Amandeep Sandhu: In discussion with Charanjeet Kaur
The Voice of the Concerned
A new young voice from Panjab, Amandeep Sandhu has written two autobiographical novels, Sepia Leaves and Roll of Honour. Both deal with trauma – one in the domestic sphere, depicting the struggles of a family to come to terms with schizophrenia, and the other in the public and political domain, with insurgency, terrorism, Khalistan, the 1984 mass massacre of Sikhs in Delhi, communal discord and male child sexual abuse.
Amandeep has a pan India exposure – born at Rourkela, he has lived in Orissa, Uttrakhand, Punjab, Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, New Delhi and Karnataka. In his own words "I have worked as a farm-hand, woolen-garment seller, shop assistant, tuition master, teacher, journalist with The Economic Times, technical writer with Novell Inc, Oracle Corporation, Cadence Design Systems and have now stepped out in the social work sector." His two novels and his extensive prose writings on contemporary issues have caught the pulse of the pressing social and political conflicts that the Indian state is grappling with. The earnestness of his writing is an indicator of a conscientious mind which is firm in the belief that in order to redress problems one has to face them and understand them from a multiplicity of perspectives. In this Conversation, Amandeep dwells upon the issues that have shaped his mental makeup and which are often swept under the carpet by official spokespersons. He is candid and honest in his expression, and shows a deep understanding of how literature can move beyond the clever and the formalistic to become the voice of the concerned.
His webpage www.amandeepsandhu.com is a primary source for anyone who would like to explore his work further. He can be reached at email@example.com
Charanjeet Kaur: "Literature, for me, is an understanding of the essential human struggle to become complete. I write to understand myself and my world, and to sleep peacefully". Can you elaborate this with reference to your two novels, Amandeep?
Amandeep Sandhu: Growing up in a dysfunctional family under the shadow of schizophrenia, I was unsure whether my mother's illness and the society's response to it was my kismet or if something should have been different. By different I mean just the regular love of parents and an ordinary life in a new steel town in India. But it is in my adolescence that I really got confused. I was studying in a military school in terrorism-torn Punjab. This is when, because of my turban, I had to do time in a police lockup and a gun was pulled on me.My nascent value system crumbled.By the end of school years I had lost it. I felt shattered. So, to me, to learn of the essential human struggle to become complete seemed like a worthy pursuit in life.I also feel that before I can talk about others, tell their stories, I need to tell my own. Hence, the first two novels are part-autobiographical.
CK: The experiences you depict are markedly autobiographical, and also traumatic. How cathartic has been the process of writing for you?
AS: Very. The best part of working with real or perceived hurt is that once it is out of your system, on a sheet of paper, you free yourself up to look at others. You notice how other people, other communities, have suffered. You notice that in comparison you have your life granted to you.You can find a way of living. You can still survive. This knowledge helps you exorcise your demons and start living. It is never a smooth journey, but at least you find some measure of closure.
CK: Antonnio Gramsci's well known statement "The personal is the political" keeps on echoing in the mind while reading "Roll of Honour". Your comment, please.
AS: Thank you for saying that. I agree absolutely. To me the most important aspect of story-telling is the element of trust. Does the reader trust the narrator? What can be a better way to earn that trust than to establish a personal connect with the story? I feel stories are best learnt, understood, told, and listened to when one looks at the world from the personal point of view. That is what gives them the immediacy of the narrator's self. A story cannot be told through theories; a story is always an attempt to break down big theories to see how they bear on personal lives.That again teaches us that the personal point of view serves as the best vantage point to tell a story.
CK: Apart from dealing with intense emotions and traumatic situations, both your novels are very consciously structured. Can you dwell upon the process which led you to the novel form itself and the narrative techniques that you have worked out so consciously in both novels? Particularly the past/present interface.
