(This is the longer version of an interview was published in Sify.com on 24 October, 2012, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/Amandeep-Sandhu-on-1984-riots-and-the-myths-about-Sikhism-imagegallery-features-mkyoKQfggeb.html?html=5)
Walking into Amandeep Sandhu’s house gives a person who’s read his books the odd sense of being in a semi-reality. On the wall are photographs of people whom you think you recognise from his books, Sepia Leaves and Roll of Honour. You’re asked to sit on a diwan you sniff at because you’ve read about the smell of its wood.
The author himself presents another paradox – he seems to have plaited his life into the story, and yet speaks in a detached manner of characters. Where his persona in Roll of Honour, a first-person narrative, is resolute in telling his story the way he sees it, the author is keener to ask for feedback than talk about his book. His first book Sepia Leaves, a cult hit among mental health groups, deals with a boy – Appu – growing up in the shadow of his mother’s schizophrenia, in an atmosphere where a nation is shrouded in Emergency. His second book revisits Appu, now in his final year of military school – in 1984. Sandhu speaks to Sify.com about what drives him to write, the intertwining of the personal and the political, the idea of Khalistan, and the myths about Sikhism he wanted to break when he wrote a novel about Operation Blue Star.
Let me start with the most basic question – why do you write?
I write to exorcise my demons.
So, once you’ve reached a place when you’re at peace with your demons, will you stop writing?
I’ll die. I mean, I don’t think you exorcise your demons in one lifetime, you know. But yeah, if I feel I have said all that I needed to say, Imight stop writing, and that is okay.
You’ve written two books now, and you’ve seen what it’s like to have your name on the cover of a book, to have your book stacked on the stands, to have people tell you that your books helped them confront their own demons. Do you like the process of writing itself? Is the idea of having a book edited and published and put out on the shelves addictive?
There are two-three aspects to this. I love the process of meditation and reflection, from which comes the writing. And then there’s this rigmarole of sorts, of having to get it accepted by publishers, and then an editor tweaking your things around, and you wondering whether it’s really being done right or not – though I had a very good relationship with my editors – and the whole waiting for the cover page to come, and then more waiting.
I get anxious at times, because one doesn’t know whether it will reach completion in the way in which one has envisaged it. With this book I could not sleep those nights when I knew the book had been printed but had not yet reached me. I just could not sleep until I held the book in my hands. But, really, it would be too much to say that this is something unique. Because every mother who births a child goes through that, you know. And the moment the child is brought and shown to the mother, the mother’s like, “Oh! Oh-kaaaay...” (Laughs) So, it’s just that – they’re my children.
You speak of sodomy in a military school on one level, and Operation Blue Star – another violation – on a second level. Was the connection between the two always there in your mind, even before you started writing the book?
See, we had a family psychiatrist, who took care of my mother, who had schizophrenia. And then, when I was on the verge of losing my moorings, I went to him, and he said, “So what is the real issue?” I said, “Blue Star and sodomy are linked.” And he said, “What? It doesn’t make sense to me. Tell me, how are they linked?” And I couldn’t tell him.
Somewhere, the idea had clicked to me that they were linked, but it was very tenuous. And then, I kept thinking about it, and I kept writing this book, and then it occurred to me that yes, they are actually linked – sodomy is an attack by a man on a man at the place where the victim can’t defend himself. And though there is a very big religious icon involved in this context of Operation Blue Star, it wasan attack by a male force, which is the Indian Army, on a male force, which is what the Sikhs had been told they are, as a martial race, at a place where the Sikhs couldn’t defend themselves. So, when it connected for me, I thought okay, I can go tell the doctor – who was by now a drinking buddy – and tell him this is the story. (Laughs)
The idea of sodomy is there in your first novel in Sepia Leaves. The thing is everyone speaks about little boys being abused by servants and shopkeepers. And people from residential schools often speak about rape. But it hasn’t been written about much. You bring in the sense of shame involved, and the gender play, and the insult to manhood that it involves.
I feel the greatest insult is the way crime is constructed in the world, especially sexual crime. Why is a woman who is raped wrong? Why is rape used as a weapon in wartime? There are often tales of men fleeing the villages, and the enemy comes in and plunders the women, so that the male ego is incited.
Why is it we have this old saying that jar (ego), joru (wife) and jameen (land) are what lead to fights? Why are women objectified as tokens of honour for men? I don’t understand that. And I completely oppose it. Sexual crime is sexual crime, irrespective of whether it happens to a man or a woman.
