The Year of the Runaways- Sanjeev Sahota- Review

Starting Afresh in a New Land

 

The Year of the Runaways; Sunjeev Sahota, Picador India, 468 pages, Rs 599

When Salman Rushdie says about a book: All you can do is to surrender: happily, to its power”, the least that you would do is to pick up that book thus highly recommended by the master himself. And you are not disappointed. The powerful political novel about immigrants tries to break boundaries of the human and the geographical confines, emerging as one of the most brilliant works in recent times. No wonder, the young writer has been shortlisted for the 2015’s Man Booker prize.

The term political novel tends to scare certain readers off, as psychologically, they connect the term with indoctrination and the uncompromising stances.  The Year of the Runaways is anything but that. It deals with the destinies of three young migrants, who unwittingly live together as family- runaways from their own country as they dream of making it big in the country not of their birth.  All three men have fled India for Sheffield, England, urgently looking to fulfil their dreams and those of their families’ – dreams that had no realization in their own dusty homelands. They’ve taken various routes- Visa marriage, selling an organ, enrolling as a student. There are struggles ahead, of course, some familiar and some unknown, but the characters possess an aspiration to make progress in a foreign land. In the process, they often face a sense of cultural fraction and terrestrial dualism.

For Sahota, himself the son of migrants to England, migration has been a subject that “has always been at my back.”  So his protagonists, Tochi (Tralochan- a lower cast young man from Bihar) is as believable as Avtar and Randeep from Punjab.  All three men live with troubled secrets.  Tochi is the most close-lipped about his past. Randeep is married to a British Indian woman, Narinder (in parlance known as a ‘Visa wife’) who is tucked away in a tiny apartment on the other side of town.  Her closets are full of her husband’s clothes, just in case the immigration officers come knocking.  Narinder, incidentally, is simply not interested in getting to know her husband.

The first part of the novel is devoted to detailing the lives of each of the four protagonists as they were before they came to Sheffield. These are juxtaposed with shorter chapters about their interactions in the present.  We learn why Tochi, an ‘untouchable’ in India prefers to be aloof from other inhabitants of the pokey apartment, that is crammed full of as many  as 12 other fellow migrants- some legal and some illegal. We read about the complex relationship between Avtar and Randeep, who lived in neighbouring houses back in India and who for separate reasons, (Randeep out of fear of disgrace and Avtar because of love) have to move out of their country and look for options in a strange land. We are given an insight into the fervently religious Narindar, torn between what she believes is right and her family’s sense of honour.

Sahota presents many lives, many stories that emerge from a similar political and cultural environment (Sheffield, England) and its impact, variously, on characters who respond to it out of previous conditioning.  Many of them are unfamiliar with the cultural duality, so their responses mystify the residents of their chosen country. For example, a young Indian from a call centre lands up at the home of an Englishman with whom he had chatted over the phone without prior information. Or the moments of terror that Tochi experiences while riding on an elevator for the first time.

The second half of the book delves into the growing involvement of the characters with each other- their reactions and their increasingly intertwining relationships with each other.  The stories grow intense but they are not all dark. You find unexpected flashes of kindness that light up the narrative which tells how, sometimes, the land of dreams can be even harsher than the country left behind.

 

This review appeared in The Spectrum, The Sunday Tribune on 7th Oct, 2015 under the heading:

Land of Dreams and Nightmares

http://www.tribuneindia.com/news/spectrum/books/land-of-dreams-nightmares/142849.html


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