Thursday, April 4, 2013

For CSAAM: A brutal story, and an interview

Roll of Honour is set in a military school in Punjab, during the early eighties, an extremely troubled time in the state. Sikh militancy is one the rise, as is its brutal suppression by the police and the army. Our protagonist, Appu, has seen the horrendously tortured body of his good friend Joga, when he is home for the summer vacations, and is torn apart by many questions of faith, loyalty and identity. When he returns to school, he still wants to join the army. Events in school, however, destabilise his world still further. He had expected to become the school prefect in this, his final year. Owing to a series of fights between his class and their seniors the previous year, the school authorities change their system: the hostels would no longer house a mix of junior and senior cadets. Instead they would be sorted according to class. Appu finds himself class prefect, a far cry from the honour of being the school prefect. Balraj, who was the school prefect the previous year, had qualified for the NDA but is unable to join because the school did not give him a character certificate. He seeks refuge, and Appu is unable to refuse, as 'his trust weighed me down'. Another student's brother has been picked up by the army. Some of the Sikh students have strong sympathies with the separatists and are willing to be martyrs to their cause. The school has, for years, been run on a system of corporal punishment, or 'ragra', which is supposed to instil discipline among the students. It has been imposed both by the teachers and the senior students. When Appu's father visits him that October, he is able to share his disquiet about the new system, and tells him about the huge fight of the previous school year. What he is unable to tell him about is the sodomy. No one could ever say no to a senior. Rape of junior boys by their seniors was common, and the victim 'loses his respect.' When Gora rapes Ladoo, it was the worst insult the seniors could inflict upon Appu's class. A senior on a solitary after dinner walk is caught by Akhad and Lalten  and violated in revenge. The sodomy lent a new dimension to how the class engaged with the seniors. Cadets whisked away solo cadets from rival classes into dark corners, behind hostels, or at tubewells and threatened them with beatings. Then they took the victim, sometimes three to four cadets to one.......................The school culture placed a sense of manly awe around the abuser. The abuser was a hero, someone who had exercised power. The insults were for the abused.
Appu's story is compelling. Despite the brutality, you need to know what happens next. There is great tenderness between Appu and Gaurav, who are travelling through Delhi when the police pick up Appu for questioning. This romance ends due to a perceived betrayal, a lack of trust. There is a conspiracy between the students and the militants. Cadets disappear/run away from the school. Appu is in torment because, " I cannot be true to myself; I cannot be a Sikh of the guru, nor a soldier of India." However, he does find a way out of his dilemma and displays exemplary courage in the face of grave physical danger.
What adds to the depth and richness of this book are the italicized paragraphs which are the views of the adult Appu. He is determined to be a writer. I only knew that nothing, except words, could protect me. I wanted words to reveal myself and by revealing myself, I would steal people's ability to make me vulnerable, hit me where I would have hidden something precious, and thus, I would save myself.

I think the author certainly did save himself! Meeting him a few months ago was like meeting an old friend, one who is warm and communicative and totally approachable. His first book, Sepia Leaves, is  about Appu's life in a dysfunctional family- his mother suffers from schizophrenia. When I asked him if we could do this interview for CSAAM, he readily agreed, and e-mailed me his responses at very short notice indeed. Thank you very much, Amandeep.
1. Roll of Honour is a brutal, painful book to read, set in a time in our country's history which we should never forget. Was writing it cathartic for you, or was it something that you felt you had to share with the world, or both?
Ans. I knew in school that I wanted to write about how authoritarian power played havoc with 13 year old boys. I personally was very shaken up by all that Punjab had witnessed in the years of terrorism: I had been picked up by police in Delhi because I wore a turban at a time when terrorists had camped in our farm in Punjab and were demanding ransom from my family. The civic authorities could do nothing for three months. But it was after I saw the response to my first book Sepia Leaves, which deals with mental illness, that I felt confident to talk about even more taboo topics in Roll of Honour. Subjects like bullying and sodomy.

I wrote to untangle my confusions. I wrote to understand my fears. I wrote to heal. So, the writing was cathartic but it came from my confidence in the reader and from my desire to share my experience. I wanted to put out the story for the world to join me in my exploration into my own self and to help the process of healing in any of us who was similarly affected. I also wrote so I could stand in the witness-box, to seek justice. It was not only about a crime or a call for action against a nation, it was a justice a victim seeks when bullied, a closure to the cycle of victim hood.

2. Although we are not talking about very young children here, several young teenage boys are sodomized in the school setting you describe. How do you think such brutality can be averted? 

Ans. I wish I had a very good answer for that but if anyone had it we would have seen it implemented. I mentioned child abuse in Sepia Leaves as well. In that book it happens when the young boy, around seven years old, is left in the charge of a temporary caretaker who abuses his position. 

