A Technical Writer pens a novel
By Resmi Jaimon
Amandeep Sandhu has worked as a Technical Writer at blue chip Technology giants like Novell and Oracle. But his early life story is also filled with many challenges and successes - sleeping on an empty stomach at tech hub Bangalore and then getting a job at the prestigious national newspaper The Economic Times. All of which helped him write his latest book 'Roll of Honour’
Techgoss (TG): You seem to have experienced multiple careers in life. Share with our readers, your life journey.
Amandeep Sandhu (AS): Having been disillusioned with the Army operation in Punjab in the 1980s, I sought to do what I liked doing most: reading stories. I did want to write stories too, but I did not know how to do that. So, I went to study Bachelors and Masters in English Literature. From a college where we used to regularly find cow dung on the second floor and wonder how the cow had climbed the steps, to a university which did not require me to mug up answers by critics to questions on literature – University of Hyderabad. After the MA I did not know what to do, so I went to Bangalore where a friend lived. I went because a journalism school gave me the fare to travel.
I had no money. Initial days in Bangalore were a long wait to find a job in which I alternated between having bonda soup one day and walking back home or taking a bus and sleeping on an empty stomach. Finally, I went to intern at The Economic Times and they hired me. I worked about two years there including a 32 week without a break stint. When I realized that I could no longer put faces of sleeping Prime Ministers as the major story of the day and sought to reclaim my evenings, I quit. I was again jobless for a few months but was assisting film makers and theatre directors when I got a break as a technical writer at Novell Inc. Money had never been easy even earlier. So, even while studying at school I did sundry jobs like buying woolen garments in Punjab and selling them to aunties where my parents lived, in Orissa, helping run shops and so on.
TG: Since you have worn the hat of multiple roles in career, which one do you like the most?
AS: A novelist. But there is very little money in it unless you sell a lot abroad. So, one has to do something to earn a living. Technical writing isn’t a bad job at all. In fact, it is good. Decent money, mostly decent work hours, and once you figure out how it is different from novel writing, you can carry off a dual life until you get dead bored.
TG: Tell us about your soon to be released book, 'Roll of Honour.'
AS: Roll of Honour is a story of the split loyalties of a Sikh boy in a military boarding school in Punjab during the Khalistan movement. Actually the year 1984 which saw the Operation Bluestar, Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, anti-Sikh pogroms and life in the boot camp school.
The basic plot line is that the young boy, Appu is back for his final year at his military school just after the assault on the Golden Temple has ended and the Indian Army is arresting and killing innocent Sikhs. Appu looks forward to three things: being class in-charge, passing out, and securing a place in the National Defence Academy. An ex-student Balraj, now a Khalistani separatist on the run, takes refuge on campus and the violence outside comes to school. Some of the seniors decide to help Balraj, the decision splits the school along sectarian lines, and students are forced to take sides. There is rampant bullying -- sodomy being the preferred tool of domination -- and long-time friends find themselves on opposing sides. As the situation spirals out of control, Appu, who wants nothing more than to live his dreams, is forced to make the impossible choice between community and nation.
TG: How did you get interested in writing?
AS: From life. My life has been rather uneven and I seek to make sense of it. My previous novel, Sepia Leaves deals with a young boy’s bewilderment towards the effects of the stigma attached by the society to an illness like Schizophrenia. Roll of Honour deals with how a political action confuses an adolescent young boy. I feel life is about making sense and once one witnesses disruptions, one needs to reflect upon them, learn from them.
TG: How and when did you come across the idea for 'Roll of Honour?'
AS: One day, when I was 13 years old I was marching in a contingent to class in a military school. Suddenly, the school prefect asked us to start crawling on the road. Then, he asked us to run a few laps in the parade ground. All this for some perceived misdemeanor. That is when it struck me that the only way I can make sense of this completely vague violence is by writing about it. One day, some day, now the day has come.
TG: Who are your favourite authors?
AS: Very tough to answer. I like many but have been inspired by the following for both my books: John Steinbeck, Mario Vargas Llosa, Henry Fielding, Kenzaburo Oe, Ryszard Kapuscinski, and Amitav Ghosh.
TG: Tell us your experiences as a technical writer at Novell Inc and Oracle Corporation.
AS: It was actually very good. This is where a slightly radical me learnt how talent can be channeled to create technology which will ultimately be put to use not only for the rich but for the greater common good. Networking is a technology like that, Novell was a pioneer. Under the excellent leadership of my manager and the competent support of team mates we did manage to turn around technical products that were losing market share into products which actually enhanced security capabilities. It was a learning curve, both from being a non-technical person to becoming aware of technology and as a writer prone to flowery prose to becoming one who learnt how to write succinctly.
TG: Technical writing and writing fiction are different kind of writing. What kind of skills and discipline does a technical writer require? How different it is when it comes to writing fiction?
AS: They are different and the sooner one realizes it the better. I took me three years to realize. The essential skills are the same for both kinds of writing: the ability to listen, the ability to not judge in value terms, the ability to sit in a seat for long hours to work, and an ability to look at your work critically. It is like say Ballet dancing and Bhartnatyam or Kathak. The essential qualities would be the same, what is different is how they are put to use. For example, a technical writer is focused on why something is available (a new feature or command or GUI pane) and how can the user best use it. A fiction writer is concerned with what it feels like to use something (a new feature or command or GUI pane), to convey a sense of time and place and mood and texture. Technical writing is also mostly didactic, do this or do that. Fiction writing is by necessity never a talking down to the reader, never admonishing the listener.
TG: What plans do you have in the writing scenario, in the next three years?
AS: I might do a lighter but satirical book on the mores of the middle class but the one I would put my heart and soul into is a novel on memory and forgetting. It might take more than three years.
(Roll of Honour synopsis:
1984. Operation Blue Star has just ended and the Indian Army is arresting and killing innocent Sikhs. Appu, a Sikh boy, is back at military school in Jassabad, Punjab, for his final year. It is a story of split loyalties of how Mrs. Gandhi's assassination and the riots affect him and also about the hard life in a residential school. It deals with both, issues of bullying and terrorism and how they affect the youth.
Then ex-student Balraj, now a Khalistani separatist on the run, takes refuge on campus and the violence outside comes to school. Some of the seniors decide to help Balraj, the decision splits the school along sectarian lines, and students are forced to take sides. There is rampant bullying — sodomy being the preferred tool of domination — and long-time friends find themselves on opposing sides. As the situation spirals out of control, Appu, who wants nothing more than to live his dreams, is forced to make the impossible choice between community and nation.
Gritty, honest and tautly paced, Roll of Honour is a frank examination of the consequences of misplaced honour, allegiance and integrity.)