And I’m very perturbed that there is so much undercurrent of forced sodomy, not only now, but even in the past, even in the Army, right from Alexander to the Afghans coming down to India, and I find so little literature around sodomy. Why?! This is one of the greatest crimes, the violation of the body.
And it isn’t the body alone that is violated; it’s the mind that is violated, finally, because that is the cycle of violence which is pushed further. You’re a victim, and you become a bully and do it to someone else, who does it to someone else, and the violence cycle keeps going ahead. And the sense of victimhood never leaves you, and yet you become a bully as well. So it is a hugely problematic area, and this book had to deal with that, because what is the role of honour in a culture one of whose pillars is sodomy?
That’s why the emphasis is on closing the cycle. Each of us has to say, “Violence has happened to me, but I’m stopping it here.” Unless we do that, there is no end to the violence in the world.
Since you brought up the ‘role of honour’, is there an auditory pun on the title of the book?
Well, it was unintentional, but it’s become a pun, and some of my friends have actually been addressing it as R-O-L-E, so I’m quite happy with that. (Laughs)
To me, there are two strands that are equally important – obviously, the metaphor, the parallel in Operation Blue Star takes precedence in the context of the country. But this subculture of sodomy in residential schools, even posh ones, must be spoken about too.
Yes, this issue has to come out. I can’t be a hundred percent sure, but most violence in the world is violence which the male gender does – whether it’s sexual crime, or going to war, or riots, you know. The construct is such that women exert less violence – though I’m not saying women are less violent. Unless we address the issue of what triggers off violence, and how violence asserts itself in the adolescent male, we aren’t getting to the root of the problem. And that was the need for me to write a book like this, where the quest is why does adolescent violence start and how does it start.
You also engage with domestic violence perpetrated by women, especially in Sepia Leaves. And here, Indira Gandhi, a woman, orders an operation that hits the stronghold of this martial race.
I think violence must be seen as an act in itself, and the focus should be on the crime, not the criminal’s gender. A breach of one’s independence and imminent threat to one’s security is an act of violence. And in the case of Mrs Gandhi, it’s an extension of that. I think that’s where machismo comes in, ego – you know, the sense of self-grandeur that says, “Oh, I can get away with this. Who are these?” Both she and Bhindranwale had that sense of self. And what happened was that small teenage boys lost their minds, and their lives.
You’ve spoken about wanting to destroy the myths about Sikhs. What are these myths?
Not Sikhs but how Sikhism is practised today. See, without sounding too radical, the fact is that Sikhism as a religion came about as a response to the deadening of Hinduism at one level, because of ritualisation of Hinduism. It came as a mirror image to the Persian warrior, who were invading from the west. In fact, the khanda, the main symbol of Sikhism, looks exactly like the symbol on the flag of Iran. Before Guru Gobind created the Khalsa on Baisakhi day, in 1699, Sikhism was mostly a peaceful sect comprising Hindus and Muslims who were followers of the nine gurus.
And Guru Gobind who was born in Patna was well educated in Sanskrit, Persian, Braj and so on. His Dasam Granth is in part inspired by the religious practices of Eastern India, and there was a great influence of the Shiv Bhakti in it, and the Bhakti of the Shakti, the Goddess Bhagvati. The Guru Granth Sahib is composed of the works of many, many poets, both Hindu and Muslim so it came as a strange mix of religions. It has references to Ram, Vishnu, Hari (Krishna), and even Allah and others.
But the real impetus for Sikhism was that it would break the caste system of the Hindu society. What ended up happening is that, today, almost every village in Punjab has two or more gurdwaras – one for the Jat Sikhs, and one for the Dalit Sikhs. Temples of Sikhism, have ended up becoming places of huge ritualisation. You go into the Golden Temple, you’re asked not to stand like this, but to stand like that, facing the Harmandir Sahib, and you can’t turn your back towards it.
And the fact is that the Sikhism started with Guru Nanak turning his back to Meccah, and someone said you can’t do that, and he said okay, then, turn my feet in whichever direction where there is no God. Or in Haridwar, where he said to Brahmins facing the East, okay, if you can give water to the Surya Devta, I can water my fields in the West.
So, the religion stood on the basis of questioning what had come down as received belief systems, but it has gone back into becoming a very, sort of, didactic, preachy religion cut off from its real basis, which was to be a learner, and a warrior against ignorance.
