Talking To Novelist Amandeep Singh Sandhu An Interview by ROSALIA SCALIA
Roll of Honour
Sikh-Indian novelist Amandeep Singh Sandhu, author of Sepia Leaves, tackles another difficult subject. If Sepia Leaves is a pioneering work about mental illness, Roll of Honour explores a difficult era in modern Indian history -- 1984, the year of the Sikh Holocaust.
Through the prism of school boys attending a boarding school that feeds the Indian army, Roll of Honor documents the fragmentation of a senior class reacting to a change in the power structure of the student body.
In 237 lyrical pages, Sandhu creates a microcosm of India’s religious and ethnic groups comprising this class and explores conflicting human instincts and perspectives that reflect and parallel the broken social and political system outside the
Published by Rupa, one of India’s largest and most prestigious publisher, Roll of Honour is a brave book. It examines a loss of innocence, what it means to be civilized, and the role of religion, power and control among school boys who are thrust into an environment that forces them to make adult decisions before they are mature enough to handle them. Without clear guidance from their teachers or school administrators, the boys find themselves dividing into cliques, and they must decide how to react to the growing cruelties visited upon them by their own mates’ various quests for power and control.
Against this backdrop, Indian society itself is embroiled in similar power struggles over resources in the Punjab, the conflicts hiding behind the skirts of religion and coloring the power struggles within the school among the school boys.
Sandhu ranks among India’s literary pioneers, writing about a chapter of its modern history that remains an open and bleeding wound, despite the 28 years that have passed since the Holocaust and the decade of oppression that Sikhs have faced since.
American author Rosalia Scalia talks to Sandhu about his groundbreaking work, which he describes as a novel that is part memoir.
ROSALIA SCALIA: This novel reminded me of William Golding's Lord of the Flies. There are many differences, but also many similarities. In each case, school boys are put to the tests of their mettle, to various outcomes. Had the Golding book been in the back of your mind when writing Roll of Honour?
AMANDEEP SINGH SANDHU: Yes, you are right. Lord of the Flies was in my mind. One of my teachers, Narayan Chandran, told this story about Golding and his father which he had heard from Golding himself. Apparently when Golding was a young boy his father and he used to camp out under the stars. His father would keep gazing at the night sky and Golding once asked him what he was doing. The father said, ‘Wondering. Wondering is the simplest and easiest thing you can do.’
When I read Lord of the Flies, which is a story of a group of school children stranded on an island with no guidance and have to form a civilized society, I wondered how true the book was to my situation – we were a set of boys in a social island, tasked
with ordering a world and we goofed up. Another play influenced me. Lorraine Hansberry’s What Use Are Flowers? A similar story, except that in this case the young boys and girls have an old hermit as a guide.
I read The Time Of The Hero much later, when I was midway with my book. If I had read it earlier, I may not have written my book. Mario Vargas Llosa says it all, except that my book is in an Indian/Punjab setting and includes the pogroms and is not bound in by the walls of the school. The calf scene in Roll of Honour reminds me of the killing of the pig in Lord of the Flies.
RS: How did you come to the structure of alternating the backward look with the forward look of the present action?
AS: I used the same technique in Sepia Leaves as well. Once that book was out I was reluctant to write this one with that technique but I tried everything else: third person, third person at elbow, omniscient narrator, even second person in a moment
of craziness, but the story came together only when I fit it to this technique. There is a logic in that. Sepia Leaves was an adult looking at childhood; Roll of Honour is an adult looking at adolescence.
RS: In many ways, this is a book about choices: when to speak up, speak out, when to be brave and when not to be brave. It takes Appu a long time to realize some things. Is this because of his innocence? Or his lack of self-knowledge? His fear?
AS: His fear. His fear of not knowing what could happen. One can deal with a visible enemy: one can track it, pre-empt it or prepare to face it. Fear of the unknown is bigger. It defies preparation; it demands one to be always prepared. That can wear
one out and the wrong, the bad, then happens internally. The victim feeds upon his or her own self. Fear of the unknown plays out psychologically.
RS: At first I was wondering where the teachers were, then later, learn they were watching and waiting. As a parent, I can’t help feeling that the teachers and administrators failed the students, which should have been their first responsibility. A-1 was right to leave, but the students felt a bit shocked and dismayed and even a bit envious that his father removed him. Perhaps it’s the American in me, but I’d removed my child, too, and then filed a suit for assault and battery, though the story arc makes it pretty clear that everyone is trapped in a broken system, not only the one in place at school but the social and governmental systems, too. Can you speak to this?
