Book Review: The Year of the Runaways
by Sunjeev Sahota
“We don’t live in a movie,” one character tells another at the wrenching close of Sunjeev Sahota’s big, ambitious new book The Year of the Runaways, to which the prompt reply is, “Would that we did.” No country on Earth in modern times has been more romanticized, more readily turned into a movie set, than has India, and one of the many things The Year of the Runaways does so well is to dispel that Merchant-Ivory sheen completely. This setting is a real-world India of poverty and low-boiling despair; the only way it could be more topical to 21st century economics would be if its title were The Year of the Economic Refugees.
The story revolves around three such refugees: Avtar and Randeep, two young sons of families whose middle-class comforts have steadily deteriorated to the point where the sons are no longer polished up and sent to Oxford but rather become pay-migrants willing to suffer any kind of servitude in order to send a little money back home, and Tarlochan (“Tochi”), a former rickshaw driver and so-called “untouchable,” and the novel finds them in Sheffield, England of all places, living in ramshackle circumstances, enduring daily humiliations in search of work.
Tochi, in almost every way the novel’s standout character, is already well-acquainted with such a life; as we see in the book’s extended flashbacks to our characters’ pasts, he’s been politely but urgently looking for work most of his life:
Afterwards, he walked back round the dirt track and on to the pale stone lanes of the bazaar. A parade was on: Sita in her Rajasthani red, dupatta pulled forward like a deep hood and led by a single boy in white turban and tunic, miserably banging his drum. Tochi picked his way through the singing crowd, slipping into the spaces vacated by others, always moving ahead. No one seemed to notice him. He emerged into a side alley crammed with wedding-card manufacturers and moved as some girls rode past, quacking their scooter horns. The alley spread into a paved square where four young men were playing cards on an unstitched brown sack, the kind used to transport crops. Their lunghis were rolled up around their knees and their calves covered in mud and field cuttings. Tochi crouched beside them and at the end of the hand asked if there was work around here. They said there was lots of work, but also lots of people looking for it.
The passage is illustrative of Sahota’s writing more generally, and it demonstrates some of the stylistic risks he runs in an age where the more florid patterns of 18th century prose are making something of a comeback: The Year of the Runaways is told in a voice that’s sharply intelligent but very intentionally restrained, at times almost didactic. There’s an understated poetic rhythm in a line like “their calves covered in mud and field cuttings,” (and “slipping into the spaces vacated by others” cannily describes not only Tochi’s actions in a specific scene but his broader approach to life), but there’s reserve, too, and that’ll be an adjustment for some readers of contemporary fiction. Likewise that laconic “afterwards,” which is the only glance we get toward a happening that might have received a whole chapter from a less controlled author.
We also get extended flashbacks from the more privileged backgrounds of Randeep and Avtar, and these expertly-done sections allow Sahota to broaden the range of his book by showing us many other aspects of Indian life and its intersections with modern anomie:
Harbhajan mopped up the last of the dhal and stuffed it into his mouth. He downed the glass of water in one and sat back and prepared to burp, but when the burp didn’t come he sank a little further into his seat and looked around, disappointed. At the next table a businessman was on his mobile, facing the slightly absurd poster of a gun-slinging pelican. A second phone lingered by his elbow at the edge of the table; Harbhajan palmed it and slipped it into his own shirt pocket. Avtar glared, eyes wide, watching his friend put on his large brown sunglasses and calmly pay the cafe owner on his way out. Avtar waited until they were back on the bus and away before asking what the blanchod hell did he think he was doing?
“He already had one, na?”
He plucked the phone from Harbhajan’s pocket. “You could buy ten of these if you wanted.”
“Where’s the fun in that?”
Of course, The Year of the Runaways isn’t all dry bread and economic statistics, far from it. Sahota provides plenty of personal drama to invest his readers in his characters. He even serves up an old-fashioned love triangle hinging on a young woman named Narinder, a thoroughly captivating and quite memorable character who would almost certainly have been the main focus of the book if it had been written by a savvier author.
But we would have lost a great deal if Sahota had decided to make his book more appealing than important. The Year of the Runaways, shortlisted for the Man Booker, is a powerful reading experience in direct proportion to how unsettling it is.