As promised, here's the continuation of Rosalia Scalia's thoughtful Q&A with Indian novelist Amandeep Sandhu. He touches on inspirations, the challenge of writing in another language, and the role that emotion plays in great writing.
RS: You said that in the past you didn't know how to create sentences. For a writer whose sentences are lyrical and powerful, that is quite a leap. What did you do teach yourself how to write? Did you do imitations, study craft?
AS: I remember in my early twenties I often sat with blank pages unable to write a single line in English, or any other language for that matter. Before I began writing, I remained plagued by loss of coherent articulation, not only in writing but even otherwise. Stigmatized by the world owing to my mother's mental illness, having seen militancy up and close, being in the university environment where people made coherent hair-splitting debates on literary theory and gender/caste politics, many a times I lost my nerve and voice. Yet, you learn swimming by swimming, you learn driving by driving. Classes can't teach you that, they can only open your eyes. I did not have opportunities to learn from classes so I tried to open my eyes anyway.
RS: How did you get from learning state to accomplished?
AS: Thank you about what you say about my language, but tears really have no grammar, rage has no syntax. A heart weeps, it pours out on pages. The only method for me is to lay out my feeling and thoughts on paper, make them external to me and then play with them. Keep hammering them to shape themselves into a story. Notice in Sepia Leaves the subject is madness. Now madness does not have a language. In fact, it is the lack of language that most characterizes it. In Roll of Honour the subject is militancy. Now militancy does not have a uniform narrative or absolute heroes. In fact, it is the lack of heroes and narrative that most characterizes it. So, there is effort in fathoming a thread that a reader can hold from beginning to end. Yet, in any art, the effort and the expression have to fuse for it to seem effortless. W. B. Yeats asked, “How can you tell the dancer from the dance?” Making stories effortless, stitching large parts of them together and ironing out small wrinkles is the effort. Sort of like the famous saree of Dhaka that can go through a finger ring. I ask myself why can't I take it through an eye of a needle. The reshaping teases out more stories from myself.
RS: Tell me about process from getting from no language to language.
AS: I kept reading great writers, somewhere subconsciously I learned to articulate my thoughts. I learned to say what I felt. Writing is not brain surgery. Mistakes are allowed. It never occurred to me to imitate great writers. I really did not know that was a possible technique. How can Steinbeck writing about Oklahoma give me language to write about Rourkela? In India, apart from a small minority which is now growing in numbers, no one emotes in English. To that extent all writing about inner India is actually a translation of language from native to English. But, Steinbeck and probably only he, can show me the hearts of his characters from a once well off and now destitute family who are on this long journey where everything falls apart and finally they are deprived of even the fruits they themselves pluck. From him I can be inspired to show how my character's body is scalded in a furnace in a steel factory, how his heart is scalded by the unrest at home. That is what I did, with numerous writers. I learned how they showed hearts, not words or commas.
RS: What authors influenced you most on this journey? Excerpts of Sepia Leaves that I’ve read echo Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.
AS: Just before I started writing Sepia Leaves I finished reading Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines. For many mornings I woke up with that book’s pages in front of my eyes. The models for Sepia Leaves were Jerzy Kosinski The Painted Bird and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. For Roll of Honour the models were Kenzaburo Oe's Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, Mario Vargas Llosa's The Time of The Hero, William Golding Lord of the Flies and Lorraine Hansberry's What Use Are Flowers? They were models in the sense that the subjects of these books were close to the subjects of my books, and these writers had pulled them off so wonderfully. I met most of these books while I was midway writing my stories. Perhaps if I had read them before writing, I may have decided not to write. They had said it all, said what I wanted to say, there was no need for me to say any more. I believe it is a function of writing to give readers language which, when a reader employs it, resounds better than what the reader would have him/her-self uttered. These novels are also great because they take the reader deep into the situations and allow readers to find their way around. I wanted to achieve that quality in my writing. Come, empathize, and struggle a bit. It is okay to have problems but what is not okay is to not deal with them.
RS: Also, you said you began writing as a way to understand yourself and yourself in the world. How did you come to structure your books so that you are exploring yourself but also the world at large?
