[Issue 11 / November 2014]

SPLIT LOYALTIES OF A STUDENT, ASSASSINATION OF THE INDIAN PRIME MINISTER & THE 1984 RIOTS IN INDIA: AN INTERVIEW WITH AMANDEEP SANDHU

By Kulpreet Yadav

Amandeep SandhuAmandeep Sandhu’s Roll of Honour (Rupa publications, 2012) was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize for Best Fiction, 2013. It is a story of the split loyalties of a Sikh boy in a boarding school in Punjab during the Khalistan movement and is based on the events of the year 1984: Operation Bluestar, Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, and riots etc. Amandeep is presently a Fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, Germany (2013-15). This interview was conducted over e-mail.

Kulpreet Yadav: To a regular eye, ‘Roll of Honour’ seeks to expose, one more time, the permanence of the wounds inflicted on the Sikhs by the Indian Army’s operation on the Golden Temple premises in 1984. But this assessment is only the half-truth. I got an impression that the narrative also offers a glimpse into the lives of those teenage students of the early eighties whose innocence was robbed by the politics of hate. As the author what was your larger purpose?

Amandeep Sandhu: Thanks for exploring the book beyond its externals. As a writer I seek to find the universal in the local. Yes, the book is about what happened with the Sikh adolescent but it goes beyond that. It is about how bullying works: between a nation state and a community; between senior and junior students in a closed system; between the apparently strong and the weak; and finally how the weak fight back when the cloak of secrecy of the assumed world order is broken. The book is about the struggle between the irrational reverence for formal icons and the formless essence of our existence. In that sense, the book is a rites of passage story, a story of nature versus nurture.

KY: As a student of Sainik School you scarified your ambition to join the armed forces. How do you see that decision now? How difficult has it been for you to discover a completely different career and chart a new course for yourself?

AS: With all respect to the armed forces, I am happy that I decided not to join it. I did not have the temperament for it. My writing career, if I have one, isn't a different career. It is just a matter of the inner me, my reflective self, taking over and going beyond what the uniform could have given me - an identity. When I decided to study English Literature, a cousin of mine, a decorated soldier said to me: you know, the armed forces is such a great institution. If you do not join even a police constable will be able to challan you for a mistake. I told myself, so be it. I want to remain an equal citizen and if I make a mistake I am willing to pay the fine. That just settled it for me. I seek a self, my own. That is where I want to belong. Though, I must say an un-structured life of a writer has its own struggles.

KY: I was at Saink School Kapurthala recently, your alma mater. Have you visited your school after writing the 'Roll of Honour'? If yes, do you think the atmosphere of distrust that existed at the time between the students and the staff, as also the religious overtones that prevailed in the hostel campus, have been overcome?

AS: No, I have not visited school since I passed out in the late 90s. All these years I was writing about my experience there, a testimonial fiction, I could not visit it because I wanted to keep my memory from being contaminated with the reality. See, again the point was not this school, these people, these events. Though at a personal level they hurt but as I writer I seek to find the links between the personal and the political. The point to explore within pedagogy is how can a state or an institution like the armed forces create equality among the people, what can we learn from the attempts, what are the barriers we need to overcome. After the book came out a very senior civil servant, a mentor to me, suggested I must make the book available to all the Sainik Schools. I did not do that. To me a writer's job is to write. If the audience is interested in reflecting upon how to work with pedagogical systems they can take the book ahead. While we were translating the book into Punjabi, my translator wanted to visit the school. Again, due to time constraints we could not go but I am now open to going back. My wife wants to see it. Over the years, I have been following news reports on the school. I must say they remain a mixed fare.

KY: I particularly liked the dexterity with which you have handled the non-linear narrative. Who are your favourite authors?

AS: It was necessary to create that format to bring about the sense of two timelines of the protagonist: adolescent and present. I used that device even in my earlier novel Sepia Leaves. Having done that for that book, I decided not to do it for my next book. Yet, after trying all sorts of techniques and points of view, after three years, I returned back to it. It was also a huge learning experience. I have many favourite books, very few favourite authors. I have given dedications to poets and authors in the text of Roll of Honour, the poems, but let me mention the models I had for the book: William Golding's Lord of the Flies; Lorraine Hansberry’s What Use Are Flowers?; Mario Vargas Llosa's The Time Of The Hero; Kenzaburō Ōe's Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids.

KY: Are you writing a new book? If yes, would you like to share the theme with the readers?

AS: I am writing a novel on museums and migration, located in Punjab. In December, I am going off on an eight month Fellowship to Akademie Schloss, Solitude, Stuttgart. I hope to draft the novel on the Fellowship. The good news is: over the past few weeks my friend Daljit Ami has translated Roll of Honour into Punjabi. The novel is called Gwah de Fana hon to Pehlan. We are releasing it at the Chandigarh Literature Festival on October 31, 2014. I am so glad the story has gone back home.

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Founder-editor of Open Road Review, Kulpreet Yadav's latest novel Catching the Departed, shortlisted by Hachette-DNA in a contest called 'Hunt for the Next Bestseller',   was launched at The Arts House, Singapore on 18 July 2014. He lives in New Delhi. More at www.kulpreetyadav.in