By Rashida Murphy
The Year of the Runaways
I read the first five pages of Sunjeev Sahota’s novel, The Year of the Runaways, in a crowded bookshop in Scotland last year. I was travelling through and the book is a hefty tome at 500 pages so I made a mental note to buy a copy when I got home, which I did.
The runaways are three young men from India who try to ‘disappear’ inside the U.K. The most vulnerable and ultimately the most resilient is Tarlochan (Tochi), a ‘chamar’ from Bihar who pretends he is a Haryanvi Jat to appear more acceptable among the young Punjabis with whom he shares a house, but fools no one. Randeep and Avtar are from the same town in Punjab. They hope to make enough money in their unspeakable jobs to send some home to their families. The three boys come together in a shared house near Sheffield where they live their days in fear of police, exploitation and hunger. At the heart of their stories is Narinder, the visa-wife, the good daughter, the ‘beautiful little sikhni’ (p.250), whose complex morality will be challenged several times in her encounters with Randeep, Avtar and Tarlochan.
This is a novel that shines a long and steady light into the dark recesses of Indian casteism, racism and hypocrisy, especially the indignity heaped on ‘apne log’ by those ‘like us.’ The light extends its reach into the broader racism of brown vs. white but only briefly. This novel does not concern itself too much with how the English deal with the arrival of illegal immigrants who literally do their dirty work. The focus is firmly on how Indians treat other Indians and how their behaviours and prejudices migrate with them and are replicated anew in foreign soil. And within that focus is the specific role the Punjabi community plays in its interactions with the illegals. Choosing the Runaways of the title as a way of commenting on wealth, class, privilege and prejudice is an ingenious device.
Sahota delves deep into the tradition of religious Sikhs and conveys those traditions with a light touch. Granthis, kirtans, kandhas and kesris all become accessible when their symbolism is conveyed through the actions of young Punjabi men and women – so far from home – and so cold, miserable, hungry, desolate. The gurudwara is their solace, even when they are turned away from setting up camp indefinitely within its confines. They continue to hold on to its promise. There is something sweet about this. Despite the misery of their lives on the run, these young men cannot abandon the tenets of the religion they were raised in. There are echoes of hope in the recitals of the gurus, in the freshly washed steps inside Anandpur Sahib and the Sunday langars. When the limits of faith are reached, humanity rears its unexpected head.
I found the proliferation of coarse language and profanity distracting and slightly unbelievable. Yes, these are village and small town boys, but they have been raised in loving families with mothers and sisters who care for them. While it is probable that in the company of their peers they will swear, drink and fornicate, it is a little hard to accept their sudden and enthusiastic descent into coarseness, depravity, vulgarity and thievery. The idiosyncratic spelling of Indian words was also distracting, especially the word ‘bhaji’ for ‘brother.’ I found it hard not to think of potato bhaji every time (and it is often) the word came up.
A novel that has echoes, for me at any rate, of Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What The Body Remembers in its loving depiction of a community doing its best to cling on to the hope of a larger, gentler future in a country that appears disinterested in its goals or desires. Definitely worth a read for its insights, often shocking, into our psyche and our betrayals of those we love.
[Note: Perth-based writer, Rashida Murphy is Book Editor for Cafe Dissensus Everyday. Send your book reviews, critical pieces on books, author interviews, and book excerpts to Rashida at: firstname.lastname@example.org]
Rashida Murphy is a Perth based writer and editor whose work has appeared in several anthologies and journals including Café Dissensus, Southern Crossings and The Westerly. She has a PhD in Writing from Edith Cowan University, and her first novel was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize in 2015.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
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