The modern British version of the American dream.
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
First Published: 15th June 2015
Date Reviewed: 7th December 2015
Ranjeev’s father is ill and despite his claims to the contrary, cannot work any more. The family, once fairly high up in society, find themselves nearing poverty. Avtar’s family is in need of money too, especially as his brother has to keep studying. Tochi’s family was killed in a gang war, their low caste status meaning they were hunted. The three men decide to take a risk and travel to England. Then there’s Narinder, the British Sikh who married Ranjeev because she felt called by God to help those in need. Britain may be said to offer better options, but as the men find, it’s not quite the opportunity they were led to believe.
The Year Of The Runaways is a long novel of job searches, spiritual searches, pain and suffering. It is more of a report than a story, the ending is a bit of a rush job, and it can be as arduous to read as the characters’ lives are to live.
There is a lot, and I mean a lot, of Punjabi in this novel. I’m not the best person to comment on this as I can speak a fair amount of Hindi (similar enough to Punjabi for me to have understood the majority of it) but anyone who knows only or less than how to say ‘hello’ in the language is going to be stumped, often. It’s an interesting situation because on the one hand it’s nice not to have a running translation commentary, which I think anyone could understand – those who speak the language don’t have to read everything twice and those who don’t speak the language don’t have to feel the language, being translated, is rendered pointless – but there is no glossary and only one or two translations for paragraphs of text. I would say that a small amount can be figured out from the English replies Sahota writes, but most cannot and you can’t always Google the words because everyone transliterates differently (I myself had many light bulb moments when I realised, for example, that ‘beita’ was ‘beta’ – an obvious example, but you see what I mean).
If you understand the language or are able to get past it, there is the general writing to consider. It’s mostly good but there’s some clunky phrasing and sudden uses of very colloquial terms in amongst the otherwise literary text.
As said, the book is a novel of job searches. Not much happens beyond the cycle of job search, fast food and construction work, losing the job, searching for another, getting harassed, and hiding from the authorities. Is it true to the real life situation? It would seem so, but it doesn’t make for a very good story when you’re talking over 450 pages and a non-ending. As far as the ending is concerned the story just suddenly stops, in the sense that you flip over the page to keep reading and find only a blank one, an epilogue tagged onto the end of the book, set a year or so into the future. The epilogue doesn’t fit the rest of the book and contains the most rose-tinted of rose-tinted scenes.
What is good in The Year Of The Runaways are the discussions of caste, wages, and treatment of the underclass – if we can call them that. The men find themselves at the mercy of others who share their ethnicity but have been in England most of if not their entire life, as well as at the mercy of each other. They are nobodies both figuratively and in the sense that they have no honest paperwork. They get less than minimum wage because of the catch-22 – they can’t complain because they’ll be deported and their employers can pay them as little as they want because it’s all under the radar.
Indian caste divisions apply to England – the low-caste Tochi, a chamaar (‘leatherworker’) is viewed as below the rest of the men even when he’s the one doing fairly well for himself and they are practically on the streets. This said, the man who is high-born doesn’t understand why that fact doesn’t have any sway in his treatment; he becomes the lowest of the lowest as far as living conditions are concerned. Throughout Sahota does not say anything, he lets his words, his stories, do the talking, and even then it is subtle. It’s a ‘take what you will’ method of storytelling and as such there are bound to be many views and interpretations as to what he is saying and what’s important. Sahota has said that his book owes a lot to those he’s met, the stories of NRIs in the UK.
In regards to Sahota’s fairly journalistic stance, it could be said that it doesn’t quite do what it ‘should’ be doing. You might expect a book about illegal immigration to show you there are reasons for it, that these people ought to be where they travel to and the residents of that country should welcome them. Sahota does this but only a little. Tochi, the chamaar, goes to England because his family have been killed, his auto-rickshaw has been destroyed, and he is being hunted because of his caste. His presence in England poses a question: shouldn’t he be a refugee? In many ways Tochi is the definition of the sort of immigrant host nations look for: he works hard and would surely look for a job for which workers were sorely needed if it weren’t for his status as an illegal. Sahota doesn’t look into refugees, the book doesn’t go into the process, but he is the character you are likely to remember most.
