‘The Year of the Runaways’ – About Fighting for Scraps in a New Country by Sunjeev Sahota
Even as waves of refugees fleeing the war in Syria have created an urgent world crisis, many immigrants who have already made it to Europe have been grappling with prejudice, poverty and unemployment. No recent novel does a more powerful job of capturing the day-to-day lives of such immigrants than Sunjeev Sahota’s second book, “The Year of the Runaways”, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker prize.
Mr. Sahota, whose grandfather came to Britain in 1962, and who grew up in Derby, England – writes with intimacy and feeling about his four main characters, three of whom have arrived illegally from India to try to make new lives for themselves in Britain or make enough money to support their families back home.
By cutting back and forth between their intertwining stories, and between their current lives in the English city of Sheffield and their left-behind lives in India, Mr. Sahota creates an ensemble portrait of young immigrants struggling to find work, to sort out their love lives, to come to terms with duty and tradition and their own confused ambitions.
The world they inhabit, of grubby house shares, meager meals, backbreaking jobs (when a job can even be found), is light years removed from that of the aristos and bohemians in Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time.” But, weirdly, there are echoes of Mr. Powell’s 20th-century classic here. Not just in structure (this novel takes place over the course of a year’s four seasons, whereas “Dance” was divided into four “movements,” based around the four seasons of life), but also in its focus on how characters’ hopes and dreams are reshaped by time, fortune and, of course, misfortune.
This book has an instinctive sense of storytelling, immersing us in the dilemmas of the characters.
Tochi, the most sympathetic one, grew up in a family that belonged to the so-called untouchable caste. After members of his family were doused with gasoline and set on fire by rioters, he fled India and had himself smuggled to Paris via Turkey (by plane and truck). Later, having made it to England, he finds himself subjected to both racial prejudice and his own countrymen’s class hatred.
Tochi comes to share a house with a group of other immigrants. They include Avtar, who has sold one of his kidneys to travel to England on a student visa, in hopes of making money there and living up to the expectations of his girlfriend, Lakhpreet; and Lakhpreet’s brother Randeep, who has given up his dreams of college to support his family after his father has a breakdown.
Because decent jobs are scarce in their hometown, Randeep has decided that he must move to England where, he’s heard, there are many more opportunities. He arranges a “visa marriage” to an Englishwoman named Narinder. Letters and fake wedding photos are made. If approved, a middleman tells him, the visa will be granted, and he and Narinder must spend a year together — or pretend to. After that, he can apply for an indefinite right to remain and, eventually, full citizenship; then, possibly, he can bring his family over from India.
If approved, a middleman tells him, the visa will be granted, and he and Narinder must spend a year together — or pretend to. After that, he can apply for an indefinite right to remain and, eventually, full citizenship; then, possibly, he can bring his family over from India.
Randeep hopes that Narinder will reciprocate his increasingly ardent feelings for her. But Narinder, a pious Sikh, has agreed to the marriage out of a spiritual yearning to help someone in need; she is cordial but distant, careful not to offer him any encouragement.
Though the Sheffield housemates share the same dreams of finding a decent job, and the same fears, of being caught and deported, of not making the month’s rent or being able to scrounge together a meal, they regard one another with suspicion. They are often competing for the same hard-to-find jobs, and worry about having their meager earnings stolen by the very people with whom they share a roof. Mr. Sahota gives us an intimate sense of the sheer grind of their daily existence: the trudging from one business to another in search of employment; the rejection and contempt they are subjected to by neighbors and employers; and the bone-wearying, sick-making labor they do on construction sites and in the sewers.
Mr. Sahota gives us an intimate sense of the sheer grind of their daily existence: the trudging from one business to another in search of employment; the rejection and contempt they are subjected to by neighbors and employers; and the bone-wearying, sick-making labor they do on construction sites and in the sewers.
By the time they send a portion of their earnings home and pay down the loans they took to get to England, there is often little left to buy an adequate meal, much less to put away as savings. An older immigrant, who has been in England for 11 years, scoffs at the naïveté of the “freshies.”
“I used to think I only had to work harder. Longer,” he says, warning Avtar that things will get only tougher.
“It makes you only care for yourself,” he says. “This life. It makes everything a competition. A fight. For work, for money. There’s no peace. Ever. Just fighting for the next job. Fight fight fight.”
This Darwinian struggle takes a toll on Mr. Sahota’s characters, making them increasingly disillusioned and desperate, torn between more generous impulses and cruel selfishness. Everything about Sheffield, from the language to the culture to the cold weather, makes them feel homesick and displaced, and they find themselves caught more and more between cultures, between familial obligations and more personal imperatives, between bright expectations, nourished in India, and the grim realities of life in England.
Writing with unsentimental candor, Mr. Sahota has created a cast of characters whose lives are so richly imagined that this deeply affecting novel calls out for a sequel or follow-up that might recount the next installment of their lives. (An epilogue, set more than 10 years later, is way too cursory and hasty.) At the same time, he’s written a novel that captures the plight of many immigrants, who count themselves lucky enough to have made it to the land of their dreams, only to worry that those dreams may be slipping out of reach.