Over the course of lunch, writer Amandeep Sandhu springs a few surprises
A little over a year ago, a book came to my table and was promptly lost in the little labyrinth. For days on end I did not realise that in Amandeep Sandhu’s “Roll of Honour” I had with me a book that would stay with me for a long time. Then came the announcement of the short list for The Hindu prize for best fiction. Sandhu’s book was among the top five; reason enough for me to do a quick read. You see the idea of appearing ignorant at a literary do is not the most fetching. Luck was not on my side. Some ‘friend’ had flicked the copy from my table. I did the next best thing: picked up a copy at the lit fest.
Barely a few pages into the book, and I found myself moderating a reading-cum-discussion among the short-listed authors. Sandhu started reading from his book to a packed audience. That is when I realised that this tale of 1984 anti-Sikh violence commanded, and deserved, serious reading. Here was a young author talking of the violence that had obviously shaken him to the core. His story took me back to my own experience as a young man growing in the Capital amidst all the headlines of markets being attacked, people being killed, cinema halls being reduced to ashes. For days on end, Delhi was a ghastly picture.
It was during the course of The Hindu Lit for Life discussion that I made up my mind that I needed to pick Sandhu’s brains. The occasion presented itself a bit later though when he came to Delhi and we could meet over lunch at Shangri-La’s-Eros’s Café Uno. Sandhu proved as good as his word; no false airs, no pretensions. Lamenting that he got caught up in the traffic, he began by surprising me. Turns out he wanted to me to give him an insight into my experience of the 1984 violence.
A few things shared about the violence that shook the city, leaving behind scars that refuse to go away after almost 30 years, and I manage to engage him in a little conversation of life beyond the first book. The orange juice on our table helps to take the mind away from the past; as does the ambience of the restaurant. Colourful chandeliers, three of them, a nice piece of sculpture behind us and a brilliant interplay of light and shadow on our table, all helps to assuage the nerves. There are faint, very faint, refrains of Phil Collins’ “Hello, I must be Going” as we progress beyond juice and on to sweet lime soda for Sandhu, followed by surkh paneer tikka for both of us. The tikka is tender and succulent. Going by our reaction, the chef offers us prawns too. Sandhu declines, he has prawn allergy. The chef is not in a mood to slip away. He gets us some fish tikka. Giving it company are some boti kababs. The platter seems inviting and Sandhu happily discloses that he loves the fish made by his mother-in-law. The chef at Café Uno is in luck; Sandhu approves of his preparation and resumes his surprise-spree.
“My book has done well but it needed more vigorous editing.” He, however, candidly admits he is getting better with the written word, disclosing, “When you read your book, you are not always able to point out the place where the text is slackening. That is when the editors come in and my editors did improve my initial draft,” he says, then goes on another tangent. “English is now such a small thing. It is like cutting off a branch of a tree and planting it afresh. It grows as a different plant. English captures the essence, the flavour of the local place. I would want that to reflect in my writing.” But one has noticed a pain in his writing, a half muffled agony. “May be but I don’t like the sound of my own voice,” says this former journalist who also did some technical writing at one point to keep the kitchen fire burning. What was burning inside though was a raging desire to relate the story of 1984. Did it all come naturally to him, I ask even as malai broccoli waits for attention on our table. “I had the story with me for many years. But it did not take me too long to put it together as a book though I am a slow writer. I write in the morning,” he says, then shares with me a precious pearl from his life. “I had done the first draft of the book. I showed it to my father. He said, ‘for me, you have become a writer’.”
Doesn’t he brood over the past a shade too much? “My book is kind of an anatomy of a riot. Writing essentially represents the society but at the same point it becomes a world of its own,” he says, before happily conceding “We all need happier stories.” For the moment though, Sandhu is happy to talk of the round chapattis he can dish out at home. “Does it surprise you,” he asks me. Not anymore. With Sandhu life is all about expecting the unexpected.