A brutal story, and an interview – By Dipali Taneja
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.