Amandeep Sandhu’s two novels deal with issues like mental illness, communalism, and violence. He speaks about his engagement with writing, and the concerns he intends to explore.


Though I had read Amandeep Sandhu’s first book before I met him, he would become a friend before his second was out. Perhaps one of the reasons for that—aside from literary discussions that took place between ribald jokes and politically incorrect conversations—is the way in which he bares himself through his work.

His debut novel, Sepia Leaves, interweaves the political climate of India in the Seventies into the life of a child who unknowingly becomes a caregiver for his mother who suffers from schizophrenia. His second, Roll of Honour, examines the Khalistan movement through two perspectives: a writer revisiting his adolescence, and an adolescent reconciling his ambition to join the army with the events unfolding in Punjab during the Eighties.

Both books deal with issues that society isn’t sure how to react to: mental illness, communalism, megalomania, and violence. In this interview, Sandhu speaks about what takes him to those places, and what he leaves with.

I’m going to start off playing devil’s advocate. Both books you’ve written speak of very important, intensely personal stories, which were only part fiction. Does it worry you that you’ve told the most significant stories in your life already? Do you think, what next?

No, it doesn’t worry me. One prepares to empty oneself. I prepare to empty myself of stories, of things. There is no guarantee as to how long one will live, and if I were to die tomorrow, at least I’ll die knowing that I did put the stories of my life out. So that is my way of looking at it. In fact, I’m very happy that I could do these two, and I will do other stories in the future.

You’ve spoken to me about how you write to make sense of the world, to see what triggered the events that happened to you and around you. Have you considered looking outside yourself, at another life entirely, someone whom you can’t be?

Yeah, absolutely, and at this moment, I’m deciding on what to do next. I’m working on a book of non-fiction, but I’m also flirting with some fiction writing. My idea is to do things which are outside of me now, and take them into me and do them, or get into them and do them. See, I’m raising the level of my own writing. Sepia Leaves was about one family. Roll of Honour was about one community. But I’m trying to develop my voice into a larger voice, to talk about, maybe, country. I’m also hoping that there will be a book of non-fiction essays on Punjab, which I think is very, very important, but I’m not getting one thread to tie up the whole of Punjab in a book.

"The main reason for writing the book is that there are only three states which have come out of terrorism in this country: Punjab, Tripura, and Mizoram. And yet, around 30 to 40 per cent of the country is still under siege by Maoists, by whatever factional parties are fighting wars. If we want to draw them out of that war, we need to showcase what happens to places which were at war and where peace has returned[quoteclose]

Punjab as it is now?

Yes, Punjab as it is now, a snapshot in time of Punjab. It may work, it may not work. The main reason for writing the book is that there are only three states which have come out of terrorism in this country: Punjab, Tripura, and Mizoram. And yet, around 30 to 40 per cent of the country is still under siege by Maoists, by whatever factional parties are fighting wars. If we want to draw them out of that war, we need to showcase what happens to places which were at war and where peace has returned.

So, I wanted to see whether Punjab has really flourished, post the problem years, and I see that it has not; it has actually become much worse. My question with that book in my head is what is the model we are going to show to those parts of the country that are under siege still, as a successful model of development for when they come out of war.
Roll of Honour is technically about Punjab, but it’s also a voice for other kinds of vicious cycles fostered by an idea of resistance that captures the public imagination, such as Kashmir.

And Manipur, and all the north-eastern states, and many other parts of the country. Any place where the cycle of violence has started, where there are victims and oppressors and it goes on, I think the book will strike a chord. Someone who read the book in Manipur has invited me for the Manipur Literary Festival, saying, ‘This is our story’.

The trigger for Roll of Honour, or to write about this school as such, was your own experience. You must have been a kid. Did you really decide to write a book then? Or was it just the question in your head that formed then, to understand this?

Well, it was the question that formed then. I thought someday I would try and understand why there is this whole emphasis on external discipline, and how I’d got into this situation. And how it had also cracked, while I was still in school, and this whole community-versus-nation thing had started. Other horrors I encountered also got into my consciousness, and somewhere along the line, I started working to write a book on it. I don’t know how exactly that happened, but then I do remember when I was 13 years of age, I was being marched from the hostel to school, and the school prefect suddenly just came and said, ‘Start crawling on the road’. And I thought someday, I want to figure this out.

And this was completely acceptable in the ethic of the military school you were in?