In fact, that is what the tenth Guru said upon being asked for his successor. He said here is the book, read it and it will guide you. That was the real idea to me – Sikh means sikhnewala, shishya, you know, and ignorance is the enemy. Today less Sikhs read the book to learn from it, they either keep praying to the closed book or recite the text through mugging it up, not understanding it. So, the religion has moved into a very strange sort of place. Not all Sikhs do that, there are many Sikhs who still do wonderful work, but my idea was to bring into focus the original concern of Sikhs.
You also tackle another idea. Most people assume Sikhs are considered a martial race because of Guru Gobind Singh’s army, whereas you put it down to the British rewarding Sikhs for their role in the Revolt of 1857.
(Laughs) See, the British weren’t very populous in India, and they needed an army here. So, they played a game of very interesting Divide and Rule, by which they did not really occupy Punjab, and they used the support of the Sikh soldiers to quell the rebellion in 1857. And the three main communities that helped them at the time – the Sikhs, the Coorgis and the Gurkhas – were given the ‘martial’ status. Appu discovers in his talk with Baba that the word ‘martial’ has these colonial connotations and there is no reason to believe the word is supposed to imply respect.
This is where I feel the problem happens. If Sikhs strut about wearing the five ‘K’s, then that is wrong, because the five ‘K’s are supposed to make you humble. They’re supposed to bind you into a way of living which brings out your humility to the world, and yet, if injustice is happening, you should be able to pick up the sword, because you’re not supposed to be sheep that can be cut by the other. So, you fight for the rights, but you remain humble, and that is a very basic tenet of Sikhism. But they make a ritual out of it, and that’s where the problem happens.
How do you think these tenets were formulated, and how have they been distorted?
The five ‘K’s are the kesh, kanga, kirpan, kada, kachera. Guru Gobind Singh was creating a guerrilla force, which could not live in its villages, but had to hide in the mountains, in the forests, so they would take the enemy by advantage.
So, he must have said, ok, let’s sort it out. You don’t have to be running to the barber every month to fashion your hairstyle, so just start growing your hair long. And the other advantage is that long hair would make it easy to identify each other, and differentiate each other from the enemy, which would mostly have short hair. Now, how do you maintain your hair? You need a comb for it, which is the kanga.You tuck it inside your hair, and tie a turban around it, to keep it neat. Now, if you’re a soldier and you have to be armed, so keep a dagger or a sword with you, and that’s the kirpan. And now, if you’re holding a dagger in your hand, you need your wrist to be protected, because it was the most vulnerable part. And back then, kada wasn’t a thin bangle, but a thick metal piece that a sword couldn’t cut through. And then, maybe it was, why run around wearing dhotis that can open in the middle of the battlefield, start wearing long bermuda shorts, you know! (Laughs) So he gave them kachera.
So the five ‘K’s come from that – pure efficiency and pragmatism. And from that they’ve made a uniform, where unless you do the symbolism the right way, you’re wrong. Of course, these symbols have deeper meanings too. But this is Lalten’s problem, that he has adopted a code of conduct without understanding it.
Even the Sikh bani, Ik Onkar Satnam, means God is one and it is truth. Now that is the meaning but Sikhs have made a visible icon out of that and they deify it. Thus the label becomes more important than the sense of it. You can only find truth through your conscience. No sermonising, no maluvi, no granthi, no pandit, can tell you what is the truth.
To get to the book itself, I feel your main character Appu doesn’t really belong anywhere, both in terms of religion and nation. He’s called a mona and considered less Sikh than themselves by Sikhs who’ve grown their hair. When he grows his hair, he’s seen as less Indian by the police. In the school, he’s got some importance as the Prefect, but doesn’t belong either with the victims or the bullies. What does the isolation symbolise?
I think it’s symbolic of Sikhism. If you’re a warrior of truth, you have to be separate from everybody else. See, the greatest threat in the world to me is lack of freedom – when freedom is appropriated. As soon as you buy into the concept that you’re a victim of anything, there are forces lying outside of you, just ready to adopt you. And when you say khalsa, which is the Army of the Sikhs, it means pure, it means ‘not a victim’. So, it is not that a Sikh would stand against a certain community or for a certain community, it’s not that at all. You don’t stand for this notion, or this country, or this thing. Somebody asked me, “If you don’t belong to India, you don’t belong to Khalistan, you don’t belong to Punjab, are you not a patriot?” I said, “I’m a patriot of my heart.” I think that’s what we all should be. Because nations are imagined realities, so are communities, so are religions. And that’s what Appu symbolises.
