With an excerpt from his book “Roll of Honour”
JAM meets Amandeep Sandhu the author of Sepia Leaves has now written a new book called Roll of Honour. It is a story of split loyalties of a Sikh boy studying in a military school in Punjab in the year 1984. It is about Operation Bluestar, Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, riots, and the hard life in a residential school. It deals with issues of bullying and terrorism and how these affects the youth.
An excerpt from his novel Roll Of Honour follows after this interview;
What was your motivation to write this book?
Life. Once you have seen militancy from both the sides, the government and the separatists, and still survived it, you realize that you have lost your mind. The sad part is that in the last twenty-five years since 1984 we have had more issues, more killings, and have become an even more unsafe society. I am speaking of the struggle of the Tamil Eelam, Babri Masjid, Bombay, Urdu language riots in Bangalore, Godhra and Gujarat, Kokhrajar, issues in the North East India, Kashmir, Telangana and so on. With such events the world seems to have become an asylum. The only way I knew to reclaim myself was to go through the issues and find my answers. We need to reclaim our sanity, to make peace with ourselves. Hence, the need to write.
Is it because, being a Sikh you could naturally connect to the subject and wanted to portray your feelings?
No. A non-Sikh from North India could have done a book like this. Anyone from anywhere in the world who can prevail upon violence in his or her part of the world and the book s/he would write would be a book of similar themes. The advantage of being a Sikh is that I could find the space and understanding to question some of the radical Sikh stances. In that sense it is both easy and risky. Easy because it is familiar, risky because it is risky to stand outside your community and speak about it.
Do you think that these episodes in history still reverberate in the minds of today’s youth?
Yes, they do. The youth is concerned but does not find answers to questions, to violence, to corruption, to betrayal of ideologies, to political stances which change ever so often. I feel those of us in our 40s and 50s, who were young in the 80s and 90s, tried our best but did not do enough to guide the youth, to tap the energies of the youth. At the same time crass consumerism has taken over, the need to brand ourselves in the bazaar of capitalism and to find ways to escape the misery of pointless struggle. I am not generalizing. The youth of the country is a huge population and also very diverse with so many issues. We are heading into a boom of first time voters – people between 20 to 25 years. In such a scenario what we can do is to reflect upon those times, seek answers to our confusions. A lot of groups have done a lot of work in the area but the voices need to grow. We need to speak, we need to open spaces for dialogue, we need to heal and then move forward. Roll of Honour is a step in that direction.
The timing of the book is opportune with the light of religion induced riots?
Well the book has been a long time in the making. I wanted it for the 25th anniversary of Operation Bluestar but I wasn’t ready with it. In some ways I am satisfied that it has come out now, after a major verdict in the Naroda Patiya case. I hope other cases come up for hearing; the 1984 cases reach some kind of closure, we need to keep knocking on the doors of justice incessantly.
Who is the book targeted to?
I write for myself but when the writing shapes into a book I like to see it released. In my previous book Sepia Leaves I engaged with the stigma around mental illness. In this I look at a social madness. My target audience is all of us who wish to reflect upon where we have taken ourselves as a nation over the last three decades and seek answers to what we can do to make our society safer.
Excerpt from Roll of Honour
The night was still but my mind was in turmoil. It was an ironclad rule at school that we were not, under any circumstances, supposed to go out. Especially nowadays, when times were bad and bunking did not mean only an escape but the possibility of being gunned down by the police or the militants. Did this mean that I had failed to imbibe the officer-like qualities the school wanted to instill in me? Varma, or Chhola, as A-1 had named him, perhaps wished me well, but was his best also best for me? Was it wrong to warm oneself with some hot milk on a cold night? I remembered the big white board in the porch that listed the officer-like qualities in blue letters, qualities like effective intelligence, reasoning and organizing ability, power of expression, social adaptability, initiative, self-confidence, courage and so on.
I had implemented them in my life, but in my own way. Bunking school needed intelligence and reasoning ability—one had to know when to bunk and for how long. One had to plan how to go out, climb the wall, the timing, and come back successfully. One had to sit with ordinary people in the market, take quick decisions, influence the group, and be alert and determined. Courage was the foundation on which such an adventure rested. I also knew Chhola was not angry with me because he had caught us. He was angry because we had lied to him. He had once said, ‘Even if you commit murder, confess to me. I will be with you.’
Lalten had called me dogla. Was I two-faced? Should I let Chhola and Lalten and others continue to see me the way they do, or should I show them who I thought I really was. Who was I?
In his last history lesson in class X, after we had finished the syllabus, Chhola had reminded us about lost and forgotten kings, about cultures and civilizations, discoveries and inventions, heroes and heroines who we may have forgotten but who had lessons to teach us. The lessons were always about those who were brave, broke rules and took risks, kings who won big battles, whether Babur or Chandragupta Maurya. I enjoyed the visions they created in my mind: of me riding on horseback in full armour, leading the charge with a sword in hand. My grandfather’s sword. The maharaja of Patiala had gifted it to him as reward for his bravery during the Second World War in the forests of Burma. Nanaji had defended his post with sixteen people, kept the eight-hundred-strong enemy at bay for four days until they got air support. With jewels on the hilt and a blade so sharp, I could cut through Chhola and Lalten’s words. Nanaji’s Military Cross hung in a place of pride on the wall of our drawing room. I realized I would never earn any medal in my life. Even after Chhola had caught me, I was unable to confess that I had gone out. I was a coward.
I felt exhausted when I woke up early the next morning. We got ready for PT. As A-1 had suggested, I gave Chhola the report and pretended nothing has happened. Chhola busied himself with office work in the front office of the house, next to the house Roll of Honour with my name on it. It was still cold when we came back from PT. To open our shoelaces we warmed our fingers under running water and skipped our baths. My heart, too, was frozen but there was no running water for that. That was when I knew that this was how I would have to live from then onwards—well dressed outside but dirty on the inside. Two-faced. Who care about Roll Of Honour any longer?
– Preeti Kulkarni