaissance. The French Revolution, the Irish rebellion, the Russian Revolution and so on. After a long time, through Kabir, it struck me that the shape is actually the formless conception of our conscience. That quiet voice within us which guides right action from wrong. So, yes, there is a state of mind like of Yeats but no comparison. Yeats is a supreme master, a tremendous influence on the times and the literature of modern society. I am just a minor writer trying to fathom evil and my response to it.
Have some of the people in the story read the book? If yes, please share their reaction with us.
By now some of my classmates and seniors from school have read the book. And I am touched by how they have accepted the story. A few classmates wrote in saying the story is well told. And they felt it was their story too, though it has been fictionalized. Some of them were trying to guess the exact teacher or student depicted. I explained to them that all the characters were either combination of real people or I had used some aspects of one’s personality and mixed them up. At the first reading of the book, we had a surprise guest. A very senior in service Air Force officer who is an alumnus of my school: I am so glad that you did not go for the Roll of Honour of the Armed Forces and picked the pen to write this story. Salute!
I have also started getting phone calls from Sikhs living abroad. The voices are thick, I am familiar with the tone: is this book pro- or anti-Bhindranwale? I just say: please read the story.
Are you going to translate this book in Indian languages, particularly Punjabi?
Yes, Punjabi, at least. The edition would be available in a few months.
Tell us about the next book you are working on Amandeep Sandhu.
Amandeep Sandhu: After two heavy books, I think the next one should be lighter. If I do a light one it will be a story of a maid in urban middle-class homes. Based on a real person whom I have been fictionalizing on Facebook. But more serious themes that I am choosing from currently beckon: memory and forgetting in Punjab, the effect of drug trials and fertilizers on lands and people. Let us see. I am taking a bit of a break. Writing can be pretty exhausting and one needs to unwind a bit.