If you see all these things that give us our identities as imagined realities, what do you think makes us relate to certain things? We do feel moved by some things, we do feel a collective belonging sometimes. It may be a prayer from our childhoods, or our national anthem, or anything.
That’s a very interesting question at two-three levels. First of all, the national anthem, as we all know, wasn’t a freedom struggle thing. It was written in praise of King George. (Laughs) Second is, yes, it is about belonging, but the real point here is that you would always want to belong to a system which is fair and just. If your nation provides it to you, very good. If it doesn’t provide it to you, you’re a bigger patriot if you fight against it.
The problem when you say ok, I buy into this, is that that this is controlled by somebody else – it could be a politician, it could be an ideology, it could be a religious belief. I just want that each of us should guard our freedom with great awareness, and not fall for things. Because getting used by people, getting appropriated, is the worst thing in the world. And it’s not about religion or nation alone, it’s about gender, it’s about caste, it’s about skin colour, it’s about language, it’s about everything.
What you said makes me think about the idea of guardianship. People who consider themselves patriotic or religious have sort of defined what nation and religion constitute, and declare other people unpatriotic or misguided. And the idea that’s foremost in the book seems to be: Why does anyone have the right to tell you who or what you are?
Absolutely. That’s exactly the book itself. It comes from seeing things crumbling in front of you, how the best of minds, the most intelligent of hearts, everything, somewhere, the subterfuge overtakes you, and you get consumed by it, and the next thing you know, you’re lying in a grave, fighting for that ideal.
The focus in the book is on bullying, but there’s also a foil which is harder to find, which is elevation. You’re elevating somebody to Prefect. You’re elevating somebody to a Leader of the community as happened with Bhindranwale. And that’s the other side of the coin.
That’s very well caught. To me, implicit in that elevation, is the idea of entitlement. In Roll of Honour the students have gone through six years of ragra, and hence they should become senior most, school prefects. In this a draw a parallel with the Sikhs who have been the warriors for the nation, and hence they felt they should be given a special status in India. But what is that rise? It is the rise of the ego. There is no other community in the country that has always been addressed as sardarji. But the Sikhs lost it after the Eighties. And it’s an utter shame that we lost it.
Even today, if you go to Punjab, you seldom find beggars from the Sikh community. You take an auto rickshaw or a taxi driven by a Sikh, you implicitly trust the driver. If you have a Sikh security guard, you feel safe. There’s a trust that your uniform as a Sikh inspires in other people. But if you’re going to betray your uniform, and work in ways where you’re misappropriating the trust, then you have only yourself to blame. The respect that you silently get from people is much bigger than the respect you go and shout for. Respect must be earned, it can’t be snatched.
So think of what you want, and why you want it. If your special status means being given your own country, Khalistan, then imagine: A landlocked country as small as Punjab – even if you include Himachal and Haryana into it, which was its earlier shape – just can’t survive! There’s no port, no minerals, no industry. If you cut off the water supply to it, the fertile land of five rivers goes dry.
When you were growing up, did the idea of Khalistan ever seem real to you, like it would actually happen? I’m asking because if you read pre-Partition literature, or speak to people in their eighties and nineties, it appears they never thought Pakistan would happen.
Yeah, yeah, Khalistan did seem like it could happen, precisely because Pakistan, which was thought to be an impossibility, became a reality. And you think Khalistan is an impossibility, but when you have currency notes of a new nation floating around, when you have maps changed...it seems it can become real.
You look at the newspaper and see a Khalistan map laid out there. Then, you see there’s no such thing in your geography textbook. You don’t know what map to believe in.
When the voices on the street become louder and louder, you don’t know what will happen. But you’re bothered about your dear friend, who is Hindu – where will he go? Because what is nation, what is community, but a network of love and affection with each other? If your loved ones are going to go away, what are you going to do in that nation?
That’s currently the problem India and Pakistan face...because parallel to the political sphere, is the love among people of a shared history, people who were born here and lived there, or were born there and lived here, people whose loved ones, whose ancestors, are buried in another country, people trying to meet, people trying to talk and all that.
When did the idea of Khalistan become fantasy to the youth of the time? Was it with Bhindranwale’s death?
No, no, with Bhindranwale’s death, it just started growing. See, first of all, a lot of people didn’t believe Bhindranwale passed away. They did see a body, but those who want to deny it, will deny it and say there was no confirmation.