AS: That is right. To me writing is about engaging with life. Writing has its more public facets: launches and readings and readers and fans, but to me it is more about it being a mode to inquire into one's own self or into one's society. The reception Sepia Leaves brought many readers calling up, writing in to say, “Thanks, you told a story about a situation which we have often experienced in our families but did not know could be a story.” What I had done in the book was articulate, find words, for what mostly remains in-articulated: the helplessness in the face of overwhelming, messy, domestic problems springing from mental illness. With Roll of Honour, the problem was with labels, with words. It’s a story of split loyalties of a Sikh boy in a boarding school during the Khalistan movement (years of militancy in Punjab). I realized mostly our loyalty is for labels: friend, nation, lover and so on. We name something, and then find our ties with it. But here the words had split, hence the loyalties were split. That took me to a learning of the 'form' and the 'formless,' the word and the meaning, sagun and nirgun, and I found the meaning lay somewhere in between. I learned from Kumar Gandharv, who used to be an excellent singer in the 1950s--the prince of Indian music--and then he contracted tuberculosis and lost one lung. As he lay convalescing for over 15 years, unable and not allowed to sing, he heard beggars sing devotional songs by an iconoclast 15th Century poet Kabir. When Kumarji was finally permitted by the doctors to sing, this master of classical music started singing those bhajans. The world of music was aghast but gradually started appreciating this kind of singing. When Kumarji holds a note, it is held without the support of meaning - up in the air for all to marvel. That is the middle path between sagunand nirgun. It does not have words, but it makes sense.
Most good writing is held together by one underlying idea. It could be anything: love, death, migration, whatever. But there is always an idea. In my two books I chose to inquire into my two main thoughts/feelings. In Sepia Leaves, it is guilt which I chose to answer from the question: Where do I come from? In Roll of Honour it is fear which I chose to answer from the question: Who am I? I also saw most good writing operating on two if not more levels: the text and the sub-text. Taking a cue from the chorus in Greek plays--some of the earliest well-formed writing--and the concept of the story-teller (sutradhar) in ancient Indian texts: I externalized the text and sub-text in my novels by employing two voices. Since the books are fiction but largely based on elements of autobiography, my voices are: one adult (which is the narrator) and one of the protagonist in the past (who is also the narrator of the period in which the story transpires).
RS: What is it about Kapuscinski's work that spoke to you when you first read him? How does his work influence yours now? What do you admire most about him?
AS: When I first read his book, I was a journalist, in the mid-90s. His book Imperium on the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) was just out. In this book and others, he writes in the interstices of the private and the public/political, of the fact and the fiction/fantasy. His subject was us: third world, Africa, Latin America, and USSR, the ‘other.’ But he too was an ‘other', his nation behind the Iron Curtain -- an oppressed society, othered (if you will) by the Western world and by the Soviet regime. We were both powerless, yet he helped me, and I hope all his other readers, understand how political power operates in the larger world. He covered 27 revolutions, was given the death sentence four times, was imprisoned or detained countless times. I was a journalist. I hoped to have a bit of his life, but then I became a writer and let him inform my writing. Because of India's role in world affairs in the 1950/60s and the way India was developed along socialist lines, Imperium remains a favorite. The next in my order of favorites is Travels with Herodotus, which is partly about India. Of course his most famous work is The Emperor.
RS: Who are some writers you enjoy now? and why?
AS: Ah! Too many, too many to count! The reason with each writer, say Chuck Palahniuk or Junot Diaz, is that the books are not writing. They are life. Yes, I recognize they have great craft too. I am a slow reader. I keep going back to some books and also explore newer writers but not the very current ones. I like to see which books stand the test of time.
RS: What parts of the books were the most difficult to write? Why? What parts, your most favorite?
AS: What was most difficult in the first book was choosing the title. In the second book, the first line was the most difficult to formulate. I haven't progressed much. A mother likes all her children, every single comma and full stop. I normally like the italicized (adult) parts more because they are my more recent expressions and emotions. I realize what is most important in a work of fiction or even other writing is: a) the voice that can earn the reader's trust, and b) the point of view, which can inspire confidence in the reader that the author can to tell the story. Until now I have just prepared myself to learn these two; having finished some of my major autobiographical writing it is now that I look forward to learning how to write. I love Italian writers Dario Fo and Luigi Pirandello! How did I forget? I would have not been me if they had not written! Now begins my journey, like the red ants. I travels states and write about migration, learn why it happens, how to write about it. It is a very long journey.
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