The Year of the Runaways will be remembered in the years to come

Published: April 2, 2016
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Sunjeev Sahota’s second novel, The Year of the Runaways, is a rare piece of literature that has been lucky enough to receive timely praise.

Sunjeev Sahota’s second novel, The Year of the Runaways, is a rare piece of literature that has been lucky enough to receive timely praise. Photo: Alamy

Sunjeev Sahota’s second novel, The Year of the Runaways, is a rare piece of literature that has been lucky enough to receive timely praise. Eliciting a largely positive reception, it has been called one of the best novels of the past year and was also shortlisted for the Booker prize.

Photo: AFP

At the heart of the book are the claustrophobic and morose lives of three Indian immigrants and a British-Indian girl. The three men, Tochi, Avtar and Randeep share a congested and ramshackle house in Sheffield along with a hoard of other migrant workers. Although Randeep’s wife, Narinder, is the female protagonist in the novel, their relationship is not that of a typical married couple; they don’t live in the same house, don’t talk to each other and they don’t love each other.

At the beginning of the book, in short, swiftly-moving chapters, Sahota gives readers phosphorescent screenshots of the lives of these men prior to their arrival in UK and describes with an unrelenting compassion the early trials and tribulations faced by them upon their arrival in Sheffield. He writes about their early days of acclimation to a foreign land with such an eerie intimacy as if he is writing about his own.

In first of these interlacing stories, we meet Tochi, a rickshaw driver, and on top of that, an untouchable, who finds himself at the end of the spiteful wrath of the Hindu caste system. The injustice and the disgrace which accompany him like a shadow fully humanise his character and give the reader a sense of what it feels to be at the receiving end of the highly segregated, down trodden and strictly governed caste-based society.

The monologue of Tochi’s life explains why he has erected walls around himself and why he doesn’t casually mingle with other men in Sheffield isolating himself, after he arrives illegally with a fake passport, through a torturous detour via Russia and Paris.

Next, the readers are introduced to the remaining two male characters; Randeep and Avtar. The line of their relationship is quite blurry. But they learn the truly value of the bond they share, first as mere neighbours in India and then later as travel partners and fellow immigrants to Sheffield.

Towards the end of the first half of the book the author familiarises us with Narindar, a devout Sikh, who, in the wake of her life in the UK, finds herself embroiled in a confounding tangle of questions about identity, goodness, morality, duty, honour, virtue and responsibility; questions that will haunt her throughout her life and will drag their chained feet, throughout the length of the book, towards an unattainable, if not impossible, resolve.

Photo: Spectator

Picking up its pace in the second half, the story plays a well thought out game of chess with the lives of it vulnerable characters; confronting, daring, defeating and building them up again as their relationships blossom and their lives converge. With every new turn they make, there seems to be a new hardship glaring straight into their eyes, with uncanny and unhindered stubbornness only to give them a false sense of hope before bringing the three men and Narindar to their knees, again.

There is little redemption in this novel. It is seismic in terms of the melancholy it gathers over the course of over five hundred pages. With constant brush strokes, Sahota paints a picture that is as fresh as it is raw, as downhearted as it is unforgiving. In lives rife with temporary marriages, illegal works and the dangling dangers of expiring student visas, Sahota kindles and rekindles an impending sense of love and desperation.

Traversing through labyrinths of minor and acute details, this colossus of a novel confronts questions of enormous political and social import. In a prose lit by a high voltage torch of frank emotion and compassion, Sahota has written a stylistically brilliant and technically accomplished novel. The characters, the plot and the prose are brought to life with a breath of humanity.

Sahota uses his copious gifts as a wonderfully evocative storyteller to surprise his readers with scenes which are as graphic as they are humane. When his characters clean sewers, when their families are murdered, when they are forced into marriages, there is always a glittering and scintillating shimmer of love cascading behind the veneer of Sahota’s murky words.

Photo: Atlantic

The Year of the Runaways packs an intensely compelling narrative and enthralling odyssey, which unfurls before the eyes of its mesmerised reader, and brings startling revelations that are sometimes beautiful, always heart-warming and but never implausible or awkwardly contrived. The characters and the worlds they are inhabitants of feel as real as our own. The remarkably gifted writer uses subtlety and poignancy with immense skill, in what is just his second novel to date, for which his work will be remembered in the years to come.

Hurmat Kazmi

Hurmat Kazmi

The author is a Karachi-based freelance writer.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.