But it was after ’84 that the violence really erupted in Punjab – because Operation Blue Star happened on the day of martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev, and thousands of pilgrims thronged the Golden Temple and became victims. So anger was unleashed, and it was finally curtailed in 1993-94. And in between, they had to do Operation Black Thunder, which was an armed police action, in which they cut off a fortress like the Golden Temple, by stopping water, electricity, food. And within three-four days, all the terrorists came out like rats.
Then, you saw that they had defaced the holy sanctum, they had excreted in the tubs. Naturally, they were holed up in small rooms with police guns all round, where could they have gone? And you opened those rooms, and saw atrocious narcotics, and women raped, and this and that, and then you thought, “Who is desecrating what?” They were these warriors who were supposed to lay down their lives for the community, for the imagined nation, but in order to just survive, they have done all this, as well as other nefarious activities.
I was sitting in the house of a Major General, on the day Operation Black Thunder was relayed on national TV, and the Major General said to his friend, a Colonel, “Today, the Punjab police has defeated the Indian Army.” Because what did Mrs Gandhi operate upon? She operated upon her ego. She thought “Oh, I’ll send in the Army and kill these guys!” Nobody dies so easily.
You mention Bhindranwale saying that he didn’t want to secede from India. How did that morph into a demand for Khalistan?
See, the idea of Khalistan was there before. In fact, when Radcliffe was carving Pakistan out of India, Baldev Singh, who later became independent India’s first defence minister, was in attendance. He was asked whether like Muslims want their own land, the Sikhs do too. And he said the Sikhs are always the elder brothers to India. And that derives from centuries before, when Guru Gobind asked that the eldest son of every Hindu family to join the Khalsa, to create a fighting Army.
And in the Seventies, the Anandpur Sahib Resolution came out. In this, the Sikhs asked for more powers to the state, and a redistribution of the Bhakra waters, and more electricity, because Punjab was a farmer community. And all of this was summarily rejected by the Central government. There was a demand for more powers to the states across the country, and the Centre felt it was a nation at threat. Whereas it was simply a “Before you give away the Bhakra water to Rajasthan, which definitely needs it, we also need it in Punjab. Or before you link the Sutlej and the Yamuna to take care of Haryana, please look at Punjab which also needs water.” Now you see these issues between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and elsewhere. We still have no thoughts on dealing with them except appeasing vote banks.
And when Bhindranwale came up, he started out as a Congress-found person. And then Indira Gandhi said she would arrest him if he came to Delhi. And he came, riding on top of a truck with guns, and she arrested him, and he became a hero for standing up to her. And there was all this naatak. As soon as he came out of jail, the Akalis went and gave him a saropa and said please come with us, we’ll host you in the Golden Temple.
So he started giving his sermons from there, and more and more people started coming. And his initial stance shows that he was not summarily against Hindus. But it’s an appropriation of a certain thing, like in one video, he says everyone is born a Sikh, and become Hindus or Muslims through scissors. It’s how you interpret things. He was guilty of that, and also guilty of a lot of killings that were carried out in his name and in the name of religion, and a lot of extortion, and then it became very communal, very anti-Hindu.
Your novel doesn’t have a political stance. The only stance is against bullying. But have you heard back from people who will read it with a certain perspective, like supporters of the Khalistan movement, or people who graduated from military schools?
Military schools, yes. A very senior officer of the Indian Air Force was at the reading and launch of the book – he was my childhood hero, he was from my school. He said “An open salute to the book. I’m so glad you didn’t join the roll of honour of the Armed Forces and went on to write this book.”
And yes, I have started getting some calls from Sikhs abroad. (Laughs) They want to know whether it’s a pro-Bhindranwale or an anti-Bhindranwale book, and I tell them to please read it. Because this is exactly the reductive nature of labelling. if I say it’s pro-Bhindranwale, they’ll say, “Very good”. If I say it’s anti-Bhindranwale, they’ll say “How dare you write such a book?” But life lives in grey colours, it’s not black and white.
I’m going to pull out of the book a little. This business of “testimonial fiction”, as you call it – now, you’re putting a lot of yourself into it, you’re putting the structure of your life into it, though you may populate it with different emotions and different characters. Why do you choose this style? Is it to do with writing what you know, or resolving your own past?
Why I choose it is, in the whole sphere of writing, and that includes non-fiction, essay writing, science-fiction, chicklit, whatever, testimonial fiction remains the most appealing. Because the way it gives you a sense of time and place, I don’t get in any other kind of writing.
