Amandeep Sandhu's first novel 'Sepia Leaves' (2008) was about life under the shadow of schizophrenia. "Roll of Honour", recently published, is his second novel and is set in the tumultuous days of Sikh militancy. A post-graduate in English Literature and Journalism, Amandeep has lived in Rourkela, Bhilai, Bangalore and shifted to New Delhi four years ago.
He did his schooling from a Military School in Punjab during the height of Sikh militancy in the mid 1980s. Here, he is, in a conversation with CNN-IBN's Senior Editor DP Satish
The people those who know you might say that it reads like your autobiography. What do you say about this?
That is true. The story is part memoir, part fiction. The events and characters depicted in the novel are all true in their essences. But while writing the story, while creating the fictional reality, I plotted the events, characters, timelines and spaces to suit the story, the form of the novel. That is because beyond the lived reality what needs to make sense in a novel is the reality of the story.
Also, like Ghalib I believe: "Jo aankh hi se na tapka, wo lahu kya hai? What is blood that does not drip from the eye?" So, if we have to write these hard stories, we have to reveal them through the prism of our hearts. Most writers tell us that their first novels are autobiographical. Just that in my case I needed two first novels: "Sepia Leaves" and "Roll of Honour".
What were the difficulties in writing the book?
The writing of this novel has been marked more with the difficulty of penning down the story, the impossibility of writing it out, than with the periods when I found lucidity. I lost my voice many times. I worried I won't be able to make sense. After all, the story is about a period when all of us, as a nation, as a society, lost our sense of meaning.
The writing was not easy. The difficulty was multi-fold: how to depict the sub-culture of a military school, how to depict the sense of ominous fear of a random bullet or bomb blast be it by militants or state agencies, how to write mostly an all boys' story, how to write about the horror of sodomy, how to construct a linear narrative when the ruptures were mostly without the sequentialism of cause and effect, how to write about one society but two religions, how to rise above a personal sense of victimhood and not take easy rhetorical stances and so on. I had written out all the seven years at school, and then I brought them down to the last three, and finally kept only the last year. The book moved from a 1500-page draft to its current 250-page typeset.
One of the greatest tragedies in the recent history of country has got little literary attention. What could be the reason?
The reasons could be many. My personal reasons are mentioned above but I feel even more than that, two facts are responsible. Almost all of those who lost family members or friends either remained rooted in Punjab or have escaped abroad. Let us look at both kinds.
The ones who remained back where the losses happened had to slowly, painfully deal with how the situation changed to external peace but maybe even larger catastrophes: the failing agriculture which was the biggest source of money for a beleaguered economy, the lack of jobs or industries or recruitment in national security forces and hence the people having to fend for themselves to keep their stomachs full, being forced to participate in a government and choose between political parties which had lost the people's trust, the growing culture of drugs and narcotics, the concentration of wealth in the hands of those who hoard but don't share. These concerns can overshadow the desire to write the stories. We write stories to heal; the healing process never started in Punjab. Punjab has hurtled from one pit into another.
The ones who escaped abroad, and the exodus is massive, tread the path between the need to remain nostalgic and the need to forget. There are many pockets around the world where people try to keep the notion of Khalistan alive. They live in a sort of time capsule where they keep the hurt and pain alive but find it hard to actively participate in the healing and growth of Punjab. Their own stories have taken different turns, the challenges they face are of a different kind but it is always fundamentally economic and issues of identity. In the rigmarole of living they are unable to sit down and pen their stories.
Last, North India has seen at least 3000 years of violence. Ever since invasions of the post-Vedic period, to the ones through the Khyber pass, to the fights during the era of the Gurus and then partition of India and the Khalistan movement, the overwhelming sentiment remains what I overheard an elderly woman say today morning to her friend in the park during my morning walk: "Mitti pao, shaant raho. Eik ghadi hai sukh di, is nu jaan na dao. Bury it, keep the peace. This is a calm moment, keep it such."
The overwhelming tendency is to efface the past for the short-lived peace in the present. That makes it hard to dwell upon memories and write. Yet, the partition stories were either written by Manto or a generation later by Bhisham Sahni and others. Paash was writing during the days of Khalistan. A generation later, writers like me attempt to write out the stories. Let them come, the time for these stories has come.
How is the response from your own Sikh community?
The book is just out but those who have already read it, including those from the school where the story is located, have responded with support and I am touched by the immense grace. A certain very senior Air Force officer said at the first reading and discussion of the book: "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!" More responses are yet to come but I have already 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 trying to compare your state of mind to WB Yeats?
Three poems in English that I read in my last year at school stayed with me. They were "If" by Rudyard Kipling, "Snake" by DH Lawrence, and "The Second Coming" by WB 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.
Isn’t it tough for new writers to get noticed even if you write so well?
It is. Our publishing industry faces immense challenges. I was once at the reception hosted by a leading English language publisher and I noticed four packets with manuscripts reach in an hour. If you compute, that makes it close to ten thousand drafts a year. A lot of us are writing. The publishing houses cannot produce more than a certain very small number of titles. The drain pipe is completely clogged.
Then comes the aspect of sales, how many books bring in the returns for the publishers. An editor once told me the books that really sell are books about God, self-help and business. That makes it even tougher for literature to find shelf space.
On the top of it, as a country, we read so little. In this context, getting noticed by publishers and readers is hard. I remain thankful that readers accepted the first book. It still sells. Now we have the second book. I can only hope it sells and makes sense.
Are you planning a sequel to it? Don't you think that your novel should be available in other Indian languages including Punjabi?
In "Sepia Leaves," I dealt with Emergency but from as much as a child could comprehend. In that book, Appu was seven years old. In this book, Appu has grown up to be 16 years old. Appu would be 24 years old during Babri Masjid. Should he tell the story or has he finally been silenced by the vagaries of the divided society? Or has he, maybe, fallen in love? Let us see ... Yes, "Roll of Honour" will be available in Punjabi within the next six months.