AS: I began writing what is now Sepia Leaves when my parents moved to Bangalore to start living with me for the first time in over twenty-five years. I was writing notes to myself to help me understand them, for me to probe if my father remained committed to my mother out of some sense of guilt. At some point I felt maybe it was a novel and I went to Delhi to submit it to publishers. No one wanted to publish it but two editors encouraged me. Then my father passed away. On the night I was sitting with his body in the front room of our home I felt maybe I should structure the novel as past/present. It feels strange. Here your father, your main source of sustenance, both emotional and in terms of the values you inherit, has passed away and all you can think of is the novel you are writing. But my book, to me, was not a novel. It was my tribute to my parents; a son's long pending letters to his circumstantially estranged parents. So, I allowed myself that indulgence and restructured the story.
With the next book Roll of Honour, I was sure thatI will not repeat the structure that worked for the first book. I know it sounds odd, why would one not repeat what has proven to be successful? My point was, maybe I have just these two books to write. What is the fun if I do not explore a new form? Thus started my bhatkan. I drew word maps, plotted the school years on a chart paper with different coloured pins, started with describing seven years and giving the characters allegorical names. I went all over the place, from Bangalore to Delhi, from the literal to the musical, from reading religious texts for their meaning to Kabir who shattered meaning, from the formal to the formless.
All the while I was writing, experimenting. I changed the point of view, the timelines and the voice but nothing gave me the sense that the voice was not fabricated. I wrote over 1500 pages, but they did not satisfy me. Slowly, steadily, my learning was breaking my ego and I went back to the style of the earlier book. It worked! I bit a humble pie but am so satisfied that both the readers and I feel the voice is authentic.
CK: Sepia Leaves the title itself incorporates the idea of memory, forgetting, remembering, selection and the inevitable haziness that is associated with the sepia tones of a bygone era. Also the entire idea of recreating the past from the present perspective. For you, has the idea of remembering been a process of recreating too?
AS: Sepia Leaves literally means the sepia-tinted, sort of monochrome, images on leaves of an old album. To me, the book is family album that captures an earlier time. I was trying to fathom my family before the maid entered our lives. It was necessary for us to have the maid because she could take care of me, but in her coming I also explicitly lost my mother.
Yes, there is always some recreating in remembering. Works of memory are some kind of testimonial narratives. After all, we are all witness to events and while accounting for them we stand in a people's court (the readers). Each one of us will have a slightly different version of what happened to us. So, there is recreation in remembering.
CK: Two works come to mind while reading Sepia Leaves – My Son's Father by Dom Moraes, and more recently, Jerry Pinto's Em and the Big Hoom. All three are primarily about the impact of mental illnesses on the family and the disorientation that is inherent in this situation. I think it would be very interesting to analyse these three works together. About Sepia Leaves did you take up a theoretical study of mental illnesses, schizophrenia, to understand the psychological aspects?
AS: I am now a bit foggy about Moraes' book but when I read and reviewed Jerry's novel the similarity in his and my life struck me. I have noticed these similarities with other care givers too. I suggested to Jerry that I hope someone picks the three books and analyses the similarities and differences in the way the narrator is impacted by the situations, our common tears and our shared laughs. Jerry is now putting together a book on people's account of living with those who are ill and I have contributed an essay to it. That essay is sort of my sequel to Sepia Leaves.
My own research was primarily my lived experience, my own battle with my fear that I will turn schizophrenic, and my overcoming my distaste at how psychiatry is practised. You see I grew up feeling that the doctors and medicines were snatching my mother from me by dulling her. When my parents came to Bangalore, we met an excellent doctor who helped me outgrow that feeling, heal my own psychological wounds. It freed me to write.
Yet, my intention was: if you look at books on madness, though their subject is excellent, they are celebrated for their form. From Woolf to Albee to Plath. I wanted to write a book which does not attract attention to its form but brings the reader to a closer lived experience of madness. I strove for that, hence the deadpan narration. The doctor I was working with was one of the first readers of the draft which became the book and he told me that I had got the madness right. I take that as a compliment. After the book came out many readers express thanks for telling this story. They have felt living with a mad one is only misery but the book showed them it was also a story. I am very humbled by that response.
CK: It requires some kind of courage to write a work like Roll of Honour... Yes?
AS: Courage is too big a word. I wrote the book to come to terms with what had happened and to understand the reasons why I had become so scared at a point in my life. I wrote it to understand the nature of fear and to learn how easily violence operates in our lives.So, yes, it was a difficult self-pilgrimage and maybe we can call it courageous.
