What use is an apology unless we ascertain who carried out the pogroms, asks Amandeep Sandhu as he talks about his new book, based on the events of 1984.
In a famous essay on The Need to Forget, the late Israeli philosopher Yehuda Elkana asked his fellow citizens not to make hate and victimhood the centrality of Israel’s existence. Sadly, no one can make a similar plea to many of India’s wronged. Neither the survivors of Nellie nor the Sikh victims of well-coordinated pogroms in Delhi and elsewhere in 1984 have found closure for their misery. Amandeep Sandhu makes a powerful case for the need to remember in his latest book Roll of Honour. Part-autobiographical, the book tells a compelling story of the events of 1984 with the directness of searing personal experience — the devastation caused by split loyalties along with the trauma of male rape and individual and collective humiliation in a boot camp of a residential military school for boys in Punjab in the wake of Operation Bluestar. Excerpts from a conversation:
With so many Sikhs at the topmost levels in the government today and an apology from the PM himself, is there a closure for 1984?
To me being a Sikh is not only about wearing a turban. A Sikh commits to be a learner but should also be able to pick up the sword as a last resort to injustice. I am no one to comment on how much of a Sikh someone like the PM or the Vice Chairman of the Planning Commission or the head of the army or our man in the UN is, but all we have had for 1984 in the Parliament is an apology from a Sikh PM. What use is an apology unless we ascertain who carried out the pogroms? We need to examine the pattern of violence for any kind of closure.
Is Roll of Honour a needless recounting of a long-ago event?
As a nation we ruptured our secular fabric through the 1980s leading to a horrific 1990s. The decade started with the Nellie massacre and ended with the Babri Masjid incident. We lost Indira and Rajiv Gandhi to assassins. Since then we have had the events of ‘Bombay’, Gujarat, Orissa, and now Kokrajhar. Yet, very little has been written about these. Unless the country’s majority stops taking periodic swipes at its many minorities and unless we investigate how divisive politics shapes our adolescents who are our next generation, I feel Roll of Honour will continue to be relevant.
Can you elaborate on the narrative?
The story takes place among students in a military boarding school in Punjab in 1984. These schools are often glamorised but, in reality, they are marked by a perverse play of power domination among senior and junior classes. Bullying becomes a way to exercise power. The book takes a hard look at how concepts of honour, courage, and brotherhood are inverted inside the subculture of such schools. It also posits that bullying is not only a school phenomenon but can take place at all levels in any society.
The earthy profanity in your Roll of Honour — could you have done without that?
While Urdu is a beautiful language and there is excellent poetry in Hindi, it is also a fact that a lot of pent-up violence in North Indian society is in its spoken language and I wanted the book to reflect that. If you listen in on conversations among Punjabi adolescents, you will notice the speech is really earthy, each sentence invariably peppered with two or three obscene words. When rendered in English they really stand out but the intent is something deeper. It is to convey the many ‘violences’ and ferocities of that period.
How would you define your kind of writing?
A teacher of mine used to say: the mad are poets without language. Whether he is the stoic father in [my earlier novel] Sepia Leaves or the traumatised boys in Roll of Honour, whether it is schizophrenia or depression, my attempt is to extend storytelling to situations where language frequently fails to articulate reality.
Both your books are searingly realistic and emotional. Does that make you less of a litterateur?
My journey has only begun and I have a long way to go in terms of both the expanse of my voice and my craft. I continue to work on my writing; as Chaucer said, ‘The lyf so short, the craft so long to learne, The assay so hard, so sharp the conquering’.
In your latest work you clearly bring out that sexual violence is not confined to women and, in certain situations, it is a very real fear for the male.
To me, sex is an extension of affection and love and I am perturbed by how it becomes a tool for power and domination. I feel unless we examine how sexual exploitation ruptures the male psyche — especially when sexual identity is just being formed — we cannot really reduce sexual violence in our society. We need to save boys from becoming victims of sexual violence lest they end up believing that the only way they can balance things is by becoming bullies.
Your two books bring out your tremendous resilience. How did you manage to survive a challenging home, with a schizophrenic mother, and a violent period in a congenitally violent school?
Essentially by confronting my fears — whether it was the fear of going mad or being sodomised. I did not choose those situations. But in my own time I chose to face up to them, make sense out of them, and find reasons to live with hope rather than fear.