What we need is to call abuse what it is: abuse. Non-consensual sodomy is a horrendous, criminal act and we must de-link it from notions of masculinity. We need to find a language that articulates such acts as wrong and in no way reflective of how masculine are the people who indulge in it.  

We also need to try to understand and empathize with those who suffer sodomy in situations where their voices, their cries, are not silenced. Listen to the victim (and also the bully) without being judgmental and without being biased. Without the traditional: how can 
this happen? The listening is important because the victim has already lost his or her self-hood, or has compromised it. The victim's humanity needs to be restored. We need to assure the victim that the story will be heard and there shall be an attempt to bring justice or closure. Alongside emphasize how the bully is wrong. Do this to ensure that the victim overcomes guilt or a sense of being complicit in the act and the feeling of continuous threat and fear from the bully.

Added to that is a system of checks and balances in any system. The reason why most of this happens is because the perpetrator believes they can get away with it.Not only a school, any organised society must not give that kind of opportunity to anyone. 

3. No one is safe from the lustful gaze of the senior boys in the school, be it the temporary teacher, the housemasters' wives, the washerwomen................   
Do you think this is due to the isolated nature of all-boys boarding schools? 

Ans. No, I do not think so. By that token all monastic orders or nunneries should be breeding grounds of sexual or other kinds of impropriety. It is to do with lack of trust in a system. In Roll of Honour it is the almost complete lack of a system which could nourish the students and build them into exemplary members of a society. It is to do with misplaced notions of masculinity and honour, with teachers being absent, with the disciplined order breaking down such that those who wished to misuse the system believed they could get away with it.      

4. Since I've had the pleasure of meeting you, and have found you to be a warm, compassionate and grounded person, I would like to know what helped you overcome the traumas you faced in your earlier days.  

Ans. Thank you. I am not sure I am really all the nice things you say I am. I have my times, I get angry, I worry ... But yes, I do feel I  
have come a long way from where I was a few years or decades ago. 

Writing has helped, it was the path I took. Reading has helped. Seeing the world has helped but what I have learnt upon observing is how so many of us suffer and are quietly tugging away at improving their lot and the spaces around them. I feel I just write stories, it is those who live them who are the real heroes and heroines.

5. Although he knows his father may have helped him deal with the issues in school, Appu keeps them to himself, observing the 'unbestowed but acknowledged responsibility of trying to protect one's near and dear ones from one's reality'. In hindsight, do you think sharing matters with his father would have helped?

Ans. Yes, it would have helped. Airing out always helps but we need to understand why it is not so easy to speak. There are multiple reasons: feeling complicit is one, feeling guilty is another, feeling that you won't be heard is yet another but the worst is the lack of trust that the situation can be changed. Trust is a big deal and I feel it is the responsibility of the elders to create an environment where the child can find trust and feel safe. 

6. What are you working on next?

Ans. It is very interesting that we are doing the interview at this time. I have just been working out what book or books to do next. While one is a novel, you know, I sort of grow from one book to the next. In Sepia Leaves the idea of abuse came up because I was showing a dysfunctional home and how those spaces are ripe for abuse. In Roll of Honour I expanded upon the idea and linked it to school and state power structures. Over the past few weeks I have been thinking about how most of the discourse in society is about abuse of girls and rape. In fact, there is very little about male rape and male child abuse. So, I am thinking of putting together a book based on first person accounts of such abuse. I think we need to create a body of work that highlights the issue. We need to re-examine masculinity.  

I solicit your help to spread the word that I seek accounts from readers, friends. I promise confidentiality and anyone who wishes to speak up, please do so. I am listening. The world will listen. My email is:
7. How do you think a book on male abuse or masculinity will bring any social change? 

Ans. I feel that one of the biggest aspect of abuse is the objectification of the body. In my experience I have found that boys who go through abuse confuse love and abuse. Note that love is subjectification of the body and abuse is objectification of it. Unless a victim works on the abuse and on healing, an abused boy can either become an inhibited man or an aggressive one. Both are not healthy but an aggressive man can start preying on other victims or women to overcome the feelings of insecurity, of feeling small, or any of the attendant inferiority complexes. One of the ways of doing that is to abuse a victim, rape the victim. In order to prevent this we need to start talking about masculinity, about abuse and its effects.

Thank you very much, Amandeep, for your time and your vauable inputs. Wishing you all the best for your future projects.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

CSAAM 2013

For the last three years, a group of committed bloggers and organisations have observed April as Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Month. Every day this month there are several posts and links on the main page, here:
It is a painful subject, one that many would wish to sweep under the carpet and pretend that it isn't there. That helps no one but the perpetrators. Do your bit to keep our children safe. Be aware. Talk about it. Read about it. Prevent it. Deal with it.