Saturday, August 15, 2015

New Lives In A New Country

This review of Sunjeev Sahota's Booker long-listed The Year of the Runaways appeared in  today's The Indian Express.

Asserting the universality of immigrant fiction, Jhumpa Lahiri once said: “From the beginnings of literature, poets and writers have based their narratives on crossing borders, on wandering, on exile, on encounters beyond the familiar...The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme.” It’s this theme that animates Sunjeev Sahota’s rich, rewarding second novel, The Year of the Runaways.

Sahota’s debut, Ours are the Streets – on the basis of which he was anointed one of Granta’s best young British novelists – was a sympathetic portrait of the radicalisation of a second-generation Pakistani immigrant in Sheffield. In The Year of the Runaways, also largely based in the same city, he writes of those who have fled their homes and countries to forge a better future not just for themselves but also those close to them. As one of the characters puts it, “It’s not work that makes us leave home and come here. It’s love. Love for our families.”

The novel is structured around the interactions of three such young men and one woman over the course of four seasons during which their dreams, physical limits and faith are put to the test. There’s Tochi, from a so-called untouchable caste in Bihar, embittered and alone when his attempts at making a living by driving an auto go up in flames after an engineered riot; there’s Avtar, a private bus conductor from Amritsar, who finds himself at a dead end after he loses his job and finds a girlfriend; there’s Randeep, a college student from Chandigarh who is forced to take over the reins of running the household after his father’s stroke; and there’s Narinder, a staunch Sikh from Britain who discovers that following the codes of her belief leads to an ethical impasse.

After their arrival in England, Tochi, Avtar and Randeep share a squalid flat with other migrants and work on a construction site until circumstances pull them apart and then together again. Sahota describes their motivations and movements in pacing and prose that’s pleasingly unhurried, so that the unfolding of the plot takes on an air of inevitability. Attention is paid to minor characters, be they a girlfriend, an erratic co-worker, a heartless employer or an ailing family member, which creates an enviable verisimilitude. Details of everyday adjustment to an unfamiliar environment – from clothes to food to cramped living quarters—are also carefully and tellingly chosen: “Soon the house was a whirl of voices and feet and toilet flushes and calls to get out of bed. They filed down, rucksacks flung over sleepy shoulders, taking their lunchbox from the kitchen counter; next a rushed prayer at the joss stick and out into the cold morning dark in twos and threes, at ten-minute intervals.”

Sahota lets the predicament of his characters as they move through time and space speak of the novel’s concerns: the injustice of treating people as higher or lower in a pecking order based on circumstances of birth, the wretchedness of having to scrounge for work, and the grimness of having no alternative but to carry on. Large defeats and small triumphs are delineated in a manner that makes us care deeply about them and in this way the novel tunnels through news headlines of immigration and caste debates, one of its transcendent strengths.

At one point early on, when Tochi insists on plying his trade despite the warnings of others, he realises that it’s “not just pride” that makes him do so: “It was a desire to be allowed a say in his life. He wondered if this was selfish; whether, in fact, they were right and he should simply recognise his place in this world.”  This story of Tochi and his compatriots is an empathetic exploration of this question, with Sahota proving to be an able guide to the migrant terrain of loyalty, loss and longing.

(My earlier review of Sunjeev Sahota's debut novel is here.)