As a Sheffielder I was intrigued to see that Sunjeev Sahota’s Man Booker shortlisted ‘The Year of the Runaways’ is set in Sheffield, but after reading it walking round the Botanical Gardens will never be the same again : three of the four main characters are young Indian men living with several others in cramped accommodation just off Sheffield’s Ecclesall Road, just a stone’s throw from the vibrant autumnal colours of those beautiful gardens. A mixture of illegal workers and immigrants on temporary visas, they are driven each day to a building site in Leeds for long shifts at appalling rates of pay and suffer the exploitation, appalling working conditions, brutal treatment and constant fear and anxiety which this situation entails.
The novel then takes us back to India and the events which lead to the characters seeking to improve their lives in the UK – the precarious nature of employment in India leading to financial hardship, exploitation and discrimination at work, the huge burden of responsibility felt by young adults for parents ailing through ill health. The young men dream of finding work and financial security in the UK and a flourishing business in arranging student and marriage visas enables this to happen. On arrival they find that life in the UK is just as hard, if not harder, when their problems are compounded by loneliness, cultural isolation and the bitterly cold Northern European climate. Worse still, the exploitation, overcrowding and brutality they endure is imposed on them by their fellow Indian gang masters, and discrimination against low caste fellow Indians just as vicious.
The fourth character is a young woman, Narinder Kaur, a UK born Indian and a devout Sikh. She leads a life in limbo-forbidden to have a job by her family her only social activity is attending the gurdwara (temple) To some extent she colludes willingly in her seclusion at home- until the events which lead her to Sheffield. Like the other characters, she is lonely and isolated and leads a life hidden from the English community among which she lives.
So the lives of these characters weave in and out of each other in India and the UK in a plot which is at times complex and yet handled with masterly skill by Sahota- we are kept guessing, clues are at times dropped tantalisingly into the narrative, our assumptions are teased and tweeked. Still, the fortunes of the main characters follow the same sort of downward spiral as in Rohinton Mistry’s ‘A Fine Balance’- you think things can’t get any worse and yet they do. And as things get worse the male characters largely display a depressing ‘dog eats dog’ attitude- in their desperation for survival and under pressure to pay off the huge debts they have incurred in actually getting to the UK they take each other’s jobs, and commit criminal and violent acts of which even they are deeply ashamed. The one character who does retain some integrity is Narinder, guided by her faith and in a less desperate personal situation she is able to hang on to some moral scuples in her interactions with others.
Sahota’s handling of the four main characters is expert, partly due to his ability to evoke their voice authentically and convincingly in the narrative and in dialogue. Though her experience is so far from my own I was moved by the account of Narinder’s closeness to her mother, and to believe in the power of religion for her and the primordial importance of the temple. A large cast of minor characters are also vividly and economically depicted to show a huge range of Indian society and attitudes: the unreal aspirations of Randeep’s mother, the pitiful bragging untruths of their neighbours, the Lals, the kindness of Randeep’s aunt in Ilford to her newly arrived nephew, the scorn of her anglicised children towards their uncool Indian cousin.
And the decision to use several lines of Punjabi at times in dialogue was interesting-most English readers were placed in the position of newly arrived immigrants hearing a language they didn’t understand, yet the recurrence of words such as ‘pind?’ combined with the outcome of the dialogue- usually one of the characters asking for work and being turned down- quickly makes us realise the question is asking where you are from. The importance of your village and region is second only to your name in establishing your identity, your caste, whether you are one of us and so whether we’ll help you or spurn you. Looking after your own or everyday racism?
‘The Year of the Runaways’ with its at times harrowing subject matter is not an easy read , yet the skilful storytelling, characterisation and fluidity of the language puts it for me right up there with Rohinton Mistry. Indeed it can be seen as a sort of update on ‘A Fine Balance’ bringing it into the context of the 21st century and setting the novel in a country of immigration. And given the present huge movements of peoples from war torn and impoverished countries to Northern Europe its picture of their lives here couldn’t be more timely. For all these reasons ‘The Year of the Runaways’ is surely a strong contender for the Man Booker but quite apart from all that prize hype it’s quite simply a fantastic book which I recommend unreservedly. And you can hear Sunjeev Sahota in conversation with Stephen Kelman at the University of Sheffield Student’s Union on Sunday 18th October at 7.30 pm as part of the Sheffield Off the Shelf Festival of Words.