Growing Up in Troubled Times
A Review by Sakoon N. Singh*
Book: Roll of Honour
Author: Amandeep Sandhu
Publisher: Rupa Publications
Roll of Honour by Amandeep Sandhu, set in the trouble torn Punjab during the decade of 1980s is much more than a novel about 1984. It is a bildungsroman, a novel of the growth of the narrator Appu. It also falls into the category of the other popular genre, Boarding School Novel, something which hasn't been tried with fiction stemming out of Punjab yet. Combining these elements, the author sets out to show the growth of the mind of the narrator Appu constrained by circumstances of his family and faith, bound in the microcosm of the boarding school that mirrors the larger violence outside its precincts. Amidst all this, he struggles to find answers to the questions that haunt him as an able thinking young man finding his ground. The book alternates between two time spaces, the present where the adult narrator is troubled by the ghosts of his adolescence and his past that he revisits in an attempt to face those issues. The Punjabi translation of the book titled Gwah De Fana Hon ton Pehlan done by Daljit Ami was recently released. While speaking about this venture at the Chandigarh Literary Fest in October, the author felt that the book was coming out at an opportune time, and the dialogue the Punjabi version of his book will initiate within and outside Punjab would be very crucial. For him personally it is satisfying to be engaging with people from Punjab in their language. This despite the fact that the dialogue has been initiated a good three decades after the violence of 84, but then writing about violence is never easy. It always takes time and distance to begin identifying these scars.
Appu belongs to a middle class family and his mother is troubled by bouts of schizophrenia. The father's continuous advice to the growing boy is that he should not look for a life of entitlement and be ready for struggle to get his fair share. This advice holds him in good stead in these times when the guarantees of life are crumbling all around. This advice has enough sagacity in it to be the one line counsel that prosperous parents in Punjab could be handing out to the kakajis who with their land holdings and limited imagination are going down the booze-SUV-party route.
Appu's struggles at the boarding school with his superiors and peers many a time bring him to a point where he has to make difficult choices. These struggles mirror the bigger dilemma that faced Sikhs in those times -to choose between faith and nation. The storming of the sacred space of Sri Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar by the Indian State in an attempt to flush out terrorists harboured by militant Bhindrawale is the flashpoint for the subsequent violence that engulfs the 'outside' space. This trail of incidents had incited alienation of the Sikhs with the Indian State and culminated in the daylight assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. What followed was large scale retaliation against the Sikhs throughout India. Particularly Delhi smouldered in a fire of sectarian violence which was provided justification by none other than Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded his mother Indira Gandhi as the Prime Minister. His now infamous statement about the riots being a 'spontaneous reaction' to the anger that wells up at the death of a powerful political matriarch like Indira Gandhi, was given a 'natural' explanation : that when a big tree falls, the earth shakes. This further abetted the already charged communal elements in directing violence specifically against the Sikhs. I found echoes of Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines, the genesis of which too lay in the violence the author witnessed as a young Delhi University academic in Delhi in 84. This book provides a perspective of an eight year old narrator who tries to understand the pathology of the violence of Partition and the violence of a street riot in Dhaka that takes the life of his favourite uncle Tridib.
What is endearing about Appu is his steadfastness in holding on to his sanity. There are many threats- the silent paranoia that he will inherit the faulty gene of his mother and become heir to her madness. More widely there is the vortex of violence into which Punjab is getting sucked. Opportunities are few and many young men like Joga are tortured and killed by the police without enough evidence of being insurrectionists- all this haunts the child's imagination. Then there is the madness in his school, paraded to the hilt in the dorms and the corridors and this mindless violence inside the precincts of the boarding school, is enough to last him a lifetime. There is violence of uniformity and hierarchy that the school has unleashed on the hapless school children. And this very hierarchy is turned upside down and abused as valid grounds to inflict sexual violence by the seniors on the junior children. The graphic portrayal of the sexual violence that exists in the school is to my mind symptomatic of the debasement and mindless violence that proliferates outside. As the polarisation between communities intensifies, the violence inside the school intensifies too. This violence enacted in the microcosm mirrors, mocks and mimics the larger violence. The story is the young boy's introduction to this violence and how he holds his own in an environment that places huge burden on him to choose one or the other side. The expectation to go with his 'natural' group- the Sikh boys who morph into hardliners is tortuous, but he does not give in and attempts to find his own solutions to this quandary.
The author tries to show how fundamentalism drowns the voices of nuanced cultural coexistence. He shows this through the character of the narrator's friend with the curious nickname A1 who is a Hindu boy from Amritsar. With his grandfather, a turban clad professor at the prestigious Khalsa College Amritsar and a Golden Temple devotee, being addressed as 'daarji' - a short form of endearment for Sardarji, all the Hindu-Sikh binaries come alive. And there is no better theatre of this commingling than Amritsar, the spiritual seat of the Sikhs. And just as Agha Shahid Ali has done with Kashmiriyat, here is an attempt to unearth Punjabiyat as a more valid marker of identity as opposed to religion. Sandhu does a good job with deconstructing a lot of Punjabi lore, Sikh shabads and mannerisms in an attempt to take the wider readership into the heart of Punjab. Here a bit about Sandhu's own vantage point is also important. Born in Punjab, raised in Rourkela and educated all over India, he has a more dispassionate perspective towards Punjab. Such writers are very few. Most Punjabi 'outsiders' are today writing from a diasporic vantage point, which in recent times has almost acquired the status of mainstream. It is this dialogue within the Indian space that is more urgent in today's context, especially involving Punjab, which has shown a reluctance to engage with the larger Indian audiences, debates and issues. Punjabis have done well and are adequately represented in most occupations and fields; however their creative expression emanating from within the space of Punjab and engaging in a dialogue with India has been rare. Sandhu fills this space.
This book locates a story that is one of perseverance in the face of struggle and the growth of the mind in the process of engaging with the brutal realities of political and also sexual violence. What is held important is to not give in to the debasement- and in this Appu successfully escapes the fate of scores of tortured youth of Punjab who themselves became perpetrators of the worst kind of violence. The rejoinder of a Nihang Singh, who the child narrator meets in Gurudwara Bangla Sahib "Bas Vekhan?" (Just to see the violence of riots you have travelled all the way to Delhi) finds an echo in the novel- clearly being a spectator in these difficult times is not enough. The author adds by the way of epilogue that there is more than being a witness to this theatre of violence- there is also "Samjhan" - understanding and Pehchanan- judging. He eventually finds grace in some people like the Nihang Singh and his teacher Mrs Passey who could live with their beliefs and persist with them, even when the circumstances were adverse. 'Their lives had shaped them, but they had also shaped their lives'...and 'Maybe fear was not such a bad emotion after all...it could hone one's judgement.' At this insightful moment, he takes off his turban in the moving train, the wind blows his hair on his face and he finds tranquillity in having faced his fears and found his unique answers that clear the many cobwebs of deep and long held fears, doubts and dilemmas that had been clawing at his innards. The narrative comes a full circle and he finds a space where there is peace and 'the free birds come to feed every morning.'
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2015, All