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Published on: 10/23/16 6:51 AM

Book review: The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

This is more a brief take than review.
The Year Of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota. Picador India
I used to pass the British High Commission building in New Delhi on my way to work, twice every day for three years,  and see the long and winding queues, little clumps of stragglers sometimes squatting on the patch of grass in impromptu picnics necessitated by the long wait.
I`d register the desperate desire to head for `the jookay` but what happened to these men and women once they got there? What happened to those who didn`t get their visas? That I didn’t expend much thought on.

Well, Sunjeev Sahota told me, in painfully clear detail what happens to a lot of these people and others who enter  Britain through entirely illegal routes. He involved me in the fate of a clutch of these Indians trying to fashion a — mostly pitiful — life for themselves in harsh, alien surrounds, trying to ignore the fact that they are not wanted there.

He got me invested in the survival of a quartet of these Indians, trying not to mind too much that their efforts usually met with incremental, not resounding, failure, their desperation wrapping them in a smothering embrace.

The story in this book, which takes 468 pages to unfold at a measured pace, rests at that dark intersection between its characters` timorous hopes and aspirations, and the dreadful reality.

There is Tochi, Randeep and Avtar, and there is Randeep`s `wife` Narinder. One is a chamaar who is fleeing communal riots which consumed his family; one has wed a stranger for citizenship; one has sold his kidney for the money to come out here, and the woman is a strange and complex creature who thinks she is doing her duty by her gods and by those who deserve a good turn.

Below the radar is where they all want to exist, hugging their small pleasures to themselves, coping stoically with the not so small miseries that beset them. But of course, life doesn’t let them stay in their hidey-holes.

“This life,“ says a character. “It makes everything a competition. A fight. For work, for money. There`s no peace. Ever.“ It is a world where people approach through the smoky lilac air, where a woman unbothers her sari, where buses rasps up hills, where you walk through loveless parts of town, where you hear the snicker of cockroaches, where planes take off climbing their ramp of air, where Harinderjeets-turned-Sonyas turn a trick for a living; where you go through life your nostrils doing the opposite of flaring. Where people go to bed though the day is still yellow, felled by the
sheer effort it takes to go on existing.

And as the story came to its inevitable end, I realised just why I had put off picking up this wonderfully written book for so long (it released last summer).

And I realised I was glad I finally sat down to reading it. In conclusion, I have to use that oft-used term: a must-read. That`s what Sahota`s book is.


illegal immigrantsimmigrantsSunjeev SahotaThe Year of the RunawaysUKUnited Kingdom

Sheila Kumar • October 23, 2016

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