If you take away the issue of immigration and focus solely on the social issues, the book seems stronger. It has more going for it. The discussions of caste and money and religion, in a largely objective manner, are very detailed. Sahota shows both sides of the stories, for example, Narinder’s devotion that may look a bit much on occasion – certainly to those around her – but is built on true belief and love – and then her lessening belief as she sees the horrors in the world and cannot understand why God would bring so much misery. In this way you see that glimmer of a different viewpoint as she sees herself, a believer who can trust that god will help her fairly well-off self, contrasted with others who are not so lucky. The caste issues show that it can be easy to find help and help is available, but only if the classes match and that sometimes success, in this case financial, is of no matter – sometimes even no success is better than success.
In this way – the success or no success – Sahota also comments on the way people are sent abroad to help their families – not just the way it happens but the way one person is compelled to put themselves at risk and the way there’s no certainty. Considering the characters he writes we can assume he is making the point that sometimes it’s not needed, and it’s not that he’s saying it simply shouldn’t happen, it’s that he’s asking if all Randeep goes through, for example, is worth it. Is Randeep’s plight as a homeless man, is what Avtar goes through that requires urgent care, okay when placed against their family’s wishes to get to England, to have money? Now Sahota isn’t saying it isn’t, he isn’t saying that, no, this is not okay and it shouldn’t happen, because he’s included the other side, Tochi’s need to be in England – what the author is asking is that things be given more thought. And likely they are given a lot of thought, but Sahota is pressing the idea because of the tales he has come across. Like my analogy at the start of this review, he’s suggesting that the idea of going abroad isn’t what it seems, it’s not the gold mountain those who immigrated to America thought America would be… or at least that’s what the book says up until the ending.
To go back to the ‘should be doing’ debate and to look at that ending, the other characters besides Tochi are in that grey area. Randeep, high-born, is sent on a marriage visa so that he can get a good job and keep his family in the luxury they’re accustomed to. He is the one Sahota gives the most hardship to, once in England, but the ending (it’s difficult to call discussing it a spoiler) does kind of ruin it, leaving the character ultimately learning little or at least learning nothing that Sahota thinks important to impart. Narinder, Randeep’s visa wife, is the one who learns the most but it’s a bit too subtle and her section of the ending is strange. The other character, Avtar, who sells his kidney and gets a student visa, shows the desperation and a will to be himself and do well whilst trying to balance the hopes of his family. It’s the families that push their sons on, the sons living in dire straits whilst their relatives, by comparison, are wealthy. And then Randeep gets his planned divorce and brings his family over, Avtar gets the medical help he needs and throws college away for good, and there are no questions as to the horrors of the men’s lives whilst their families waited for them. Surely in real life something would be said, but Sahota’s ending is a dream world in which the men are suddenly in high-powered jobs with no telling of how they got there. Narinder and Randeep are free of their marriage but they applied for a divorce just days after a suspicious inspector visited which would’ve surely made the inspector even more suspicious. It is this gap in the narrative that would’ve made the book excellent had it been included – the drudgy of work and running is important but it’s not the be all end all of it.
To briefly sum it up, The Year Of The Runaways is okay but it’s not compelling enough for the length it is and requires a great amount of your attention due to its reliance on extreme subtlety. It’ll be your background book, so to speak, that one you’re reading alongside a slew of others.
I received this book at the Young Writer of the Year award blogger event.
December 14, 2015, 4:06 pm
One of the books on a list of novels available to our reading group.
I wasn’t too sure when I read the premise and having read your review am convinced that though it will make for good discussion its not a novel I’d be particularly interested in reading.
December 15, 2015, 3:17 am
I sigh mightily. I wanted this to be marvelous and I guess I must just accept that it maybe isn’t going to be. :/