Yeah, it is the done thing. But for me, it was like, ‘What is the purpose of this?’ And this is how it is in all military schools. Maybe the level of barbarity was a little severe here, but this is the culture. Because they are trying to emulate the NDA, the Rashtriya Rifles, the INA …

You know, when Raja Ravi Varma paints children, he paints them as mini-adults? That was the idea here too: that adolescence, even childhood, isn’t a phase in itself. Everything is geared towards becoming an adult. So what happens in adulthood, you start imposing on adolescence, and even childhood.

And this is the dominant philosophy. Why do you think child marriages are happening in this country? Why do you think there were hardly any rites of passage in our whole cultural system? Brahmin boys put the janeu in the first few years of their lives, and start doing the mantras and japas and all that. What is that? It’s preparing for adulthood. That was the way we were thinking for centuries. Childhood or adolescence as a category of existence hasn’t been recognised, except in modern society.

But I guess it’s because, maybe, some 200 years back, children had to take on adult roles very quickly, especially in north India, because adults would just die in war. The life expectancy must have been, what, 35, even a century back.

 I’m very interested in the language aspect of your books; there’s an everyday quality to the English. Yet, Sepia Leaves happens in a Punjabi household in Rourkela, with a local maid featuring in it. Here, this is the heartland of Punjab. Obviously, the conversations were not in English. Tell me about the translation, in the context of keeping the sense of place and dialogue intact.

See, this was a very, very tough part for me. Because when I had done the first draft of the first book, in 2002 or 2003, a very senior editor in the publishing industry told me that everything is good, except the dialogue. So, I started looking at dialogue. And I realised I was writing in a language that is alien to the ethos of the place in which the story has happened. English is not the language in which the story could have happened. But I’m choosing to write in English. I’m not writing in Punjabi, for example.

Now, okay, I’ve made a choice to write in English, but I want to bring the truth of the ethos of that environment which I’m talking about. How can I do it? For the first book also, I would try and imagine my parents speaking to each other, fighting with each other, in Punjabi; I’d try to capture it. But it became even tougher with the second book, because these are boys, who are speaking Punjabi. But then, there are many dialects in Punjabi. And within each dialect, there’s a difference between urban Punjabi and rural Punjabi.

I also wanted a sense of the English-speaking crowd. I’ve judged a few debate competitions in schools in Bangalore, in Delhi. I even went to two or three public schools, to hear young boys and girls speak. And they were all speaking a language which was alien to me, and to the ethos of the time also, because this was 20 years after my time.

There was the additional problem of how, mostly, when boys speak, they would speak half or one-third or a quarter of a sentence that would have meaning, and the rest would just be a gaali. Or even in a whole sentence, how do you translate? Do you literally translate? Do you translate the sense? There’s an example in the book, and that’s a brilliant stroke by the editor. When Mrs Gandhi died, and the Sikh boy taunts the Hindu boy, I’d written in Punjabi, ‘Wadd ti tuhadi Maa’, and she made it ‘We hacked your mother’. The language gives the violence of the emotion. Mrs Gandhi was killed with bullets, she wasn’t cut, and you wouldn’t technically use the word ‘hacked’. But in Punjabi, it works.

So, you have to construct a dialogue in a language which is not yours, and you also have to make it notionally grammatically correct. How do you do that? I just recently read The Mystic Masseur by V. S. Naipaul, and he does away with the grammar of English. I’m like wow, this is guts, man. But I’m sure if I had a book like that, no publisher would take it. They’d say it’s bad English. This guy could somehow do it, forty years back.

I think, for an Indian writer writing in English, getting the dialogue right must be one of the toughest things to do. So, I’m very glad that the language gives you the flavour of the rural, the rustic, the everyday, the common.  But for me, I’ve only tried to make it fall somewhere in between my various understandings of language, hoping that it will work.

In both books, you’ve spoken about male rape. And right now, there’s a big movement in India for rape to be seen as gendered violence. I personally think it’s not a good thing to see it as gendered violence, because it (a) denies voices for heterosexual male victims of rape; (b) denies voices for homosexual male victims of rape; and (c) associates rape with emasculation rather than violation, cruelty and perversity. Are these concerns for you too?

I think yes, it is a concern, and I think all forms of rape—men raping women; men raping men; in situations of conflict, the army raping women; men being raped in police torture—come from an instinct to humiliate the other. Calling it ‘emasculation’ is not what works for me, because I think femininity and masculinity are aspects of our personalities. But what really happens here is that you objectify the other, and you give them a sense of I’m-stepping-over-you.