Also, the masters I have really respected, have done some or more testimonial writing. Like, my favourite writer of all time is a journalist, Ryszard Kapuściński, and he excelled at this form.
And then this happened in a very loose sort of classroom, where the teacher explained the Mahabharata in terms of what happens in our inner lives – how we fight good with evil, and how our heart is a charioteer, like Krishna – I just imbibed the fact that the personal is the political. And all politics is about human beings. So it is when human beings give their accounts of the politics that it makes most sense to me. It’s the richest example of what the time or place would have been.
I like practising the kind of writing that makes the people who comprise the story feel it is their story. As opposed to the kind of writing which really extends language, which brings in flowery prose, which brings in great description. All that’s very good, but I learn from that, and practise this.
When you say “the people who comprise the book”, do you mean people who are like the characters in the book, the people who inspired those characters, or the audience in general?
No, both these books, are about many real people. Sepia Leaves was about my family, and my family read it. My father, before he died, read my initial account and said, “Yes, you have become a writer.” The novel itself is set on the night of his death – that’s when I gave it its real structure – and after that, my mother, who was unwell at the time, read it, and asked me, “Do you want to publish this?” and I said, “Yes”, and she said “Okay.”
And in Roll of Honour too, there have been real people, and they’re still around, though I cut away from them for a long time. And there is a struggle inside the book, of me wondering whether they will accept this story, this version of the events. And now I’m hearing back, and they say yes, this is right, so I feel, “Okay, I’m done.”
And more than that, it’s a story that will hold true in Kashmir, in Manipur, in any place in conflict, and with adolescent boys, who go through a huge amount of confusion, but it’s not written about.
Do the real people in the book, or people who know them, recognise them in your characters and see it as a memoir?
That’s very interesting, because in the Roll of Honour, I tried to efface the determining markers of each character. A reader can’t make a direct parallel between the character and the real person. If in that process I’ve had to split some characters, merge some characters, I’ve gone ahead and done that, because in no way am I making a critique of the real time and space. It’s a novel, it has to have a reality of its own. But people have asked me, you know, “This person I can make out, but who is that?” And I say, “No, you can’t make out anyone or anything.”
A story has to move from the immediate, physical realm of things to being a thing-in-itself. It doesn’t mirror reality, but contains the essence of the reality. The book’s just out now, and it’s a story of our lifetime, but a couple of centuries later, who will be able to say anything about it? It will be a thing in itself, and it has to make sense then too.
You know, it’s mistaken that confessional writing and testimonial writing are the same thing, but they’re two very different things. Because confession is like, “Oh, I killed this man”, “Oh, I raped this woman.” You’re trying to exorcise your guilt through a public space. You’re trying to confess to a certain shameful act that you’ve committed. What I’ve written is not confessional writing in that sense. This is about being witness to a real time and location, and trying to get what has transpired as objectively as possible on to the page.
But even with this writing, you can feel, “You know, I sat there, watched this and did nothing.” If you’re looking at it in retrospective, in your twenties or thirties or forties, you may feel you should have acted, whereas it isn’t pragmatic for a teenager to do those things. Don’t you think there’s a resolution of guilt involved?
To an extent, yes, but even then, guilt doesn’t get resolved. I think you just understand your helplessness in the situation. You can’t resolve anything about the past, because the moment has passed, but you understand it, and with that understanding, you hope that the next time you face a situation like that, you will act with greater awareness. What is resolution? Somebody dies, somebody’s raped, somebody’s pillaged, somebody’s house burns, somebody’s city is stormed, what can you do, but ensure that it doesn’t happen again? Or hope that it doesn’t happen again?
How do you bring objectivity into a first-person narrative?
It is tough, but I tried various points of view with the second book. The first one, it appeared natural that that was how the story had to be told, whereas with the second one, it was not the case. I didn’t want to repeat myself and become a branded product in the market. I wanted to do something new.
And yet, it was also a story along the same lines as the first book, because I went through this situation too. But any form of writing I tried – and I tried various points of view, including the omniscient – I would do 25-30 pages in it, and then I would reject it. Because every point of view would force me not to depict what other people were thinking, or doing. If there’s a situation happening inside a dorm, for example, and there’s somebody outside the dorm, how do you describe it?
So, finally, I needed to zoom into the point of view that I knew, which was the first-person objective point of view.
