More with Amandeep Sandhu

January 24, 2012

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.

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