Now, if there is a could-be victim who could retaliate and fight back is that, for one, the rape does not happen; but the other, more important thing, is that the humiliation does not happen. Because, to put it very crudely, if it was about getting off, you could use your hand; if it was about sex, you could go to a prostitute. But it is really about something else; it’s about showing who is the goonda, who is the dada in the situation. For me, that is what rape—or any violation—is about. If, as a person, my rights are violated, they are done by someone who wants to assert that he or she is superior to me. I don’t think we should see it only in terms of patriarchy. I agree with you on that.

"I think all forms of rape—men raping women; men raping men; in situations of conflict, the army raping women; men being raped in police torture—come from an instinct to humiliate the other. Calling it ‘emasculation’ is not what works for me, because I think femininity and masculinity are aspects of our personalities[quoteclose]

As a sort of contrast to that, there’s also sexual love between boys, and this is not so much to do with homosexuality, but as a sort of compensation for other forms of affection and comfort, in a place with no women and no family. And these are things that are not spoken about much in India, especially in the tough-men narrative from the north.

It is missing in the narrative, but it is so prevalent in social behaviour. We walk with our arms around each other. A physical display of warmth towards each other is so much a part of male behaviour in north India. A very normal way of greeting each other is through hugs.

But within the school, there is something else. The understanding of their own emotional range is so limited among the adolescent boys there, that they only know authority, cruelty, and humiliation. These are all the spaces of mind they hit. So, in that, yes, the homosexual love in the book is a definite counterpoint to the masculine violence that is going on, but that is more for drama. All the other boys in the hostel would also have been holding each other up, sleeping with arms around each other: not in a sexual way at all, but just for a sense of warmth, solidarity and togetherness. These also needed to come out in a book of this stark, cold nature. That’s why I brought that in, and dramatised it into a huge counterpoint in the narrative.

You spoke about communalism a while ago. And the issue of religion as a criterion for nation is the idea behind Pakistan, Khalistan, even the Kashmir struggle. How did Roll of Honour crystallise for you? When did the idea of the discrimination against Sikhs in the Eighties tie up with a larger narrative?

Hmm. I think the prick to write this book, though I took some years to do so, was in 2003, when my father passed away. I was taking his ashes in my lap in a plane, to immerse them in Haridwar. And there were these three Muslim gentlemen sitting in the last seat, in skullcaps and long beards and white kurta-pyjama. And the three rows before them were empty. The air hostesses would not look at them. You could see the way they were being seen was discriminatory.

And I was looking at my father, who had never taken a flight in his life, except a small joyride. And here he was, taking the first flight of his life, after his death. And I remembered how my father had also travelled in trains wearing a turban, and once—during the time of Operation Black Thunder—we had to get out of a crowded bogey in the next station because we felt we were in danger of being lynched, all because he wore a turban.

Another incident happened with us at a dam near a steel plant, and we were just taking notes of what was written on the walls of the dam—this is the height, this is the width—and remember, my father was a bona fide officer with the dam, so it was just a Sunday outing. We were a group of three Sikhs, and I had my hair cut. And within three days, the police was at our door. They wanted to see the notes we had made, and every day for a week, a jeep would come, and we would have to report to the station, and were interrogated quite thoroughly. This went on till we met the DIG and said look, we are not terrorists from Punjab, we’re residents of Orissa.

So, Sikhs were definitely targeted for a time, between 1984 to 1992-93. In the Seventies, anyone who knew a Sikh called him a ‘Sardarji’. But in the Eighties, Sikhs lost the ‘ji’. And I think it’s just about coming back now.

As a young man growing up in Punjab, did the impracticality of the idea of Khalistan ever strike you? A landlocked country, with no other means of trade, sharing borders with an enemy state? How do you think the Khalistan movement captured the imagination?

It still captures the imagination. I mean, just one week back, the International Court of Justice got a petition from the proponents of Khalistan that they want to be acknowledged as a separate nation. (Laughs) So, the Khalistan movement is still very active; only, it’s not being run by Indian Sikhs, it’s being run from abroad.

I’m just looking at a map of the world, and there are so many landlocked countries—Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Belarus, Chad, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Mali, Burkina-Faso—and the point is that Pakistan did not seem like an enemy. A lot of Khalistani terrorists went into Pakistan for training and came back. The way the propaganda was being spread at the time was that Pakistan would allow a sea route, we would have Karachi as our harbour, Pakistan was very interested in the liberation of Sikhs from India. While India seemed hostile, Pakistan seemed friendly.

