Title: Roll of Honour
Author: Amandeep Sandhu
Price: Rs 275
Roll of Honour is one of those rare books that I didn't make notes while reading – perhaps because the images and words reached out to me, stayed with me, and seeped into my subconscious.
I remember a blue-winged horse that may be a symbol of flight, a kite in stately flight as it eyes its prospective prey, pigeons looking suspiciously at bowls of grain, flowers in full bloom even as their stalks wither, a mutilated calf baying pitifully as it runs on broken legs.
I remember the musing that "wet planks of cheap wood smell like fear".
I remember welling up while reading about a child who walks to the common bathroom in his residential school, knowing his Pears soap and Rin detergent, carefully
packed into different coloured containers, will be flushed away by bullying seniors.
When the book ends, I'm left with the image of a frail boy, panic writ into the dimpled contours of his cherubic face, looking nervously at the open door of a room. A single, shiny boot is seen through the door. The legs that wear the boot may walk on, a passerby, or walk in - an intruder.
The legs may belong to a military man who will pull the boy close by clutching his turban, or a sex-starved senior who will pull the boy close by clutching his hips.
The boy must be very quiet.
Roll of Honour is set in the turbulent year that saw the storming of The Golden Temple, as the Harmandir Sahib Gurdwara is popularly known, the assassination of a
Prime Minister, and the killing of thousands of Sikhs in a pogrom that the Prime Minister's son casually explained away with the aphorism, "When a mighty tree falls,
it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little."
Yes, the earth shook a little, and sent Sikhs fleeing to far-off countries, from which they would map out Khalistan; to hideouts in little villages, from which they would be smoked out, tortured and killed over the next decade; to the Army, where they would be branded as traitors by the very people who named them Jarnail and
Karnail. And the earth shakes a little every now and again, every time a Jagdish Tytler is absolved by the CBI, every time there is an attempt to murder Lt Gen K S
Brar, every time someone hurls a shoe at the Home Minister.
Strangely enough, though everyone in the Northern belt of India has stories to tell about '1984' – a euphemism for Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi's assassination and the anti-Sikh riots – no one has written a novel, at least in English, about it before.
I've heard '1984' recounted with humour, by Sikh friends who would joke, "Yaar, the good thing about the late Eighties was, we always got place to sit on buses; they
would empty as soon as we got in."
I've heard '1984' recounted with sadness, by the grandparents of friends, who would shake their heads and say, “But they shouldn't have done that.” I've heard '1984' recounted with resignation by "cut Surds" in their thirties, who would shrug that their parents just thought it was safer to lop off their hair.
I've heard '1984' recounted with grief by the families of Sikhs killed in the aftermath of 9/11, because '1984' started it all. I've heard '1984' recounted with rage by the faithful, the idealistic, the liberal, the artistic.
Roll of Honour carries a flavour of all that, but with a certain sense of distance – as if you couldn't really explain it, or know it, or feel it. All we can do is sense it. Because the book isn't only about 1984 – it's about worship, it's about role models, it's about power, it's about threat to that power, and about what the prospect of being shunted out of power can drive people to.
Amandeep Sandhu layers his story with tension. He takes us to Amritsar, to the Bangla Sahib Gurdwara in Delhi, to the refugee camps, to the houses of young boys who were "picked up" by the police, to police stations where desperate relatives would wait submissively, to trees where boys with broken fingers, ripped-out fingernails, empty eye sockets and swollen tongues would hang, to canals where they would bloat. But the irony is in the setting of the story – a military school in Punjab, where the boys know that their destination is the NDA, their destiny is the Army.
What happens in this school when the Army, under the orders of a woman whose daughter-in-law was Sikh, under the command of a Brigadier who was Sikh, attacks the holiest shrine of the religion?
However, the story isn't simply about the dilemma that the idea of treason poses. The focus is on bullying, where the victim and the perpetrator are trapped in a
cyclical relationship, fuelled by a particular kind of insanity – the insanity induced by fear of the unknown.
Perhaps that's why it's so fitting that the chapter titles are inspired by W B Yeats' The Second Coming. To me, the essence of the poem is in the line, "The falcon cannot hear the falconer" - a force gone rogue, a predator who's lost sight of his ideals, an Army whose General is mute. An Army of faujis. An army of rebels.
Throughout, there's a lurking shadow of threat, of violation in its most humiliating form – sodomy. An assault from behind that leaves physical, emotional and psychological scars; an assault that shakes a man's confidence in his masculinity; an assault that shakes a religious order's faith in its temple.
The writing is heartbreakingly simple, and yet overwhelmingly deep. The narrator stuns us with gentle observations such as, “Of all that transpires in the heart, hope
is the meanest because it tints one's understanding of reality.”
The book isn't a light read, because it leaves us with a sense of despondence. And it isn't an easy read, because the narrator makes us do a good bit of work. Sandhu,
and his persona Appu, don't explain the subtle changes in the school's atmosphere that confuse the student body; they leave it to us to fight our way in if we care.
Perhaps that's precisely why it's a crucial book to read, and a critical one to write.