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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.