And towards 1987-88, I saw a map of Khalistan which had some two-thirds of India in it. It went all the way up to Uttar Pradesh, and all the way down to Madhya Pradesh. ‘There are Sikhs here, so all this will be Khalistan.’ So, you can draw a map according to your imagination. (Laughs)

When people have a political ambition, they don’t look at the logistics of it. What sense did it make for Pakistan to accept itself on two ends of a large landmass like India? But they accepted it, right, and it ran for 25 years also.

It’s so strange that most of the people from Indian Punjab who considered Pakistan a friend would have fled across the border less than 40 years before that.

Yeah. I mean, look at that Google ad which is evoking such nostalgia: as if passports are so easy to make, and visas are so easy to get, and flights are so easy to take that friends can just meet across the border! But see how public emotion turns. Khalistan was the articulation of a public emotion. And, again, it wasn’t as if every Sikh in Punjab or every Sikh outside of Punjab wanted Khalistan. It was only a small group of people who wanted it. It wasn’t a dominant movement. The idea was a big idea, but the buy-in from ordinary folk was not very large. But, if you don’t say anything, it is considered a ‘yes’.

In Punjab, there are those who are pained at what happened, and those who won’t want to talk about it, and then there are those who support the Khalistan movement. But there’s another kind of discourse that will get you enemies everywhere: that of how wrong it was of the militants to occupy the holiest of holy places, and actually desecrate it themselves. You’ve spoken about both Blue Star and Black Thunder. Were you worried about

No, yaar, I’m past getting scared of these people. Even after the book, I’ve got calls from people sitting in Europe and asking whether it is pro-Bhindranwale or anti-Bhindranwale, and I say, ‘Go bloody read the book’. And they say, ‘Oh, we’re sitting outside, how can we read the book?’ and then I’m like, ‘Why did you run away?’

The people who are outside the country, talking about Khalistan, are not where India is now; they’re distanced from Punjab. And this Punjab is collapsing even before you can say the word. It is eroding, there are all sorts of problems. There are still some beautiful things happening, but the overall ethos of that strong Punjab is going down rapidly.

Now, every Guru who took up arms—Guru Gobind Singh and some before him—never did it from the confines of a gurdwara; they did it from forts. Or, they were guerilla warriors. They were living in mountains, and would just come and attack the enemies. But, with the Khalistan Movement, the most sacred temple of the Sikhs was made a fortress. And I think, before the Army brought the guns into the temple, these militants had already taken in arms in there. And I think the Sikh community’s voice should have been raised earlier, in the early Eighties, and the militants should have got a mandate from the people saying, ‘Boss, if you want to do this, do this; but don’t do this from inside a temple.’

Mark Tully writes eloquently about what happened during Black Thunder, in No Full Stops in India. There’s a whole chapter devoted to it. And I think Black Thunder was a master coup, in relation to the horror of Blue Star. And that tilted the whole discourse of that movement also, because people realised that those who stand to guard the community are also desecrating the community’s temple.
Let’s go back to your first book, Sepia Leaves. You’ve brought up the stigma of mental illness, in the book, and in discussions after its publication. It’s a brave topic to write about, especially close to home, and especially after getting your parents’ permission. Did you ever have second thoughts about writing such a personal story?

No, I never did. The whole idea was that, at that point in my life, I had been slapped hard from all directions by society, and I thought, ‘Okay, here I am, stripping and lying down on the road; if you want to walk over me, walk; I don’t care any longer.’ I had been trying to guard against it, I’d been trying to prevent it, hide my mother, hide my father, hide our distress, trying to project something, all sorts of things I’ve been trying to do, and nothing has worked. So, it was like: this is it, put it out. Once you are no longer vulnerable, once your dark secret is out in the world, nobody can use it against you, and that was my intention. I very much wanted to get it out there. (Laughs) So I threw the ball back into the court.

So, the extension of that act, is that tomorrow, I’m going to hear from someone who has just read Sepia Leaves, and he will say that the son of his sister is schizophrenic, and he wants to talk to me about it. That continues to happen in my life, that these people consider me a friend, and it’s a great honour.

I was just coming to that point. What has the response been from societies and groups, or even individuals, who deal with mental illness as caregivers? The strain it takes on a caregiver is not often spoken about.

