An interview with Amandeep Sandhu

When local author Rosalia Scalia visited India, she was able to sit down with Amandeep Sandhu, author of "Sepia Leaves." She was kind enough to recount her meeting for Read Street. We'll break her missive into a parts, starting with her description of the encounter, and bit of a Q&A.; More of the interview will follow tomorrow. Here, then, is Rosalia:

A recent trip to India finds me sitting in Delhi’s historic Khan Market in an Italian restaurant run by Tibetans called The Big Chill. Over hot chocolate, tiramisu and chocolate Oreo cheesecake,  Sandhu talks about why he loves the character Gollum from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (“Gollum can’t let go! He can’t let go of the ring, and that is the condition we all find ourselves in at some point or another.”) and his mini-migration experiment with red ants, among other topics. The red ants, drawn to the fruit trees under which Sandhu parks his car, somehow find their way into his car, and thus begins their inadvertent migration from one end of city/state that comprise Delhi and New Dehli where his office is located to the other end of the National Capital Region where he lives. For the ants, he quips, it’s a great distance. “Delhi is a city and a state and the nation’s capital region. You can travel two hours, three hours and still not leave it.”

It’s fitting that Sandhu’s inadvertent red ant migration micro-experiment doesn’t escape his keen eye and even keener wit: currently, he’s hard at work on his third book, tentatively titled Ticket to Canada, an exploration of human migration from the Punjab -- India’s veritable bread basket state -- to points west, namely North America.

Born in Rourkela India,  Sandhu, 38, has lived in Orissa, Uttrakhand, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Karntatka, and currently calls Delhi home. Like many Americans, his love for story, books and literature developed as a youngster via comic books. Indian comic book heroes such as Badal, Chacha Chaudhry captured his attention as did Phantom,  Spiderman, the Green Hornet, and other famous crusaders.

Despite the prevailing Jatt Sikh family culture into which he was born that relegated the study of literature as an “unmanly” and “impractical” career choice, Sandhu prevailed, earning his first master’s degree in Literature from the University of Hyderabad in 1996 and his second master’s in journalism from the Asian School of Journalism in 1997. Like many writers-in-formation, he held a variety of jobs on the way to becoming a wordsmith, including farm hand, woolen-garment seller, a shop assistant, a tuition master, teacher, journalist with The Economic Times, a technical writer with Novell, Inc.  Oracle, and now at Cadence Design Systems. 

“Literature, for me, is an understanding of the essential human struggle to become complete. I write to understand myself and my world, and to sleep peacefully at night,” he says. Still, the road from reader to literature student to writer came with the familiar struggle of daily blank pages during which “I couldn’t write a single sentence in any of language,”  says Sandhu, fluent in English, Hindi, Punjabi, and speaks Urdu, Oriya and Bengali

Published in 2008 by Rupa & Co., India’s largest publisher, Sandhu’s first novel, Sepia Leaves, earned high critical acclaim. An autobiographical narrative,a fiction that alternates between memory and reality, Sepia Leaves chronicles the impact of a mother’s schizophrenia on her only child -- a son -- her husband, their entire family, friends and even society. By its existence -- exploring mental illness, a topic often swept under the carpet in many cultures -- coupled with its structure and lyricism, Sandhu captures a trajectory that many families struggling with mental illness face as they traverse from diagnosis to acceptance.

But Sandhu travels beyond, demonstrating how grace under pressure can result in resilience, hope and love. The novel earned Sandhu critical acclaim and  a plethora of speaking engagements and is available in bookshops across the India, while his second novel, Roll of Honour, is expected to hit Indian bookshelves in spring 2012.Although not yet available in North America, readers can buy Sepia Leaves online via

RS: What brought you to literature in the first place?

AS: I was crazy enough to do my masters in Masters in English Literature from the University of Hyderabad. Crazy because the kind of larger family and background I came from, boys did not study literature. Boys joined the Army. I did not come from a so-called refined family, one that placed value on the Arts. In India, in the 90s, literature was an “impractical” course to study. The country paid engineers and doctors, not school teachers or peons which is what I would have become if I had tried to get a job through my degree. I knew I was hopeless at competitive exams for civil servants. So, I was really crazy to study literature which I did because I knew no other way to address the angst in me but by reading and trying to understand how great writers had explored and written about the human condition.

RS: Are you a comic book fan? Asking because I’m thinking of what Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy said in a radio interview I heard. He said, “If you’re looking for monsters, pick up the newspaper. If you’re looking for characters struggling to be human, pick up comic books.”

AS: Comics and super-heroes give you hope that a savior can help you get out of your sticky situation. When at home, in my childhood, I day-dreamed Phantom, or Tintin, or Mandrake, or other Indian comic heroes will take me to a nice island or to Xanadu where like magic we will live happily like a family. There were so many super-heroes, I hoped one would come! The Indian ones are Badal,  Chacha Chaudhry, Champak, Tinkle, Chandamama and so on.  As I grew older and the problems did not disappear by magic, I started reading works on what we call madness, and I realized they were great but mostly for their form and the content had become subservient to the form. Virginia Woolf invented Stream of Consciousness; Edward Albee developed Absurd Drama. Ken Kesey created Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. In my view, it was excellent to have a pretending to be deaf and mute character who is privy to the Combine, but in the movie Jack Nicholson as McMurphy steals the show. Same in many other works so I decided I want to make a book which will take the reader closest to the small care-giving boy Appu who lives in the shadow of Schizophrenia.


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