Amandeep Sandhu is the author of two novels, Roll of Honour and Sepia Leaves. He was born in Rourkela and has lived in Orissa, Uttrakhand, Punjab, Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka. He went to read English Literature at the University of Hyderabad and works as a technical writer. Learn more about him here.
NAW- When did your literary journey begin? At what age did you discover that you wanted to write?
It was very early. I remember when I was seven and my parents were fighting, I chose to hide behind the sofa in the drawing room and read comics. That is when I wondered if there would be a time when I will write about what was going on at home, understand it. Similarly, when I was thirteen, in a military school, facing punishment, I wondered what it was all about. Would I ever grow up and write my account and understand my life.
NAW- Tell us about your book ‘Roll of Honour’, how did you get the idea for the book? Did you carry out any research?
Roll of Honour is a story of the split loyalties of a Sikh boy in a boarding school in Punjab during the Khalistan movement and is based on the events of the year 1984: Operation Bluestar, Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, the anti-Sikh pogrom. In their essence, this novel and Sepia Leaves are deeply autobiographical. I have used elements of storytelling to change the timelines and characters, render the fiction as real. All I wished to do was to show the human condition in those adversities. I had experienced the situations, so had my family and classmates and others. So there was no need for any research for the fundamental act of writing. The research came in to learn about the setting, the historical timeline of events, the versions of history. This research was news, websites, books, audio and video documentary, and live conversations with witnesses. For instance, for live footage on the events of 1984 I accessed BBC whose permission I sought and was granted to produce material in my book.
NAW- When writing Roll of Honour, did you ever feel people would perceive you differently because of the personal experiences you relied upon? Have people viewed you differently, have their perceptions about you changed after reading your books?
There were quite a few worries. I battled my own self for the longest period, even went through clinical depression for a few months. There are issues like masculinity, sodomy, gay sex, my own views on the events of 1984, the code of honour among schoolmates, communal violence and so on. All of them troubled me when I wanted to write about them. I felt I will earn enemies. It is best to stay silent rather than invite criticism. But I could not sleep. I felt I was cheating by not writing. This is my truth of communal violence and of public schooling in our country. I needed to write it, put it out, to gain some semblance of equanimity in my life. I am very thankful the people have accepted my truths. The book has been lauded, nominated for awards; I have earned a good scholarship from it. The acceptance is a validation of my effort. I feel, in our world, we have space for truth. Let us work to bringing out those truths.
NAW- Schizophrenia is a recurring theme in your work. Do you feel mental illness especially in case of women is rarely addressed in India?
Yes. Unlike the previous generation of writers who mostly migrated abroad and were showcasing India for the Western audience, talking about its exotic nature and highlighting its poverty, this generation is trying to deal with English as our own language and as a platform where we can speak with each other: romance, rendering of history and mythology, class divide, not much of caste yet, some communalism, a bit of women issues, even sexuality, and so on. Yet, India is still opening up. It will take time. Just last weekend The Hindu did a story on two more books like mine which talk about mental illness and the stigma around it in our society.
NAW- Tell us about your other book, ‘Sepia Leaves’? How long did it take to finish it? Did you face any difficulties in finding a publisher? Did you hire an agency for representation?
Owing to my mother’s illness, my father had kept me away from the family. I studied in hostels and lived in university and finally took up a job in Bangalore. That is when my parents decided to come and live with me. I did not know my parents. Except for summer vacations, I had no experience of living with them. I wanted to know them from my memory before they came over. That is when I started working of the draft of the novel. The novel took five years to write. In between my father passed away. It is eerie but I got the structure of the novel on the night he died. It took me another four years to get published. Yes, the Red Ink Literay Agency helped me get placed. In fact, their sister company Tara Books published the hard copy and then the paperback rights were sold to Rupa Publications.
NAW- Did you face rejections from publishers early on? If yes, how did you cope with it?
Yes, from nearly everyone. On the one hand, I felt good that like many esteemed writers before me had collected rejection slips. On the other hand, it sort of didn’t bother me. The reason is: I come from the stigma around mental illness and had sort of accepted that no one will be interested in me. I must say I met a lot of kindness on my journey. Editors won’t publish me but would talk to me, guide me, even gift me books to read. I just kept learning and plugging on.
NAW- Do you have a special time dedicated only for writing? Do you aim for a set amount of words/pages per day? How do you write, in fits and starts or in one go?
I work on my writing in the morning. No I do not define writing in terms of pages or word counts. You know among all the things we can measure with the metric system, we can’t measure thoughts. I like it like that. I write each day but in fits and starts. Does that make sense? It doesn’t to me too, but I like it like that.
NAW- Have you ever experienced writer’s block and if yes, what is the cure?
Yes. I do not think it is possible to be productive each day. When I can’t write, I edit. The big block was when I realised I was doing my second book the way I had done the first one: same technique of a back and forth narrative. I wanted to break it, do a different book. I experimented with points of view, voices, narration and so on but nothing satisfied me. Then I took another journey, to Delhi, to the space closer to where my fears had begun and into India’s mystical poets which led me to music. After that I came back to writing again.
NAW- Which writers would you name as your influences?
Many. I learn from whoever I can. Books and even other forms of expression: painting, music, sculpture, living itself. Allow me to answer you a little differently. The models for my two books are: Sepia Leaves – Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; Roll of Honour – William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Lorraine Hansberry’s What Use Are Flowers? Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Time Of The Hero. Besides these, the two other authors who have influenced me most are: John Steinbeck and the Polish journalist and author Ryszard Kapuściński.
NAW- When you are reading, do you prefer ebooks or printed paper books?
NAW- Do you get rattled by bad reviews?
I have been very fortunate that I have never seen a bad review of my books.
NAW- What are your upcoming projects?
A novel on the disappearance of an artist, based in Punjab.