Also, when I was doing the 1984 stories, I travelled around Delhi, I tried getting victim accounts, because I was concerned about the riots too. And then, I met a boy called Amandeep Singh, who unconsciously, without his knowledge, turned me inwards, towards myself. And I began to feel that to understand the violence in society, we have to be aware of the violence in our own beings. When you’re looking through that prism, it all starts falling in place. You don’t bother about the story also, you only bother about telling it right.
What made you use Yeats’ poem for the chapter titles?
I think the central idea in the story is that the meek come out on top, that ideals are crutches for the egoistic, and that’s what Yeats’ poem is about.
Also, when I was in Class XII, I read three poems – there’s Snake, there’s If and there’s The Second Coming. And I already knew that I would someday write a book, and that these three poems would feature in the book. Snake, I used as a pedagogical exercise in the classroom, because I felt its relevance was most there. And If was a poem I’d recite to myself for a long time – again, it’s a poem about how others perceive you, and how you define yourself. And that’s eternally the conflict.
But the Second Coming had to become headings for the chapters. It is about the Spiritus Mundi, slouching its way to Bethlehem. To me, the idea of the Spiritus Mundi came through Kabir, who held my hand while writing the book, because I got interested in his poetry and started listening to Kumar Gandharva. And I realised the Spiritus Mundi is the voice of our conscience, and it is there in all of us. And we have to let the voice of the conscience rise, because only when that voice rises does compassion begin, and we can start feeling.
When did you know you would write this book?
I knew when I was thirteen. I was marching down to school, and the School Prefect just gave us random ragra. He just asked us to start crawling, and I thought Someday, I’ll figure this out, why is this happening? It was just that, and that’s when I knew I’d write this book. (Laughs)
You also underwent conscious training for it – you studied English literature, read a lot, and then began writing. The time you were growing up, in the Nineties, people thought reading and writing are things you do without training.
Yeah, if one were to speak very parochially, I think people in South India thought like that. People in North India just didn’t read, or just don’t write at all, you know. (Laughs) And I come from a Jat-Sikh family, these families haven’t been close to a book in the last 250 years.
And it was very tough to make sense to my family that I don’t want to join the Armed Forces, that I don’t want to sit for the Civil Services, or be a doctor, that I want to be a writer. They would say, “What is this, these are such non Jat male like things you want to do.”
Anyway, I had to learn how to write. I’d spent years sitting in front of blank paper, and crying because I didn’t know how to write. I’d write “Monu did this” or put in some silly sentence like that, and wonder what to do next. One thing I liked to do was to read, and so I began to read voraciously, and learnt to write.
Your first book dealt with Emergency. And this one with 1984. Do you think Indian fiction should address the big events that have affected this nation?
I don’t know. I wish writers would write about those things, because we have to get out of this urban situation. Our choices have to be bigger than the branded shirts and perfumes we buy, or which place we went to drink or eat at. There are large problems in front of this country, and the world, and if we don’t start looking at them squarely, and writing about them, and discussing them, we aren’t doing anybody any service, except maybe ourselves, when we get published and make some money, you know.
How much of a role do you think language and education plays in the milieu a writer chooses? Things like where you grow up, whether you go abroad, whether you can even speak your own language do affect your understanding of where you come from, and the access you have to your particular history.
That’s a problem, because how do you identify and construct your own self? If you say that you’re Tamilian or Malayali or Bengali from a certain class, from a certain place, and if you’re aware of your own background, not only through literature, but through dance, through music, through cuisine, through behaviours, then you bring in something much more solid from yourself. But if you feel you’re a Parisian, or you’ve studied in Washington, then that is your identity.
In literature, there is not much echo of the violence our nation has gone through post independence. And in English, it is the least. I suspect it may be because the actual writers and their near and dear ones did not go through those tumultuous events, or their lives remained more or less okay through those events. Or they’re choosing to wilfully ignore it. But if you’ve been affected, the best place to cry is while writing.
Was it a conscious thing for you to focus as much on the macrocosm as the microcosm?
I didn’t consciously focus on the macrocosm, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to tell the story unless I got the context right. And if the context includes these 17 things, then they have to come in. But my focus was on what was transpiring in this boy’s head.
In this book, I feel I’m entering in the middle of a scene, like I don’t know the characters or their psyches too well. There’s a lot that isn’t explicit, there’s a lot that is inconclusive, and you leave it to the readers to sense things.
Well, the biggest problem I had was how to bring out the subculture of a military school. How many people are aware of it, and how can I describe it? Then, how frugally can I describe it, and yet give the sense?
