The Year of Runaways, Sunjeev Sahota, author; Sartaj Garewal, narrator
There is no work in India. Those who might offer employment blame the coming elections for the lack of jobs. The country is in turmoil. Indian families depend on their children for economic aid and support. Often, a child is responsible for the education of his younger siblings, as well. The burden is enormous. Even girls are driven to find work, in some cases in very unsuitable positions. Desperation drives them all to seek alternative ways to help their starving families. They believe their fortunes will improve in England where they have heard there is work. However, conditions there are grave for the new arrivals. Work is not plentiful, but scarce. Often they are preyed upon by those stronger and with more power. Some are illegal and subject to threats and blackmail. They frequently are forced to live in hiding and some wind up as captives. Their families back in India are not concerned with how the money is derived; they are only concerned with getting it and spending it. Often they turn a blind eye to the suffering of the child that is helping them, instead, they just accept the benefits provided, as if there was no dramatic cost to their son or daughter. In this book, few good deeds go unpunished. In this book, sometimes those least deserving prosper, while those who work harder are driven down even further by their burdens.
When these runaways arrive in England, they immediately look for work. Some employers, aware of their desperate circumstances, try to cheat them and pay them poorly, some are kind and even lend them money, still, luck seems to evade most of them and their situations do not improve. Their situations are ghastly. Some are accosted by thugs and bullies who use heavy handed tactics to blackmail them; some are robbed. Some are preyed upon by landlords who know they are illegal. Some are humiliated because of their status, their caste, and they cannot escape the shame of it.
There are some organizations and an occasional kind person who does not abuse them. Instead they provide them with food and sometimes a place to sleep and wash up. Mostly though, the characters in this novel live in squalor and face hardship. However, in some cases, even those terrible conditions are an improvement over what they had experienced at home, in India. Their hopeless condition causes them to fight among themselves and use each other without regard for anyone else’s safety. They are rude to each other, use crude language to appear braver than they are, behave cruelly and inhumanely toward friends and enemies alike. They seem to have little remorse or conscience because of their desolation and fear. Most have no social conscience and are very naïve having never been exposed to the developed world before. They are, therefore, very easy prey.
Although the story is overrun with characters, it concentrates on Randeep Sanghera, once a student, his “visa wife”, Narinder Kaur a young woman who agreed to the arrangement because she was filled with guilt because of the tragic death of a “friend’s brother”, Avtar Nijjar, Randeep’s friend who traveled with Randeep to England and who has a student visa, and Tochi (Tarlochan Kumar), his very angry and aloof roommate who is hiding the fact that he suffered a great tragedy, is of a very low caste and has no visa.
All of the characters are in desperate need, in danger of being sent back to India. All earn very little and live from hand to mouth, scrabbling every day to make money to pay off debts and fees, to have enough money to send home, and sometimes, even for themselves. They choose accommodations to live in that the board of health would shut down in any country if they knew of it and often, they skimp, even on food. Each of them has a tragic story. In their normal lives, violence is accepted, stealing is accepted, racism is accepted. Although religious, they don’t seem to be governed by a G-d that demands compassion. They simply believe in a G-d that will provide. As a result, they often rely on unreal expectations. Some have been so disillusioned that they have turned away from their religion. Some take it to the extreme.
I found the book really confusing because of the number of characters, the strangeness of the names and places, and the many phrases that were not translated into English. The story jumped around from character to character, place to place and even time frame to time frame. Its redeeming feature for me, and the reason I rated it highly, is the fact that I learned so much about the lives of those who runaway and also about their lives in India. The book presents a picture of the way those in different economic circumstances and different castes treat each other. It presented a very clear image of the violence during the time of turmoil in the book. The cruelty and coldness of those who had more advantages was shocking. The fact that those of lesser castes accepted their status readily, for the most part, was also disturbing and bewildering. The cruelty they were willing to inflict upon each other in the name of self-righteousness, religion or need, was very unjustified as far as I was concerned. Their selfishness reached new heights. The author did not paint a pretty picture. It was difficult to find a character to admire or even like.
These young people were victims of their times. Having never known abundance, they were satisfied with far less, and they were grateful for small kindnesses. Politics and penury had defeated them in their own country, and then even England revisited the same pain upon them. They were forced, in both countries, to humble themselves and beg for a job, money or mercy. Still, some refused to be defeated. In the end, I wondered if what they achieved was worth the price they paid, the suffering, the danger, the fear they were forced to endure. Was it perhaps futile, since they seemed to wind up exactly where they were before they ran away? Their world views remained the same. Yet, on the other hand, some of the characters did move on, and after some years, were able to find better jobs back home when the situation in India improved. They were able to maintain what they considered a better lifestyle than the one they had prior to their leaving. Certainly, though, they did not achieve a level anyone living in the developed world would happily accept.
Although the women in the book appeared to be of a less powerful class, they seemed to exert a great deal of influence and have a lot to say. They did seem preoccupied with anger and envy, however, in the same way as some of the men did, but their remarks seemed only biting and their behavior arrogant, while the men’s comments seemed more cutting and their behavior seemed more cruel and violent. The often unrecognizable names and expressions created a language barrier that would have been easier to deal with in a print edition, although the narrator was very good, speaking in a well modulated tone at a steady pace with appropriate stress and expression.
I found the book extremely informative. It even illustrated a moment in time when the young people who were engaging in this dangerous, illegal behavior, began to question whether or not they were aiding their families out of love or out of a sense of duty, and after awhile they even began to question their own actions. They were placing themselves in great danger and to what end?