Book Group review - 'The Year of the Runaways' by Sunjeev Sahota
'The Year of the Runaways' by Sunjeev Sahota
Large parts of this book are set in the UK, mainly in Sheffield. However we are also told the 'back story' of the book's four main characters, three of whom were born and brought up in India.
Tochi is a 'chamaar', an 'untouchable' who has come to the UK after surviving and escaping violent and deadly persecution in his home region. We come to understand why he holds himself separate from the others with whom he lives and works. Avtar and Randeep are one time near neighbours, drawn to live together by the circumstances of their illegal entry into Britain; never close friends, their relationship is tested to the limit as they struggle to cope with the strain of working in take-aways, down sewers and on unsafe building sites, and the ever-present fear of raids by immigration officers. All three characters struggle to send money home while living in poverty; eventually their desperation leads them to steal and to commit other desperate acts.
The fourth main character is Narinder, a devout British-born Sikh woman. For Narinder, 'goodness is at the heart of religious practice' but she faces a terrible dilemma when her idea of what is moral and good goes against her family's notions of honour. The group felt her story was the most compelling, we were moved by her struggle between the obedience and loyalty that is expected of her, and her desire to shape her own destiny.
A central theme of the book is the exploitation of illegal migrant workers, and the hardship, fear and violence that characterises their daily existence. Sahota paints a vivid picture of the physical and mental demands of having to work for long hours, at pitifully low rates of pay, with no employment rights, and of having to share cramped, unfit and insecure accommodation.
However the book also explores other important issues which arise for so many Asians that seek work in the West. These include the plight of the 'untouchables' and the antipathy and prejudice that persists towards those on the lowest rung of the caste system, and family honour, and how this is maintained through arranged marriages or 'put at risk' by unplanned relationships. Sahota also explores the feelings that many Indian migrants to the UK have for their mother country; he is adept at conveying the mixed emotions of nostalgia and ambivalence that many of them feel.
All of this has real relevance for us today, given the intense media spotlight on migrant workers. Overall, the group felt this to be a powerful book with much to teach us about the reality of life as an economic migrant. We also felt that at times, the structure of the book is a little confusing, but this does not detract from the power of its main messages.