Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Review: Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

Title: Year of the Runaways
Author: Sunjeev Sahota
Publisher: Picador
Pages: 468
Genres: Literary Fiction

The Year of the Runaways tells of the bold dreams and daily struggles of an unlikely family thrown together by circumstance. Thirteen young men live in a house in Sheffield, each in flight from India and in desperate search of a new life. Tarlochan, a former rickshaw driver, will say nothing about his past in Bihar; and Avtar has a secret that binds him to protect the choatic Randeep. Randeep, in turn, has a visa-wife in a flat on the other side of town: a clever, devout woman whose cupboards are full of her husband's clothes, in case the immigration men surprise her with a call.

Sweeping between India and England, and between childhood and the present day, Sunjeev Sahota's generous, unforgettable novel is - as with Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance - a story of dignity in the face of adversity and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit. 
This was an interesting read. It tells the story of three Indian immigrants to Britain: Tochi, Randeep and Avtar. Each man has different personal circumstances and reasons for coming to Britain, but mainly there is no work to be had in India and they have heard that Britain is the best place to go for quick and easy money. Avtar has a dodgey student visa, Randeep has a dodgey marriage visa and Tochi has no visa whatsoever. The character of Narinder, a British-Indian completes this quartet as Randeep's visa wife, and she also has her own justifications for helping him. The three men end up living together in a squat in Sheffield, trampling each other to get the limited menial jobs available to them for much less than the minimum wage. Fear of a raid and suspicious of each other, unsurprisingly they soon realise that life in Britain can be just as hard as the life they left behind.

What I found interesting is the rejection the three of them experienced by members of their own community in places of refuge such as the local Gurdwaras; and it is often their kinsman who are exploiting them as cheap labour. My heart went out to them as they struggled in different ways. Avtar cannot pay back the loan sharks the debt he owes for buying his visa; Tochi is rejected constantly for being a member of the lowest caste in India; and kindhearted Randeep is constantly let down by Avtar and Tochi who he considers his friends. It's quite a bleak. Desperation turns to stealing and violence and there are many scenes that were hard to read.

Despite the interesting subject matter, there were a few things that dampened my enjoyment. There are many Punjabi words that are interspersed throughout the book and I had not a clue what a lot of them meant. There was no glossary and I wasn't able to decipher most of them from the context in which they were being used. I felt distanced by this and could not fully immerse myself in the story. Also, all of the characters were unlikeable in some degree as one of them commits attempted rape, another attempted murder, and the other steals a years worth of savings from one of the other two men. The novel also abruptly ends with an epilogue, ten years in the future where circumstances have drastically changed for the four characters with almost no explanation given. It was quite a strange ending.

I really felt like Sunjeev Sahota really did not shy away from telling the full truth of what many immigrants may go through and the depths of hardship and despair they have to endure. There is no doubt that this book feels very relevant to the current times, and I feel like the author's frustration really came through when the three men all realised the deep discrepancy of their expectation vs. reality.

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