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Friday, 18 December 2015
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
What We Thought: When we think about immigrants at the mercy of 21st century gang masters, we are likely to think first of eastern European workers, or perhaps Chinese. South Asian immigrants, we imagine, came in the 1950s, 60s and 70s and are now economically established.
If we do harbour such illusions, then Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways shatters them.
The story opens with a scene that echoes the early episodes of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. Young men, far from home, packed together in cramped, basic conditions, working long hours on a construction site to send money back to their families.
The focus of the story then pulls back, and we learn how each of the three principle characters arrived in Sheffield from India. Randeep, the youngest of them, whose father who has lost his job, and hence the family their home, because of depression. Avtar, secretly engaged to Randeep’s sister, who dreams of earning enough money to go back to India and marry her. And Tochi, a despised chamaar (‘untouchable’), whose family were murdered in riots orchestrated by Hindu extremists. Each of them believes that in Britain they can earn enough money to transform their lives.
The fourth point of view is provided by Navinder, a devout Sikh woman, engaged to a man selected by her family, who gives everything up to marry – not for love, but to provide a visa for Randeep.
Gradually their dreams unravel under the relentless pressure of finding work, keeping a roof over their heads, repaying debt. Through countless small cruelties and all-too-few moments of grace, squalor slides into degradation. Faith is stripped of illusion. Friendships are pushed to breaking point. Mistrust is fanned into flames.
Through the lens of these four lives, Sahota reveals the human face of economic migration, the myth of return, and such headline fodder as illegal workers, scam marriages and abused student visas. This is a book that will shake your belief that we are in any way a ‘fair’ or ‘equal’ society. Like Dickens’ Victorians, we climb on the backs of an army of invisible poor. The only difference is the poverty is now globalised.
You’ll enjoy this if you loved: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistri, Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid, Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka
Avoid if you dislike: Graphic descriptions of deprivations
Perfect accompaniment: Rotis with vegetable sabzi and dahl
Genre: Literary fiction
Available from Amazon