Book review: Sepia Leaves and Interview with author Amandeep Sandhu
Sepia Leaves by Amandeep Sandhu. Rupa Publications.
This book was written in 2008 but the topic, sadly, is one that never really goes out of date or loses its relevance.
I say `sadly` because the subject matter here is one weighted with sorrow. Sandhu`s book is the account of an eight-year-old boy in Rourkela who is facing a life he realises has gone lopsided, and trying to make sense of that life. It is his family`s dynamics that skewer the boy; his mother is of unsound mind and his father is quite worn down by all life keeps throwing at him. Thus, the parents are locked into their own wheel of misery and seemingly unable to shore up their child`s crumbling sense of self-sustenance.
While one can easily read Sepia Leaves as a story of survival, which indeed it is, heroic survival in fact, it also takes an incisive look at the levels of commitment human beings have to each other and to relationships. The boy continues to love both his parents with an unwavering love, even as he is growing up and able to perceive just what ails them, and more crucially, how what avails them affects him. The father refuses to abandon a wife he can neither understand nor feel much affection for any longer. The mother`s bouts with schizophrenia are tempered by her intense love for her only child.
Both father and son place a lot of belief in sanjog, happenstance, fate, destiny. The curious but heartening thing about this situation is that while his childhood might have been irrevocably lost, the boy`s inherent innocence remains untouched.
So yes, as I mentioned, a sad tale but a compelling read. The kind of book that stays with you a long time after you have turned the last page.
In a departure from my usual blog reviews, I sent a questionnaire to Amandeep Sandhu. Here are his replies.
`I seek to chalk a voice of my own, unfettered and free.`
This book is a brutally honest one. But there is not a jot of anger or bitterness in it. No `why me, god` strains, at all. How come?
Thank you. I take your compliment as a pat on the back. The day we are truly honest with ourselves, we would be enlightened souls, we would transcend this life. At least, we would stop writing. There would be no need to communicate any longer.
‘Honest’ is a big word. It is a value judgement. What is our framework of judgement when we say something is honest? To me it is this: the reality depicted in the text is the same which the reader would feel if caught in a similar situation. It implies that the message of the text resonates with the reader. That happens when we move beyond the emotions that the text creates to relate to the sub-text of the story, with its essential humaneness, its universal but particular properties. To me, that is the value which would stand the test of time.
Happiness, sadness, pain, anger, bitterness are emotions. I write a lot. I write compulsorily. I write because only by writing, by running it through my fingers, can I understand the world around me. I write because it is the only way I can survive. Yet, I only put out that writing which transcends emotions and can be, hopefully will be, considered honest. That is why you don’t see those emotions sticking out in my writing, calling attention to themselves.
Also, though I am a writer and like to connect with the world, (I even seem extrovert and warm to friends, readers and strangers), I am actually very private and shy. I am very hesitant to single out myself with a ‘why me, God’ kind of question or use the first person narrative: the ‘I.’ I constantly ask myself: doesn’t the world suffer much more than me? Aren’t there much bigger issues to talk about? Why would someone read what I write? Yet, all my writing is first person. The inflection point is: when I know that the story is no longer about my emotions but taps into a universal consciousness, then I put it out for readers. Then they earn the epithet you just gave them – honest.
Was writing the book an act of catharsis? Did you achieve some kind of closure?
Yes, but that was not the aim. The aim was simply to learn, to understand, to run my family’s story through my fingers, to draw conclusions about it so that I can prepare myself to live with my parents who had sent me away to hostels a quarter-century back. The end result surprised me: finding qualities in my father which I had not noticed before.
Yes, it led to catharsis. The closure simply was that I could commit myself to talking care of each of them towards the end of their lives. It prepared me to become a caregiver. As a stage in life, care- giving is very tough precisely because in terminal illnesses, there is almost no final, larger hope. The only hope is day by day or even hour by hour. Say in my mother’s case – Stage IV cancer when she was already cardiomyopathic – the only hope was almost minute by minute and tied down to base human functions like painless consumption and excretion of food. Each moment feels like a success and that it continued for more than six months wore me down, tired me out, but I could do it. That was closure.
Now with them gone, I can put my hand on my heart and say: they are my friends, I invoke them when I want, sometimes they come to my mind unannounced but the visitations are always pleasant and friendly. I know that I did my best within the circumstances. There is not an iota of guilt. That, I feel, is closure.
Are you religious, spiritual? Was that any kind of comfort to you through the difficult years?
I`m more spiritual, I guess. But saying that seems so fake! How can one say one is spiritual? (Smile). If one is in spirit with the universal spirit, others should be able to see it. No?
I could say religious too, but unfortunately today we define all religions by their negative boundaries rather than the elevating thought processes contained in them. That is why I hesitate to call myself religious. Yet I love visiting religious places, love many rituals of all religions. To me, they are efforts we humans have practised to draw closer to the universal consciousness. Yet, priests of all religions have appropriated our efforts. That is why I practice no religion.
How does one who is a literal survivor become one so sorted? Therapy?
I feel therapy is useful, therapy is great but therapy is also a matter of immense trust. It is great if one can find it. I have not been part of the process of active therapy the way therapists, advocates and marketing has defined and ritualized it. Yet, I have been in therapy all my life: listening to and learning from wiser people and nature. It is a constant endeavour.
Am I sorted? I do not think so… (Smile). You don’t see the sides I do not reveal to people. As I said, I am shy.
A memoir like this opens the writer, and those he has written about, to conjecture, speculation, random comments. `He behaved like this because…; ` `She was unstable because…` Does that bother you?
I wrote the book to end all attacks. The trick is: behold your truths, distil your emotions and the fear goes away. In fact, if you try slandering me by a selective use of this book or with other public writing by me, then I would know I have failed as a writer.
You see, my public writing is a game I play with the world. I grew up in the double-bind of militancy in Punjab in the 1980s. I know what appropriation feels like. I know what it feels like to be robbed of what you want to say. I know how powers seek to keep you divided towards either side of the binary. It is my endeavour to not fall into those hands again. I seek to chalk a voice of my own, unfettered and free. I know I am making a very tall claim. I hope I can keep it.