But, see, I think atmosphere is important. Because when you have a book of 200-300 pages, that you read in a few days, you don’t remember much of what actually happens. But you remember the mood of the book. To me, the mood of the first book was guilt. The mood of the second book was fear.
And all that I would want the reader to take away from the book is, that when they think about it three months after reading it, they should go, “Oh, my God, that was something”, you know. If they can recall three characters, then great. And if they can look at the world outside, and think of parallels to those three characters, then it’s hit home. That’s how I would evaluate the success of a book.
So you feel atmosphere is more important than etching out characters?
In terms of etching the characters, if you’re looking at a world through the filter of fear, the larger fear is of the unknown. And you cannot really etch the unknown very well. In fact, you shouldn’t. So, if there’s a kind of ghostly sense about some things, where you don’t know exactly what, that’s good, because that is the nature of fear in a society where people wouldn’t go out in the middle of the night to check whether the gate is locked or not, because a bullet might come, or a bomb might explode. People lived like that for 8-10 years in Punjab, and they live like that in Kashmir today. If you go out to buy bread for your family, no one knows whether you’ll come back or not. So, it has to be a little blurred, a little ominous, so you convey that sense of unease.
The downside of first-person writing is that the reader can never be omniscient, because the narrator can never be omniscient. Did this hamper your writing process in any way, in bringing out all the aspects of the story?
It’s a struggle always, and you have to pick and choose what to show. You lay out more, and then you edit it out. You keep some, you remove some. But you keep the guiding principle to be the atmosphere, the unease, the fear. If you keep that as the centre, you can’t go too off the mark.
What is your idea of a good novel? What do you think it should do to the reader?
The writer should be able to take me to the time and place of the novel. And make me feel. On a more technical level, there’s a definition of a good book that draws from drama. Now, there are normally four kinds of conflict – individual vs nature, individual vs society, individual vs individual, , individual vs herself or himself. If a book has three or more of these conflicts, and the language is well done and the structure is good, it will automatically be a good read. But if it is less than two, then it needs some effort to read. Most of us end up writing only about two levels of conflict, and some write only about one.
I don’t want to ask about inspirations as such, but did anything else that you read, aside from the poems, play a role in the book?
Yes, in fact there are lots of dedications in the book. Like in Catcher in the Rye, by J D Salinger, the main question the guy is asking is: What happens to the fish in winter, when the waters freeze? And I just love the idea. And I have the same idea here, when Appu wonders about the fishes in the Golden Temple tank. Where did they go when the Temple was being bombed? That is as an implicit dedication.
Similarly, there’s a dedication to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies – what happens to the pig begins to happen to a calf in my book. Of course, the treatment is different because my story is different. You know how in Lord of the Flies, the boys form the first human society on that island, and there’s a hierarchy set up within them, and then they go on this pig hunt. The brutality, the savagery of the boys towards the pig? I wanted to create a similar scene in my book.
Actually, the scene with the calf reminded me of the opening scene in Tamas, with that pig.
Yes, it is that too. By the way, the incident with the calf actually happened. Bestiality is a part of North Indian culture. I mean, we don’t talk about it, but goats and bitches are the two most commonly fucked animals on the farms.
But, to get back to your question about Tamas, just last night, I was telling a friend about how this guy – Om Puri’s character – knows that he has unwittingly started off riots in the city, and then he’s just on the run, and he’s carrying his pregnant wife with him, and they’re trying to flee the mayhem that will be unleashed. And the look in his eye, that whole fear. It’s a dedication to both – the movie version of Tamas.
There’s also a dedication to Braithwaite’s To Sir, with Love. These are small nods to works that have...inspired is not the word, really...if these works were not there, I would not have had the courage to write this book. It’s as simple as that.
But, also, there are books which would have stopped me from writing Roll of Honour. If I had found a book called The Time of the Heroby Mario Vargas Llosa, say ten years ago, I would certainly not have written this book. Because that book does this whole thing brilliantly. It’s set in a military school, it’s about nationhood and it so happened that I came upon it when I was already writing my story, and I thought, “Maybe we should tell an Indian story of a similar nature too”, because the context is really different. In that book, it’s mainly the state versus the boys, but here, it’s also about religion.
You’ve taken Appu to the Emergency, you’ve taken him to 1984. What next, Babri Masjid?
(Laughs) Who knows, I may make it a trilogy. But right now, I’m thinking about writing a different book. We’ll have to see. Should I not just take a break?