A compassionate, thought-provoking novel about illegal Indian immigrants looking to make a better life for themselves in Britain. Highly recommended.
But we have to help,’ Narinder insisted. ‘I couldn’t live with myself if I just walked away. I don’t know how people can do that.’
Savraj laughed a little. ‘I’ve never met someone who talks like you.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with giving your life to His teachings. Our gurujis—’
‘Oh, shut up. I’ve met worse fundos than you. I don’t mean the things you say. I mean the way you say them. It’s like you actually believe in your words.’
Narinder didn’t know what was wrong with the way she spoke her words. Did she sound too serious? Was that it? ‘I’m better when I’m singing.’
‘You sing? A singing preacher?’
‘It’s true,’ Narinder said, laughing. ‘Come and hear me. I’m singing tomorrow morning.’
‘To the gurdwara?’ Savraj clucked her tongue. ‘Not my scene. If a beardy’s going to touch me up, he can pay for the privilege.’
‘I’ll be with you.’ She reached out and placed her hand on Savraj’s arm. ‘You don’t have to do what they make you do. We’ll look after you. We look after each other.’
Finger by finger, Savraj released her arm from Narinder’s hand. ‘What who make me do?’
Narinder could tell from her voice, like a knife being unsheathed, that Savraj knew what she was driving at. Narinder said it anyway: ‘The men.’
‘Hmm. The men. What if I told you that some of those men are from the gurdwara?’ Savraj leaned in. ‘What if I told you that they don’t make me do it? That I enjoy doing it?’
‘Stop it. Please.’Savraj laughed, mirthlessly, and Narinder looked away.
I really liked Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways. It’s a book that’s been written with a great deal of heart and compassion as it follows the lives of three illegal Indian immigrants struggling to survive in Britain. Less interested in the politics of illegal immigration, Sahota explores the deeper motivations as to why our three protagonists, Tarlochan (Tochi), Randeep and Avtar make the journey to the UK. Their reasons are all different but what they all seek is the same. The chance, as slight as it may be, to make a new life for themselves.
And yet, as much as I enjoyed the novel, two questions lingered in the back of my mind. The first – and the biggest of the two – was whether the illegal immigrant experience depicted by Sahota accurately reflected what occurs in the UK. Or more cynically, in a bid to humanise illegal immigration, had Sahota carefully curated the experience of his characters to be more attractive to a middle class white audience. The second question was wondering why most illegal immigrants that arrived in India came from the Punjab region of the country.
From what I can understand from a brief skim of the web, the answer to my second question stems from the ant-Sikh riots that occurred in India in 1984 after the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. The pogroms and massacres that followed mostly affected Sikh neighborhoods in Delhi, the heart of the Punjab (thank you Wikipedia). Given the Indian Government’s alleged involvement in the riots, it’s not surprising that Sikhs began to look beyond the border of their country for the hope of a better life.
It’s not a deal-breaker that Sahota doesn’t refer to the 1984 riots. The Year of the Runaways is set about two decades after the event and so Randeep and Avtar are not motivated by the actions of a Government that may still hold anti-Sikh sentiments. They leave India because it’s the only way they can help their families, both of whom have hit a rough patch. Consequently, the 1984 riots would simply be a confusing addition to what is a straightforward expression of family love and devotion. Having said that, understanding the historical antecedents gave me a greater appreciation of why Sikhs have sought refuge in other countries.
That’s not to say that The Year of the Runaways is riot free. If the novel avoids the politics of illegal immigration, it does provide a critique of the Hindu caste system. Tochi’s family is Chamar, one of the untouchable communities that falls outside the Hindu castes. As a result they face oppression and violence from those within the caste system who see Chamars as tainting the purity of the faith. Tochi escapes India after a pogrom that leads to the violent and graphic death of his mother, father, brother and pregnant sister. This discrimination follows Tochi to the UK and he feels compelled to hide who he is from those around him. It’s through Tochi’s experience that Sahota questions both the caste system and the mercy of a God that would allow such violence and hatred to occur.
I’ve mentioned a couple of times now that Sahota deliberately avoids the political dimension of illegal immigration. But in going back to my first question, it could be argued that The Year of the Runaways is a very political novel in the way it frames illegal immigration. In the case of Tochi, Randeep and Avtar, their reasons for leaving India are justifiable (Tochi wants to escape the violence) and honourable (Randeep and Avtar will do anything to support their families). And yet, as Nirpal Dhaliwal argues in his attack on the novel:
[The Year of the Runaways] trades in sentimental clichés about people migrating out of duty to those they send remittances to. It doesn’t occur to Sahota that they might do so for shadier reasons: crimes committed, for example, debts unpaid or children they want to abandon. These darker motives are an enormous part of the immigrant story that Sahota doesn’t deal with. Having not looked into his subject, he’s produced a bleeding-heart novel based on shallow presumptions.
I’m one of those “bleeding hearts” that Dhaliwal refers to and there’s no doubt that Sahota succeeds in engaging me emotionally on the subject. But am I so invested because Sahota has cleaned away all the rough edges? Yes, terrible things happen to Avtar, Randeep and Tochi. Avtar has to give up a kidney to afford making the trip, an operation that eventually has dire consequences for his health. Randeep finds himself living on the street, scrabbling for food, close to starving. And when Tochi is found out as a Chamar he is shunned by the Sikh’s in Sheffield (the main setting of the novel). Sahota never makes the journey easy, but would I have cared so much if Randeep had come to the UK because he’d abandoned his children in India? And has Sahota deliberately ignored aspects of the truth because he knows it would undermine the message he’s communicating: i.e. that illegal immigrants are human beings and should not be treated as cast off or rubbish, no matter how they entered the country?
Possibly. But I’m not sure it matters. One of the thing Dhaliwal fails to mention in his review is the role of Narinder Kaur, the book’s only female point of view character. A British born Sikh, Narinder takes the part of Randeep’s wife so he can more easily obtain a visa. Her reasoning for doing this strikes at the very heart and soul of the book. Narinder’s faith compels her to help those who are in need and after failing to provide assistance in one instance, her conscience and guilt and devotion to her God draws Narinder to the idea of becoming a visa-wife so she can improve the life of at least one person. Because of her families strict beliefs, she keeps this selfless act secret – in fact running away from her family and fiancé so she can play the role. It’s powerful, compelling stuff. Free of cynicism, free of ulterior motive, free or hidden agendas, Narinder – the best character in the novel – simply wants to help.
It doesn’t matter then whether Sahota has fudged the truth so that white middle class readers like myself, who only have a vague knowledge of the facts, are more attracted to the novel. Because the point of this book is to say that whether an illegal immigrant is running away from a bad debt, or is trying to help out his or her family, as human beings – bleeding heart or otherwise – our default should be to help. Not abuse. Not punish. Not oppress. Not hate. But help. For some people that message will be hard to swallow. Personally, I found it cast a light open my own prejudices and reminded me of a key tenet of my faith: “Do not judge your fellow until you are in his place” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:5).