Creating a Voice beyond Appropriation

Amandeep Sandhu talks about his journey towards becoming a writer, and why it is important to create and nurture voices that are difficult to appropriate in these times.

It was in 2010 that I read Amandeep Sandhu’s first novel Sepia Leaves. I remember putting it aside after the first few pages and becoming extremely uncomfortable. I felt strongly, that if I read that book, something would drastically change in my life. And I knew I wasn’t prepared for any change at that point. But I couldn’t keep myself away from the book for too long and by next morning, I had turned its last page.

Aman’s books deal with tough issues, his first book was on mental illness and the second on terrorism in Punjab. What strikes you most about his books is Aman’s honest, deadpan writing. Yet, in many ways it remains tender, kind.


Writer Amandeep Sandhu

Aman started his career as a journalist in The Economic Times but after two years shifted to Information Technology. As a technical writer he translated high end technology for lay users in the networking and pharmaceutical domains. In that period he wrote testimonial fiction which deal with mental health in conflict spaces – private and public. His first novel Sepia Leaves is about schizophrenia from a young child care giver’s perspective. His second novel Roll of Honour is about the split loyalties of a Sikh adolescent in a military school when separatist violence raged in Punjab through the 1980s. The book was nominated for The Hindu Award 2013. Aman was a Fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, 2013-15. He is currently working full time on his non-fiction book Punjab – Journeys through Fault Lines. It’s a book that investigates how Punjab has fared a quarter century after the insurgencies in the region.

Here is an excerpt from the interview.


I was born in Rourkela, Orissa. In a new India town; in a town where for the first time, India was experimenting with socialistic structure of living. We had sectors, homes and streets where our neighbors did not understand our language or our traditions. It was place where Jawaharlal Nehru and the makers of the country were trying to create the temples of modern India. But then there was a particular problem in my family which normally would have been buried in the joint family system of Punjab, but here it out in relief. Everybody could see that my mother was mentally ill. And though I could speak almost six languages, I did not have a language to communicate our issues to the community we lived in. We as a family started ‘being’ the way they looked at us; which was mostly with pity, sympathy, a way in which we were diminished in their eyes. So I grew up with a feeling of not being understood by the community that I lived in.

Aman childhood

Aman with his parents


Well I don’t know when I decided to become a writer. But I always knew that I wanted to be a reader. Even as a child, when my parents would have fights, I would hide away with comic books behind the sofa. When I went to the military school and saw the external emphasis on discipline and order, I thought maybe someday I would be able to write about it, to make sense of it. So the need to write came from the feeling that I am not understood. At that point I wanted the world to understand me. But soon, I didn’t care. Yet, I didn’t want the world to smother me with its gaze, appropriate me.

Through my adolescence I would look at blank sheets of paper and cry. I finally started to write when I was about 29 years old. Slowly, I discovered my voice.


I have always valued those teachers whose kindness has reached me, who have made me feel accepted, made me feel safe. A teacher is someone who accepts me for not knowing and is willing to spend time to help me understand, to grow. Teaching is not about finishing syllabus, chasing a curriculum, giving class notes etc. Real teaching is in that the student continues to feel safe being vulnerable in their lack of knowledge and gradually grows in understanding, never once feeling unsafe.

Through all my learning period, through seven different schools, college and then university, I can count about five teachers and mentors who have influenced me, shaped me. I still haven’t forgotten them, and I will never. They made me. Don’t mistake me, they were also bad. They shook me up, they destroyed me, they broke me down, and they brought me to tears. But I knew that they were kind. I could feel their kindness.


Today knowledge is not about pile memory. There was a time, till say twenty years ago, where the more things you remembered, the more things you knew, it made you a more knowledgeable person. Today’s age is not about how many books you have read or how much information you carry in your head or how it is stacked up. Today’s age is about hooks. It’s about having the right hooks to access the information that you need. All the information that you need is out there on the internet, in encyclopedia, documented. In fact there is so much information, that there is an information overload. So the skill needed in this age is to be able to ask the right kind of questions, find the right hooks.

In the current age, the human being is most vulnerable and is in grave danger of being appropriated by the external powers. Whether it’s a nation state, or a political discourse or a religious identity or if it’s a question of language or of gender or of caste, all these are supra-narratives that will want to appropriate your voice. So the big effort in today’s age is to create a voice that cannot be easily appropriated. And that is what I try to teach my students.

You can listen to the complete interview here:


Part 1

Part 2


Note: This interview was first aired on Teaching and Learning Moments’ second season in March 2016. Teaching and Learning Moments with Teacher Plus is a program on education and various aspects of teaching and learning in and outside the classroom and it is brought to you in Collaboration with Bol Hyderabad, a  campus based community radio channel in Hyderabad Central University.

Interview and article by Lakshmi Karunakaran

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