Finding happiness

Finding happiness

The Year of the Runaways
Sunjeev Sahota
Pan Macmillan
2015, pp 480, Rs 599

At a time when the world is reeling under the onslaught of refugees, Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, hits a sensitive spot. Documenting the lives of three young Indian migrants newly arrived in Britain, it tells all about their struggle for survival, and the precariousness of their lives in precise detail.

It depicts facts and conditions of a parallel universe of the “faujis”, who live in an atmosphere of squalor, poverty, fear, aggressiveness and a deep mistrust of each other.
Tochi, Avtar and Randeep are fleeing their country of birth. Through sheer chance, they reach Sheffield in Britain, and their lives get intertwined with each other’s, as they share work and living space. Narinder, a non-refugee, actually a Brit by birth, gets strangely mixed up with these men as she tries to help them.

What goads these men to cut loose all mooring and seek refuge in an unfamiliar, cold and alien world ?

“It’s not work that makes one leave home and come here. It’s love. Love for our families,” quotes Randeep, and succinctly summarises the book for us. Avtar, Randeep, Tochi, each is caught in a net of familial obligations.

Bit by bit, a depressing scenario is built up. Tochi belongs to the caste “chamaar” and this is the bane of his existence. He is hounded and driven and refused an existence simply because of his caste. His pregnant sister, his younger brother, his disabled father and hapless mother are all butchered before his eyes by a mob of caste fury. He has nothing left to him in the world except the obligation to stay alive, so there’s no surprise when he decides to make a clean break with his past and foot it across Europe, even as an illegal.
The surprise is in the fact that the caste that he has supposedly left behind in Bihar has followed him to Sheffield. Again, and yet again, it is thrown in his face. Scratch the surface of an Indian and you find caste prejudices, no matter where they live.

A fragile friendship between Narinder and Tochi tries to put down a shaky root, but too much has happened in Tochi’s life for this. Friendship is only a fleeting emotion.

Avtar, in his effort to shoulder the responsibility of his family, to make up for his father’s lack of business sense, to live up to his mother’s wishes, to make his young dreams of a happy life with his girl come true, puts everything at stake, mortgages his father’s shop, sells an organ to come to Britain on a student visa with nothing except a fierce determination and hunger for life. Having come, he finds he has no means to attend classes. He needs to find work and work at more than two jobs, yet at the end of the month does not have enough to pay the loan sharks, who are gruesome in their extraction methods. It’s a desperate clinging to life, vacillating between tenuous hope and hopelessness.

Randeep, the youngest of the three, also the most naïve, has led a protected life. An excellent student with his sights set high, it is almost as if by chance that he is pushed off the main lane into the bylane of life. By now the situation is spelt out. A sick father who loses his job, a despair-filled mother, younger siblings, that Narinder’s offer to marry him and help him to a visa is a godsend, a ripe fruit that falls into his lap.

Narinder, the fourth member of this uneven group, sticks out like a sore thumb. She has a comfortable, perhaps even an oversheltered life. All her life is spent in housekeeping for her widower father and an irascible brother. For entertainment, she goes to the local gurudwara, to help out, to pray, to sing.

In her passion to do good, almost step by step, she cuts herself free of family and obligations, and is led to the furthest orbit of her old self. There she discovers a whole new world of perilous living and the dangerous flutter of love.

As the story progresses, each of the protagonists evolves in his own way. Tochi understands that he is who he is, Avtar moves from one chilling situation to the next, Randeep is shed of his illusions and has learnt to rough it, spending days and nights under a bridge, but it is Narinder who has travelled the furthest. She has grown up and lost not only the comfort of a family, but also the solace of her religion. After a lengthy travel through the ins and outs of a refugee life, the conclusion comes almost abruptly.
A book to prod us out of our comfortable middle-class existence.

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