Friday 19 October 2012
Book Review: Roll of Honour by Amandeep Sandhu
Imagine a school in Punjab run by the military, meant to educate its wards so that they gain admission to the prestigious National Defence Academy (NDA), a stepping stone to becoming an officer in the Indian armed forces. Imagine the turbulent mid-80s, which saw Operation Blue Star in Amritsar, Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. This is the setting for Amandeep Sandhu’s second novel, which is based on his own experiences while studying at a military school.
The (fictional) military school at Jassabad where Sandhu’s narrator Appu is based, is not a very nice place. Outwardly there is discipline and calm as the students prepare to join the NDA, but inside there is turmoil. When the novel begins, we hear Appu and his classmates, the senior most students in school who have just entered class twelve, being told that they will not be allowed to discipline their juniors. The age-old system where seniors controlled, guided and punished juniors has been disbanded on account of the fight that took place just before school broke up between Appu’s batch and the one immediately senior to them. There is a palpable sense of anger and a feeling of injustice. Appu and his classmates had put up with harsh punishment from their seniors, which usually involved a mix of sodomy and corporal punishment, solely because they believed they would at some point have the right to do to their juniors what was done to them.
Operation Blue Star is a huge shock for the Sikh community. Appu is a Sikh who has shorn his tresses. Many of Appu’s classmates are Sikhs. Even the non-Sikhs are upset by Operation Blue Star. Many Sikh students openly express support for Khalistan and some even join the ranks of the militants. Appu no longer feels so proud of studying in a military school, when the Indian army is seen as an enemy of the Sikh community, but he stays on for a variety of reasons, one of which is that Appu’s folks would be forced to reimburse the free scholarship given to him if he were to drop out before graduation, something they can’t afford to do. Many of Appu’s Sikh friends like Lalten are no longer keen to make it to the Roll of Honour, that is, join the NDA.
Sandhu’s descriptions of ragra (punishment), often by the school leader, stretched the bounds of my horror and incredulity. Even now I am not sure if the stories of whipping, flogging and caning with belts, buckles and sticks resulting in injuries that require hospitalisation are/were commonplace in any military school anywhere in India. However, where Roll of Honour scores is its excellent depiction of the heartache brought about by Operation Blue Star and the subsequent assassination and riots, the break-down of trust between the Hindu and Sikh communities and the questions of loyalty it created for the Sikh community in India.
Operation Blue Star is compared to an act of sodomy by a person in power against someone younger, vulnerable and under the care of the perpetrator. Towards the end, we see a fight-back by the victims at the military school. Can the same be said of the people of Punjab who have been put to the test by military action against Sikhism’s holiest shrine? Amidst so much turmoil, Appu has an additional complication. He is close to Gaurav, a boy junior to him and they find comfort in each other's arms. Does the relationship stand the test of those turbulent times? Please read this excellent book to find out.