A Memory Maker

Before Indian writer Amandeep Sandhu came to Solitude last December, he had already covered a distance of 6,600 km by living in six different cities – Rourkela, Dehradun, Kapurthala, Hyderabad, Bangalore, New Delhi – all located in India, which is with its 3,3 million square kilometers about nine times bigger than Germany.

»In India you often change cities for reasons like marriage, work, education, and religion. But for a big country like India, it’s comparable with moving from Stuttgart to Paris to Lisbon to Krakow; the language, the culture, the religion is completely different. Nevertheless, if you don’t leave the country, it’s usually not considered as migration, but the social conflicts are the same.« Migration is a big issue in India as is the memory of the Partition. These are the topics of Aman’s new novel The Memory Maker – his third – which he worked on during his eight month fellowship at Solitude.

His own memories and experiences are the stuff of his first two novels Sepia Leaves (2008) and Roll of Honour (2012). Despite his personal approach, the books are purely realistic, shining a light on social issues in India that are usually swept under the carpet: mental illness and the religious conflict of the Sikhs. Both titles were published by Rupa & Co, the biggest publishing house in India, and were acclaimed as important testimonials of Indian society. »The English word – witness – is too flat, too tied in to eye-witness. The word which defines my work and approach to writing is the German word, which I learnt after coming here, Zeitzeuge, witness of time. The starting point for my stories are my own experiences.«

Aman was born in 1973 in Rourkela, the major steel town in East India which was built up in the 1950s with the expertise of Germany’s biggest industrial companies, such as AEG, Brown, Krupp, and Siemens, to stimulate India’s economics. »The idea was to build up a new modern society. People from all over the country, including my father, came to Rourkela to work and to make steel. Indigenous tribes were forced to move out and to become laborers. The city is a cauldron of languages, religions, cultures, ethnicities, but also of ethnic and communal violence.«

»Unhappy and short« when he comes to describe his childhood. Aman was four years old when his mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was six when his father decided to send him to a military boarding school in Punjabi – to protect him from his mother – and he was ten when the Indian military systematically attacked the Golden Temple and murdered Sikhs for fear of the Khalistan movement, which intended to create a separate country in the Punjab region, the traditional homeland of the Sikhs. During the genocide of the Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, for three weeks he didn’t know if his parents were still alive. They survived. »My father taught me to believe that I will always find friends. He also taught me to be ready to help others, and to ask for others’ help when I need it.« Aman had another enduring stability – stories. First Batman, Phantom, Chacha Chaudhary, later Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, or Oscar Wilde.

But it was a long way to write down his own stories. »For years, my paper sheets remained blank, I wasn’t able to write a single sentence.« Aman intended to study medicine, but »doctors were people who I hated the most because they took my mother away from me. She was brilliant and fanciful in her own way, and my hero. She became dull and listless because of the medicine the doctors gave her.« Aman left the medical exam midway although he knew all answers. He wanted nothing but to read, live in stories, and try to write. Despite the social rules and his family’s advice, he studied English literature. At the best possible address in India – the University of Hyderabad – Aman learned about all kinds of »isms« of human society – Marxism, Structuralism, Poststructuralism, Feminism – and read literature from the Victorian time to ours. »The world is full of ideas and stories, but I realized through these »isms« that the world of literature is also a minefield. « He reached a peak of disillusionment when he read the highly esteemed W. H. Auden say »poetry makes nothing happen.«

»I started to write Sepia Leaves when in 2000 my parents decided to live with me in Bangalore and to pass away under my care. I wrote it, because I had a huge baggage and writing was a way to understand my parents and myself.« The story tells about a family dealing with schizophrenia in the context of Rourkela and the Emergency in India in the 1970s. The story – written in two perspectives: the experiencing young boy and the reflective adult – reveals the responsibility which carries the caring family in this triangle of the sick person, the doctor, and the care giver. Although critical towards the medical system, the book became a cult classic in the field of psychology. It was first reviewed by one of the biggest English Indian newspapers The Hindu as one of the most important texts on mental illness in India, and later by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry. It reached the WHO and public policy deliberations. »The biggest acknowledgment is the hundreds of personal messages from readers whom I gave a voice. One came last night, more than seven years after the book was published.«

His second novel Roll of Honour was also highly acclaimed by Indian critics and on the shortlist for the renowned The Hindu Prize 2013. By means of two alternating timelines, the story depicts the daily life and dilemma of a young boy in a military school in the days of the Khalistan movement, and the aftermath of Operation Blue Star. »I’m not interested in polemics, or in flat black and white descriptions. The issue of the book is how we all failed, to name the conflicts, and finally to give hope.«

Despite his recognition in India and his huge group of followers, Aman can’t earn a living as a writer. He used to work as a farmhand, garment seller, shop assistant, teacher, technical writer and journalist for The Economic Times. But before coming to Solitude, he stepped out to work in the social work sector. »With a right-wing government, the open and critical newspapers are shrinking. I feel I can achieve more by working with ordinary people, but I will have to find a way of making a living.«

Since December 2014, Aman has been a fellow at Solitude, which means he doesn’t have to write at night anymore. »I have so much time for my projects, that I feel deeply grateful.« Every morning from six a.m., Aman sits down at his desk placed at the window and composes about a thousand words or more by hand or on his computer, only taking breaks for lunch, for tea, or for a nap. He was able finish his third novel The Memory Maker – which is currently in the »cold room« for an undefined time – more quickly than the other books. »In some months or years, I will read it again. If I feel the story holds and I can’t improve it anymore, the book can be published.« In the last few months of his fellowship, he has started to work on a fourth book. »It’s not a novel, but a non-fiction book on Punjab, the so-called »bread basket« of India. The region which once had five rivers but has been partitioned, is now drying out. I want to document the economic and social catastrophe in the region.« Again, Aman will listen to the stories of people who have no voice. – He remains an important witness of India’s society.