Tag Archives: THE RUNAWAYS

The Making of a Youthful Jihadi

Fatima Bhutto’s novel The Runaways  about the lonely, disenfranchised path that leads a young person to Jihad comes from a tragic, knowing place. Her aunt, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in 2007 by a fifteen year-old suicide bomber called Bilal, who detonated his vest full of explosives a few feet from Benazir’s motorcade.

The three runaways in Fatima Bhutto’s book like young Bilal, share the same searing alienation and angst over their identity.

Sunny, the son of Pakistani immigrants, detests his widower father’s Anglophilia. He knows he’s just a tongue away from being called “Paki”, and hates not being seen, his brownness always placing him at the invisible fringe of society. 

Anita Rose (Layla) is Christian, poor and fatherless. Her mother, a masseuse, soothes away the stress of Karachi’s rich memsahibs.  Meanwhile Layla watches from the sidelines, unseen, yearning to be acknowledged, but not even worthy of being addressed. Her ambitious brother is willing to trade anything, including his sister, to lift his family out of poverty. Her communist neighbor, the only father figure Layla has ever known, stokes the fires of rebellion in her.

The privileged Monty, a princely scion of Karachi’s ruling elite, is the weakest link, doted on by his mother but a disappointment to his father, and wildly in love with Layla.

All three are ripe for the picking. Sunny is the first to be indoctrinated into Jihadi consipracy theories by his cousin Oz. Layla’s tough, poverty-laced childhood turns her into a fiery rebel and a poster girl for the nascent Umma movement in Iraq. Her widely watched videos call on her Muslim brothers and sisters to rise for bloody revolution against the “Godless Infidels of Western Capitalism”. Monty is a terrorist by accident – his goal is to track down Layla, in Iraq and Syria if necessary – because his love sickness makes it impossible to live without her. 

Eventually, Sunny and Monty join forces as apprentice Jihadis in the Umma movement and cross the desert to Ninevah, where a terrorist offensive is about to be launched. The book progresses to a startling, chilling climax, involving the three protagonists.

Fatima Bhutto

Fatima Bhutto wrote two books of poetry before The Runaways and her gifted prose indicates that. Sunny, Monty and Layla draw the reader into their worlds intimately. She weaves these characters like spun silk – they’re mesmerizing and real and her eye for elusive, defining moments in life is impeccable: Layla riding a skinny Arabian horse on Karachi’s beaches while the lecherous owner keeps his eyes on her; Sunny posting selfies with his AK47 “Rita” in the desert – “Automatova Kalashnikova selfie for all you jihad peeping toms#AKLife#Ritadiaries”; Monty moaning Layla’s name as he tosses in his sleep on the desert sand while Sunny looks on in contempt.  

The books fails in the latter half because it lacks the intimate detail of the earlier narrative. We get contrived glimpses of the growing terrorist movement through jerky newspaper reports of fighting and jihadist troops, while Sunny’s sudden mutation into a rabid killer lacks credibility.

Bhutto creates a thought-provoking, absorbing world laced with irony, dark humor and a sense of vulnerability, as the novice Jihadis become pawns, misused and abused by their leaders. However, it fails to shed light on the why of Jihadism – why do millions of youth like Sunny, who also face the tribulations of racism and alienation, not take the leap into this dark, bloody ideology.  

Perhaps defining the why is not the author’s intent, since why is as elusive as a mirage in the desert.


THE RUNAWAYS. By Fatima Bhutto. Viking, 2019. £14.99. 432 Pages. Hardcover

Longlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, 2019

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Contributing Editor Meera Kymal




Unsentimental Seasons

THE YEAR OF THE RUNAWAYS by Sunjeev Sahota. Knopf, 2016. 484 pages. Hardcover $18.74


I have grown up in parts of the world that have memorable seasons: Rajasthan with its summer “Loo,” a dry, hot wind that is the very opposite of a gentle summer breeze; Bombay with its monsoon outbursts that seem to be the only phenomenon that can slow down this ever-moving metropolis; Ontario with its winter that is whiter than its very white hockey leagues; and Chicago with its variegated autumn that brings baseball fans of all colors together to bemoan yet another failed season for their “lovable losers,” the Cubs.

Thus, I have for a long time been sentimental about the charm and change of weather. Indeed, whenever I listen to the singer-songwriter James Taylor croon, “Winter, spring, summer, or fall,” I join in with a teenager’s enthusiasm, “All you have to do is call.” And Sweet Baby James responds, “and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend.” A warm, comfortable smile spreads across my face, as I conveniently forget the song’s darker lyrics.

While Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is also structured across four seasons, the chapters—Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn—are all dark chords until the Epilogue sheds a softer strum at the end of a trying year for four not-quite friends. Inhabiting seasonal struggles, Sahota has etched four inter-connected protagonists: Narinder, Randeep, Avtar, and Tochi. The reader empathetically meets these memorable runaways in the dead cold of England: “The street lamps were still on, spreading their winter yellow. The chill was as sharp as needles … The National Lottery sign reverberated in the wind.” Sahota’s United Kingdom is united only in a dreamy way. Avtar, Tochi, and Randeep arrive from India with hopes of rich earnings and heroic returns to India; they’ve left modest, fractured lives behind, believing that the gardens of London are “everyone’s” egalitarian possibility, imagining “it’s like we have the city, then the gardens, then the countryside.” But the “freshies” learn soon enough that there is no jackpot, no lottery winning to save the day. Dreams confront nightmarish reality.

This is not the London of Fodor’s Travel Guides—Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and all that. This is Sheffield, Southall, and other “little Punjabs” where residents are more likely to go to a gurdwara than to Westminster Abbey. This is Rawmarsh, Pitsmoor, Crosspool, Burngreave, Killamarsh, places “that sounded so angry … like they wanted to do you harm.”

These are emotionally distant lands that some readers will need to search on the Internet, and others might search into their own internal ethical maps. These are places where undocumented day laborers are ferried about in the back of vans that serve as holding pens, places where low-paying work dries up suddenly, and migrant workers of London’s underground, who shiver together in dank, dilapidated urban abandonments during the night, find themselves competing with each other during the day like scabby mongrel puppies sucking on a dry teat.

All this and more in this inventive novel for readers who have time and energy for an intensely disturbing and morally challenging narrative. Such readers may not be unlike the well-established professor in the novel who struggles with his Indian origin and the sense of not belonging to England; this comfortable complacency inspires Avtar’s disdain: “What decadence this belonging rubbish was, what time the rich must have if they could sit around and weave great worries out of such threadbare things.”

Newness for Randeep, Avtar, and Tochi is different: it is like a sudden winter wind on a false spring day that gives lie to Alexander Pope’s aphorism that hope springs eternal; it is a wind that demands that one face the elements or return home, vanquished. And while Narinder is not new to England, England is new to her; she has run away from a protective home and gurdwara to do good, to make amends for having failed to help a young man leave India on the back of a visa marriage; thus her marriage to Randeep is a means of expiating guilt. Her story is the most psychologically transformative of the bunch. Slowly, “imperceptibly, in the way that the night gives way to dawn,” Narinder evolves from a cloistered saintly life to one where she chooses her very human path while staying true to her essence, her goodness, her friendship with those in need.

Sahota opens his book with a seemingly domestic scene. A newly married man (Randeep) welcomes his bride (Narinder) to their cozy flat in the Brightside section of Sheffield. A handful of pages in, and it is clear that all is not sunny and warm in Brightside. Randeep shuffles off to a grimy hell-hole he shares with other men in similar dire straits; but he’s a lucky one because he and British-Indian Narinder have their visa marriage: quick ceremony in Punjab, one year of pretending with fake photos of domestic bliss for the government investigators, a divorce of convenience, and Randeep will have legal rights to a British life. The others are so-called illegals or on the edge. Avtar has arrived on a student visa, but it is a precarious lifeline because technically he cannot work in England, and he must give the visa fixer more money than he earns on London’s mean streets, otherwise he jeopardizes his family’s life back in Punjab; there is no time for the dream of an education that enables a solid job; indeed Avtar’s first year report card is a “column of Fs,” matching the furious string of F-bombs he and his compatriots regularly hurl to stave off the grueling work, the growing bitterness. Tochi’s low caste follows him from Bihar to Punjab to England; even if he had legal papers, his birth status would have rendered the passport into a fail-port: doors that open ever so slightly are slammed shut in his face when Indians ask him about his last name—Kumar—an indicator that he is a chamar, an untouchable, thought to be polluted by the leather-making occupation of his forebears.

The tour de force plot of this Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel begins with all four strivers at the center, as if they’ve taken different routes to arrive at some downtrodden Trafalgar Square. While London remains the hub, Sahota moves the narrative’s many threads back to his runaways’ origin stories. The technique of beginning with convergence and then pulling back to the divergent back-stories makes for a compelling, and at times harrowing, mystery.

The reader is drawn in close to Narinder, Randeep, Avtar, and Tochi, sympathetic to their plight, rooting for them to survive; on edge, I found myself contemplating the socio-economic systems—caste, creed, and capitalism—that envelop these flawed heroes. A few pointed questions kept rattling my cage: Would their lives remain wedded to these systems that churn like inexorable wheels? Is The Year of the Runaways a fictionalized version of Leviathan, with its semi-lovable characters populating Thomas Hobbes’ classic treatise, which postulated that absent strong governance, man lived in “continual fear, and danger of violent death … and the life of man [would be] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short?” Or is there foreshadowing at work early in the novel when Tochi gazes incoherently at a map of the subcontinent and considers Kanyakumari?

“The place of ends and oceans. It seemed amazing to him that there could be an end to India, one you could point to and identify and work towards. That things needn’t go on as they are forever.”

For Dhanu and Diddhu, and their belief in social justice, their trust in new beginnings, their faith in deep abiding friendships across all seasons.