Futile hopes to escape past: The woeful life of immigrants (Book Review)

Title: The Year of the Runaways; Author: Sunjeev Sahota; Publisher: Picador India; Pages: 480; Price: Rs.599

Can one outrun the vengeful past and escape inequality, gratuitous violence, and exploitation in a foreign land, or will these inequities stick as fast and close as a shadow no matter where one is? Is an unskilled immigrant’s life any better than a one-step-ahead-of-poverty existence in one’s homeland? These are hard but relevant questions Sunjeev Sahota personalises in a sweeping story of heartbreaks, betrayals and redemption – and it is evident why it has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

The second novel of Sahota is mostly set in Sheffield, a scenic city that can be considered either in England’s Midlands or the North. The fact however brings no comfort to a group of Indian immigrants thrown together in a cold, damp accommodation and doing any jobs they are lucky to get, some even holding two, to earn enough for their families back home, and too embroiled in the unforgiving present to dwell much on the “golden future” they visualised or were promised.

Among them, we follow three youth from different backgrounds – Tochi or Tarlochan, a former auto-rickshaw driver from Bihar with unimaginable horrors in his past, Avtar, who has paid good money to reach Britain as a student (and has to make regular repayments to a set of enforcers who threaten his family back home too) and Randeep, who has a “visa-wife” living in a flat on the other side of town where the cupboards have his clothes and some other belongings in case an immigration department suddenly drop in to check. But Narinder Kaur, who is from a family settled in Britain itself, has the most surprising story of them all, though it will not be new for regular viewers of Bollywood fare.

Divided into four seasons, the book chronicles a year in their lives beginning with winter, while Sahota also deftly shifts time, space and mood to chronicle the past of the three youth, while Narinder’s story comes within the spring part. Summer keeps to their daily struggles, the hardest of which is to protect their dreams from disappearing in the harsh circumstances they work and a momentous autumn in which events move towards a showdown. An epilogue set a few years subsequent details their futures.

Sahota, a third-generation British-Indian who debuted with “Ours Are the Streets” (2011) about a British Pakistani youth who becomes a suicide bomber, effortlessly captures the trial and tribulations of the immigrants, especially the unskilled illegal ones, who form almost a hidden community in their host countries, and have no recourse against exploitation and no access to the high level of rights and facilities available in these developed countries.

And then there is no guarantee that their own compatriots will keen to offer much help, and as Tochi discovers, some prejudices can come over undiluted and even get stronger.

What the author also deftly manages is to get us involved in their lives and sympathise for them, even when they break the law (more actively then they have done till now) or take unethical advantages over their friends and associates.

Apart from the immigrants and his families, Sahota skillfully depicts a range of supporting characters – a Tamil immigration agent in Delhi, air-hostesses on the take, Turkish long-distance truckers who smuggle immigrants into western Europe and English construction foremen well aware of the Punjabi language. The Indian background is also well done but the Bihar part, especially the latter part, seems a little incongruous.

Sahota, who was adjudged the Granta Best Young British Novelist 2013, is competing with fellow Briton Tom McCarthy, Jamaican Marlon James, US-based Anne Tyler and Hanya Yanagihara and Nigerian Chigozie Obioma for the coveted prize, set to be announced later in October. Incidentally, apart from him, James and Yanagihara too are represented here by Pan Macmillan India, under its Picador imprint.

“The Year of the Runaways” may win or not, but as a depiction of the stark realities that unlucky, unqualified immigrants face, it is unlikely to be bettered.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )

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