In the second week of July Herr Rolf Spinnler interviewed me for a writer profile in the prominent Baden-Württemberg newspaper Stuttgarter Zeitung. A few days later I put up the image of the page on my social media to be greeted by so many friends and readers. I am humbled. Thank you. What impressed me most was how Rolf wrote inter-culturally to carry into German what is essentially an Indian/Punjabi sensibility.
Anil Kumar Jagalur has been an old friend. I remember him travelling all the way from Nagavara driving a car borrowed from a colleague to the IISc campus to listen to my talk in January 2012. He knows German and has been so kind to translate the article into English. He took the writing back to English thus closing the circle of understanding that Rolf opened. Here is the translation. This is the beauty of how language works, across continents, cultures, sensibilities, thus creating meanings. Thank you Anil.
Stuttgarter Zeitung writer profile July 18, 2015
The Sikh without a Turban
The snow had fascinated him, it was a new experience for him. Like a white, blank paper: an encouragement to write. The Indian writer, Amandeep Sandhu, who had occupied his studio high up in the forest near Stuttgart in early December 2014 as a fellow of the Akademie Schloss Solitude, narrates how he had fallen into a depression when the white cover over the forest and meadows had disappeared in the spring. Now, in mid-summer, a month before returning with his wife to the South Indian metropolis Bangalore, he seems to have luckily overcome this phase and over Indian tea excitedly talks about his plans for the future.
End of June, during a Festival about Terrorism in the Stuttgart Theatre, the writer introduced his novel “Roll of Honour”. It plays out in 1984, in a military school in the Indian state of Punjab and describes the coming of age of a young man before the background of the conflict between the religious minority of the Sikhs and the Indian central government. I know very little about the Sikhs, but after the reading of the autobiographically inspired novel, it appears to me that Amandeep Sandhu cannot be identified as a Sikh from his clothing style. Where are the turban, the long hair and the wildly burgeoning beard, with which a few youth in the novel reveal themselves self-consciously as belonging to this religion?
The writer laughs and rolls himself a cigarette at the kitchen table in his studio at the Solitude. He explains to me that, as an orthodox Sikh, he is forbidden to smoke and elucidates the difference between “Mona” and “Khalsa”. It somewhat corresponds to the difference between laity and monks in other religions. As “Khalsa” (Pure) one is duty bound to the five “Kakars”, to which, apart from the long but well maintained hair the “Kirpan” also belongs, the dagger as a sign that the Sikhs protect the poor, the weak, and the innocent. He had decided to fight with the pen instead of the sword – in this way Amandeep Sandhu has interpreted his religion for himself.
But he had actually attempted a military career as per the wishes of his father. Nothing came of it and after the military school Amandeep Sandhu studied English literature, instead, at the University of Hyderabad, worked as a journalist, moved to the software metropolis Bangalore and served reasonably well as a technical writer in different IT-firms. The military school had become necessary as his parents’ marriage was encumbered by the psychological illness of his mother who suffered from schizophrenia. The author has handled this childhood under the shadow of a sick mother in his first novel, “Sepia Leaves”, published in 2008 by the Indian publisher Rupa Publications. The book describes coping with the difficulties with the mentally ill in modern Indian society from the perspective of a young boy and the later grown up person alternately.
In the traditional society the mentally ill were integrated in the solidarity of the extended family. But, for Amandeep Sandhu’s family that was no longer true. He was born as an only child in 1973, in Rourkela in Eastern India, where his father had moved as an Engineer from Punjab because in the 1950s the Indian steel industry was built there with the help of German companies such as Krupp. The people who lived in these new towns had not only to familiarise themselves with modern working methods, but also with new social forms such as the small (nuclear) family. The mentally ill were, in the older society, shielded by the joint family, under the modern conditions the health system should step in. For that, India was not ready. Thus, in the meantime Amandeep Sandhu’s novel is considered in India as compulsory reading for medical caregivers, social workers and students of psychiatry.
Indian society had made headlines in recent years through news of violence against women. In his second novel “Roll of Honour”, published in 2012, Amandeep Sandhu shows that young men too do not have it easy. In Punjab, in the year 1984, harsh customs rule in the military school in which, along with his classmates, the seventeen year old Appu prepares for the entrance examination of the military academy. Not only does corporal punishment bother the youth, the conflict between the independence movement of the Sikhs and the Indian central government demands a clarification of one’s own position.
Appu, as the representative of his class, is torn between his loyalty towards the Indian republic and his solidarity with the community of Sikhs. On the contrary, a few of his classmates engage themselves as freedom fighters for an independent Punjab, whereas they are terrorists in the eyes of the government. In the course of the class year the class disintegrates further, anarchy spreads, this is what the author underscores by borrowing the chapter titles from the apocalyptic poem by Irish writer William Butler Yeats – “The Second Coming”.
And then, there is the sexual need of the young men. Together, they secretly consume porn, imagine the sexual life of their teachers and even have sex with each other. Homosexual relationships among cadets – one knows about it (not only) from English novels. Is it common to write about sex in India, even homosexual sex, I ask Amandeep Sandhu. No, normally not, he opined, but he has ignored this taboo.
Here the novel clearly differentiates between relationships that depend on violence, if for instance an older student exploits the dependence of a younger one, and the voluntarily entered tender contacts such as the one between Appu and his younger schoolmate Gaurav. In “Roll of Honour” the microcosm of the boarding school is a mirror image of the macrocosm of the Indian society. The machismo of Appu’s schoolmates refers to the machismo that reigns in Indian Politics.
Hence Appu could write after the bad guys have stolen his personal diary: “The rape of the diary was like the army’s attack on the Golden Temple … Operation Blue Star was an act of sodomy”. In 2013, “Roll of Honour” was among the five finalists for the prize of the English language newspaper “The Hindu”. Meanwhile the novel has been translated into Punjabi, the mother tongue of the author.
I point out that he writes in English, the language of the former colonial power. He laughs and cites the slave, Caliban, from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”: “You taught me language; and my profit on’t/Is, I know how to curse”. Yes, the cultural imperialism of Britain had destroyed much in India.
Amandeep belongs to the generation of writers after the well-known Indian writers like Salman Rushdie or Vikram Seth who serve the western readership’s need for the exotic. Authors of his generation must however attempt to make English their own language to deal with the current problems of India. The Indian writer regrets that in his country there is no culture of remembrance as there is in Germany, and attempts to change it.
A planned book with the title “Journey through Fault Lines: Punjab 25 Years After Insurgency” wants to explore, a quarter of a century after the unrest subsided, the fault lines that the conflict of the eighties left behind. And his new novel, “The Memory Maker”, that Amandeep Sandhu started to write in Solitude, will also concern itself with migration and memories.