AS: You answered it. Roll of Honour builds parallels: senior boys and Sikhs, teachers and governments/ administration. In a broken state at war with its own people to think of removing an aggrieved party is not a solution. The fight has to be resolved,
we can’t escape our life-fights and we need to face up to them. A-1’s leaving is not the removal of one party from the fight. It actually leads to the parties at war with each other to realize that they can’t use that door. Escape is not an option for they are tied up in a fight because they have not built a relationship of trust and openness and honesty.
As an American citizen you speak with much greater awareness and knowledge of your own and your child’s rights. Those options are not easily available to people in other geographies. Also, if we were all to operate with these many rights why would
we have Guantanamo Bay or need a Cindy Sheehan? Why would Flower Power have erupted in the US in the 1970s? Why would there be situations of bullying and hazing in American schools? I am sorry to answer in questions. What we need to recognize is that situations are complex and seeking justice is a hard and long drawn process.
RS: What happened to the other guys later in life: Ladoo -- the victim -- Lalten, and Akhad, who grew into bullies?
AS: The book is part memoir, part fiction. It comes from my experiences but no reader can identify any of the characters to any one living or dead individual. I have played with timelines, characters, names, even smaller events. Every story should be able to stand on its own. In a sense Roll of Honour is also a sequel to Sepia Leaves. Yet, both stories are stand-alone. I state this in my acknowledgement: The events, characters, timeline and spaces in this story are plotted variously on the matrix of reality
but the essences are real. So, it does not help to speculate or derive any person from the story. My suggestion is to look at how it reads and makes sense to each reader given his or her own experiences and circumstances.
RS: Bhindrawale, a controversial figure, appears to work for the rights of the Sikh minority, which is, later, clearly being oppressed and murdered in police encounters in the Punjab post the 84 pogroms -- Joga and others who go missing and who turn up dead. I see parallels between Bhindrawale and Martin Luther King, Jr., the murdered leader of African-Americans: both are men of God. Both speak out against injustice. King clung to Mohandas Gandhi’s notion of massive resistance whereas some of the controversy swirling around Bhindrawala says he brought guns into a sacred place. This is a view that A-1’s grandfather -- Daarji -- among my favorite characters -- voices. Can you speak to the character of Daarji -- an elderly Hindu man who wears his turban like a Sikh and who is aggrieved by the massacre at the Golden Temple. Also his conclusions that Sikhs were killed in the massacre because of their wealth and the perpetrators’ poverty. How did you come to this character?
AS: There are two questions here, let me take them one by one.
Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale’s role in the Sikh demand for Khalistan is well documented and also much interpreted and mis-interpreted to suit various parties and people over the last 28 years. My task as a writer is to bring stories to readers without standing in judgment over them. Of course, there is a lot of judgment in the background, in the selecting and choosing of
material. I am familiar with the hagiography of Bhindranwale. I have quoted him in Roll of Honour to highlight some of his thoughts so that readers can directly decide how they want to look at him, not only from news of violence erupting from what is euphemistically called the ‘Punjab Problem’ or through attempts at glorifying him.
Daarji came to me from talking to people, both Hindu and Sikh. I have fond memories of the two communities seeing themselves as one community and awareness of how divisiveness crept in over a long period of time. I wanted to bring in a voice of wisdom, maybe like Hansberry’s hermit (as answered in Question 1). I used the word ‘Daarji’ because it could easily have been ‘Sardarji’ too. "Sardar ji" is what the rest of India calls the Sikhs. The turban that the Gurus had bestowed upon us was not just cloth; it signified respect from anyone without a turban, a status of being an elder brother, a protector. The Sikhs lost the ‘ji’ post-1980s. Daarji to me is both hope and sadness. Hope if we listen to him, sadness if we remember how he
looks upon his life.
RS: What were the hardest parts of the novel to write? I know you said it was a fictionalized autobiography, so how did you go about expanding to serve the dictums required by the needs of the story. I read that often real people never recognize themselves when characters are based on them because their self-perception is different than the perception of them by
others and the reality.
AS: Let me take the second question up first. Though I write to find my own sleep, I write with the aim that at the minimum the people who form the story relate to the story. I find it quite strange that often when language is exercised, beauty is created,
pathos is milked, the story itself stops being recognized by those who form it. My biggest satisfaction from Sepia Leaves was that care-givers would call me or message me or email me and say, ‘Thank you. We never thought this could be a story.’ The
voice of care-givers, to me, is the most suppressed voice in mental health situations.
So, with this book too I hope people in Punjab, people who belong to Punjab but live elsewhere, people who witnessed the 1980s, people in Kashmir, in the North East of India, people in any part of the world where they face bullying -- whether racist,
linguistic, ethnic, religious or even gender bullying -- relate to the story.
The hardest part was finding the voice. After one book I felt I knew my voice but writing this book was a lesson in humility. I re-learnt my voice and then the book started shaping up. I did not expand, I shrunk it. I had around 1500 written pages which I pruned to make 250.