Yes, I’m told the book was discussed in the WHO, I’ve been told it was even taken into consideration for the new mental health laws that have been formulated in this country; they haven’t been ratified yet. Caregivers have written to me in hundreds, saying ‘Thank you, we didn’t know we had a story’. People find such validation in being told their case is genuine, they find so much satisfaction in this authentication of their struggle.

Do you think this needs to be explored further?

Yes, within the mental illness space in this country, there are two or three very big issues. For one, there is a huge rise of depression and stress in the society, because of the sudden change in lifestyle, in disposable income, for this generation; to map this out as a writer is a big task to do.

Another thing to do, as a writer, is to recognise that while mental illness is a framework of understanding things, it is also so culturally individual to a society. What is considered normal in my society could be abnormal in yours. My mad person may be a perfectly normal person to you. That kind of cultural differentiation between madnesses has not happened in this country because we have so many languages, so many cultures, so many different kinds of communities coexisting with each other. Psychiatrists also need this kind of work to be done.

The third big thing to do, with mental illness, is to look at states which have been under siege for 20 to 30 years, like Kashmir, like Jharkhand, like Chhattisgarh, and look at what happens to the minds of the people there: the psychosis. I recently read an article about the loss of sex drive in Kashmir; that’s a mental illness issue. So that work is required to be done.

I honestly do not have the gumption, the stamina, in this stage of my life, to go and do all that work. It’s calling out to be done. But, right now, there are other things that need my attention.

I notice how you—and Jerry Pinto too —use the word ‘mad’ while those of us with lesser acquaintance with it look for euphemisms. Is this a sort of reclamation, or confrontation?

That’s really a question for academics to ponder upon. (Laughs) We have been so fucked by it, we know exactly what it is. We have seen it, we know it, our karma with it is over, and this is the word. I don’t feel it is a negative word anymore! I’ve given it a whole positive connotation for it by putting a book behind this word, you know? There was a thought in my head that I might call the book Pagli.

Writing has taken you to dark places with both your books. Do you want to push yourself into those further, or do you think you might switch to something lighter?

I’ve been pondering over this a lot, you know. I think I’m okay with dark places. I’m not scared of them anymore. Maybe it’s the confidence of having dealt with dark places earlier, and knowing that, though you fell, you got up, and maybe you’ll get up again, and it’s okay to go down to those dark places. It isn’t scary.
You speak about writing to heal … does revisiting this really heal? Doesn’t it take a toll?

It took a lot out of me, definitely. I went into many strange places in my head, and I think there was some depression also, at least partly because of the book. It took a huge toll on me, but I think at the end of it, I feel that I’ve fallen so hard and bled so much, but I’ve still managed to pick myself up, and I know I can do it. It’s like a climber on a mountain, like a deep sea diver: you feel you’ve surmounted the challenge, and you have a taste for it, and you want to do it again and again. I’m not saying I’m addicted to dark spaces, but I’m addicted to journeys. And I’m no longer scared, no longer worried about losing my bearings; I know I can suspend my bearings for a while.

You moved to Delhi in order to be physically closer to the events that had once happened here, after a gap of more than 20 years. That’s an interesting contrast in terms of distance.

(Laughs) If I were a better writer—if I had better training, better focus—I would have told this story sooner. I’ve sat in front of blank pages and cried, you know, because I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know how to write, how to structure, how to do characters … when I could do it, there was not a moment to waste. So I needed to go to Delhi, walk the streets at night, go to the Nizamuddin dargah, go through those drug addicts, go through those horrors, listen to gaalis, listen to men beating wives, listen to those slum noises, and just absorb the violence of the city into me, because that was the violence that had broken me earlier in life, and I needed to break again.

You’re at a delicate stage when it comes to exploring your voice and its potential, where you’ve told your big stories. Now, you can either be an activist-writer and draw attention to certain stories, or indulge yourself as a writer. Which way do you see yourself going?

I want to develop myself as a writer. To develop my voice, to groom it, to see how much it can take, how much it can carry, how big a story I can tell, or how small, how miniscule, how detailed a story I can tell. Like Rohinton Mistry’s book on Bombay was such a brilliant work in miniutiae, like the miniature work of the Mughal period. I want to go that way, not the activist-writer way, though the stories I will pick would have resonances with real things, real events, and I would hope that attention comes to them, but my focus is on myself as a writer.

(Nandini Krishnan is a journalist, playwright and humorist based in Chennai, and the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage published by Random House India)


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