CK: Panjab has been the land of troubled waters, what with Partition, the Khalistan movement, Operation Bluestar and its aftermath. Why do you think we have such sparse writing about these aspects, especially in English? Partition Studies has taken off in a big way, but the only other novel I can remember which deals with Khalistan exclusively is a novel which did not draw much attention, ie, Partap Sharma's The Days of the Turban (1986). Roll of Honour on the other hand, has generated a great deal of interest like Gulzar's film Maachis which also touched a chord. Do you think that the distance in time has taken away the edge of the tragedy in the Sikh mind and hence made it more objective?
AS: Manto was writing about Partition as it was happening and Bhisham Sahni wrote about it twenty-five years later. Gulzar made Maachis just after the years of the Punjab problem but for some reason chose to litter a starkly realistic story with songs. The problem with the writing about the Khalistan Movement is different from Partition because, I feel, we still have not found our voice to articulate our feelings. Taking a pro-Khalistan stance while we are still in a nation-state can seem like a conspiracy against the nation. Condemning the movement can still invite the wrath of its supporters and even ordinary people who lost members of their family to riots or police atrocities. They are already aggrieved by the lack of justice from Indian courts. The Sikhs who migrated abroad have a different narrative because they have to make a living in foreign lands. The Hindus who were exiled from the border districts or moved their businesses from Punjab to Delhi or were killed by random acts of terrorism do not raise their voice because they need to conduct the business of their living in Punjab. In the process we are losing years and are blanking out our memory. I was recently looking for Punjabi novels that may have come out in the last three decades and I am sorry to report I did not see any classics among them. There is some Dalit writing these days but mostly short stories. I feel more Punjabis should write, even those who chose to raise their families within the boundaries of India but not necessarily inside Punjab. In such times the need for writers and poets is great but maybe we are tired, maybe we need to heal a bit to write about ourselves. Maybe we have become incapable of healing through writing and can now rely on our fading memory and denial to help us pass the days, earn us this fragile normalcy which threatens to burst every time a Sikh issue comes up. I am deeply saddened about it because living is this way we are alienating our own selves, slipping into drugs, poverty, and narrow communal politics.
CK: What next, after Roll of Honour? Do you see yourself taking on a pan-Indian or even global perspective in your choice of subject?
AS: I have started work on a book of non-fiction essays on Panjab. While writing Roll of Honour I had locked myself in my head in a past era and I am now finding my way around understanding this Punjab which contradicts so strongly with the idea of Punjab I grew up with. I have also initiated a project on male child sexual violence because I feel that is an area so under addressed in our society.That work is hanging fire as I focus on Panjab. The next novel is still a while away.
CK: Have you thought of writing in Panjabi? About getting your novels translated into Panjabi, perhaps, even Hindi?
AS: Yes, I have asked someone to translate both books into Punjabi but you know people get busy and I need to push them. I hope I can see both books in Punjabi by next year. I was speaking at Jamia Milia Islamia, a hot-bed of student identity politics, when a student asked me, 'Would the people who feature in your book be able to find themselves in it?' I was so satisfied to answer in the positive. I hope to validate it with my readers in Panjabi. But, it won't be a direct translation; it would be a trans-creation. One would talk differently to a Panjabi audience. For instance, in Roll of Honour I needed to explain to a larger English audience who is a Sikh and what is the Khalsa. I won't have to do that in Panjabi.
CK: Final point: "The Second Coming" Yeats' poem is so much a part of "Roll of Honour". What does it mean to you, today?
AS: I used some of my favourite poems in the book.'If' by Kipling, 'Snake' by DH Lawrence, 'The Second Coming' by Yeats. 'The Second Coming' means a lot to me because ever since I read the poem and understood it and I was going through my times while writing about them, its lines played like a motif in my head. Now that I have a few personal expositions on the lines of the poem, they will forever remain with me.
CK: Thank you Amandeep. You have been so conscientious in responding, that this Conversation, which has been conducted via email has so much of your personal voice and idiom... Thanks for making it explorative and so...sincere.