RS: Lalten and Akhad, the formerly oppressed become terrible oppressors, bullies, yet no one wants to become a chooza by turning them in. Bullying is a rampant and terrible thing happening in schools across the US but in order to deal with the bullies, the students they bully are being encouraged to turn them in. Can you speak more about Lalten and Akhad who lose their power at the end, but at least among their peers do not seek or want redemption?
AS: Redemption is not what a testosterone heavy macho adolescent boy seeks unless he has been shown a way out of the mess he has dragged others and himself into.
Lalten and Akhad’s ways fail but it is like Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. At the end of the play Nora slams the door on her husband and leaves. That slamming the door does not automatically grant freedom to women. What after home? Where will
Nora go? What will she do? How will she earn and live with respect? The feminist struggles go on in our current society. Similarly, adolescents gone out of hand cannot automatically turn out into fine citizens in organized society. I hope Roll of Honour leads all of us to acknowledge how schools can become breeding grounds of violence and prompts us to re-think education systems. Merely writing a story will only lead to some awareness, but the real work to be done with adolescents is out there in the world.
RS: The only real love that Appu experiences is with Gaurav, and yet in his effort to protect Gaurav, he creates a barrier. It’s kind of bold to write about such a love in a conservative society, but it does give credence to the truth that perhaps it happens far more than people want to admit. Does Appu ever fix things between them? Or does it remain unresolved as so much of the conflict does in the story arc, or perhaps fodder for another novel? What colored your decision to include it? You could have decided to leave it out.
AS: The sex between Appu and Gaurav is consensual. I kept it as a counter-point to sodomy which is a power tool, a method of absolute humiliation in the school. I also kept it because I do not know for what reason our societies do not talk about it. Not
talking about something can make it disappear but homosexuality in North India society is too big to disappear. We need to start talking about it somewhere; I did my bit by starting to talk about it in my book. Whether Appu made it up to Gaurav is a delightful question because it means the story came real to you. It is just a story, Rosalia, but you know stories can also be truths.
RS: The situation at the school reflects the social situation outside the school. Systems are topsy-turvy, people don’t know who to trust; bullies, exert their will and desire for power and control. Is this something that you realized in writing the book? Or something you realized long before you wrote the book?
AS: I realized it long before I wrote the book. I wrote the book to explore these fractures and to learn to deal with them. To overcome the feeling, in my mind, that such topsy-turvy society is the norm. To me writing remains a meditative space.
RS: It still upsets me that the teachers abdicated their responsibilities to their students. Chhola offers flimsy excuses that seem like empty platitudes for not stepping in. They betrayed Balraj, forcing him to become a separatist and then later Appu learned he was killed in an 'encounter'. It seems to me that many of these young boys were pawns, themselves innocents sacrificed by adults on the altar of greed, power and control. Can you speak about Balraj, to me a tragic figure.
AS: While the book is about split loyalties of a Sikh boy in a military school in 1984, a year that saw Operation Blue Star, Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, pogroms, and deals with issues of sodomy and power struggle at school, the book is also about freedom. To me freedom means the right to freedom of not being appropriated. Of not becoming fodder in someone else’s war. Social structures and arbitrary notions of nationhood do attract us to serve them but I feel as human beings we need to assert our rights and be mindful of our actions.
What does an ordinary man or woman want? We all seek normal, happy lives. Why then do we end up jumping to calls of various kinds? I understand but fail to empathize with victimhood. I feel victimhood leads us to a path of revenge and hatred. To me to be human is to become larger than anything that seeks to make a victim out of me. To me to be human is to go past differences and embrace the world. Balraj should also not have allowed his class to fight with his junior class. He should have asserted his position as a school prefect and averted the fight. He should have allowed A-1 to go and check on Ladoo when Gora was raping him. I know the price he pays is too much for the kind of mistake he makes.
As you say, he is a tragic figure not only because of what happens to him in the end but also because he belongs to a tradition of violence, a cog in a machine gone horribly wrong.
RS: The sentences are so well crafted, musically lyrical in parts. What are the parts that brought you the most joy to write?
AS: Thank you. There was so much writing and re-writing that parts kept moving from being liked to being again worked upon. I like the whole book. How can a mother say which child is her favourite? I hope the book makes sense to readers.
RS: Many thanks for your time.
North American readers can order the book via Amazon UK by CLICKING here.
To read a Review of the book, please CLICK here.
October 18, 2012
Conversation about this article
1: Daljit Ami (Kharar, Punjab), October 18, 2012, 8:00 PM.
The interview is very good. Questions raised are very specific ... answers as questions made it all the more interesting ...
2: Giridhar Rao (Hyderabad, India), October 18, 2012, 10:47 PM.
Very nice, indeed! "I find it quite strange that often when language is exercised, beauty is created." Many thanks!