Meet Amandeep Sandhu whose book Roll Of Honour has been shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2013.
What does being shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2013 mean to you?
When I heard the news, I was stunned. I broke down. By next day, I felt my decision to walk my solitary path had been validated. A story of Punjab had been heard. It means a lot to me. It affirms my faith in the kind of writing I have practised and it pushes me to write more.
How much of Roll of Honour is about a personal need to remember and reclaim?
A lot of it is about remembering, reclaiming and, if I may add, resolving. In order to find my own words to tell my story, I sought to penetrate the fear the Punjab of the 1980s had instilled in me. This meant remembering everything over 1500 pages of notes. Writing those notes led me to slowly reclaim my own self, recognise the binary of the victim and bully, the form and the formless, and resolve my own confusions.
Do you feel that the issue of Punjab and events of 1984 have been ignored when it comes to Indian writing in English?
Yes, but this is two-sided. Not much has come from Punjab in the last few decades, at least in English. Let me answer this beyond literature. It takes time to heal and reflect; the healing is yet to begin in Punjab. But, in a democracy, people do not speak through words alone. They also speak through votes. The tragedy is that even the return to democracy did not work in Punjab. Today the State is overshadowed by one political party, which has driven a once hard-working and resilient people into a subsidy-based quagmire. The people — betrayed by the political, social, and economic systems, are trying to find ways either to survive or escape somewhere else. This, in a country trying to stop its people from talking with their guns and bring them back to democratic processes. Seriously, what does India have to show for peace? A messy Punjab, and Tripura and Mizoram, which hardly make it to the national discourse. This is a deep crisis not only for Punjab, but for India and for democracy.
I’ve read about how it’s a partly autobiographical novel. This automatically brings to mind the idea of the blurring between the personal and the political.
To talk about personal horror, I borrowed from feminism: the personal is political. That is the only way I could write about how both sides — the police as well as the separatists — had pulled the gun on me and my loyalties had split between my community and my nation. Yet, I did not want to write from the victim’s point of view. I wanted to be a sovereign witness, free from being appropriated.
Has the process of writing Roll of Honour been in any way cathartic? Or painful?
I knew I would need to shatter the wall of self-denial and re-live the pain in my own self. It was painful, cathartic, and much more. I knew I did not have another deeply personal story to tell and my next stories would depend on my ability to absorb my characters and their struggles. So, I used this book to learn as much as I could about testimonial writing.
Could you describe your journey as an author, from Sepia Leaves to Roll of Honour? The treatment is very different. Do you see your style changing, growing?
I am so glad you noticed that. When I started writing Roll of Honour, I wanted it to be different from Sepia Leaves. I went around in circles, trying all possible points of view to tell this story but nothing worked. So I came back to the original dual narrative structure. Yet, the two books are very different in tone and expression. Sepia Leaves is empathetic and this one is gritty. Over the two books, over the seven years that this took to write, over the shift from a settled life in Bangalore to a harsh Delhi whose warmth I discovered as I wrote, I moved from one person’s madness to a social schizophrenia, from one person’s death to the death of thousands and of a social conscience, from exploration of the father’s guilt to an exploration of my own fear. I feel all these helped me grow as a writer, consolidate and groom my voice. I now feel ready to lend it to other stories.
As someone who reviews books and interviews authors regularly, what are your views on Indian writing in English?
I have learnt from many Indian writers in English and I respect them. Yet, if we take a hard look, I find two issues: one, we have not yet invented any genre in any form of our writing in English; two, our writings often do not address some of our real issues. Today our society is in severe crises — the markets are tightening their grip and the individual is celebrated for being a consumer. We are staring at the end of all ideology. In an election year, our society is caught between corruption and communalism but our writing seldom echoes these realities. If you look at the history of world literature, you will find the best writing comes in times of extreme crises: Europe during the World Wars, U.S. post-Vietnam, same in Latin America. Where are we compared to those societies? I feel our literature lacks that seer point of view — one that shows a path or even adequately problematises our crises. That engagement, and not entertainment alone, remains the main function of literature. We are not there yet.
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