The Year of the Runaways

 

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The Year of the Runaways, Sujeev Sahota, Knopf, 2016

 

In one dilapidated house in Sheffield, England, live three migrant Indian workers—Tochi, Randeep and Avtar–among many.  Tochi is a chamaar, or “untouchable,” a lowly group ostracized from the caste system in India. Back home, he was damned to the most menial existence, unable to rise above the confines of his last name. As a fauji in England, things may be similar. Avtar and naive Randeep are both middle class boys, bound by a secret—former neighbors, they are more than acquaintances but less than friends. Simultaneously, but not necessarily together, all three are fighting for a better life: for themselves, their families, their future. 

Hiding across town is Narinder, an English-born Sikh whose religious practice defines her existence. She is Randeep’s visa-wife. Caught in the cross of God’s will and her own, Narinder is committed to helping others. Her acts of goodness take her to very dark places, forcing her to choose between what’s right, and what is right for herself.

Over the course of the year, as they scamper to find work, to survive, to exist, they disconnect and reunite in the throes of chance, leading the reader through a desperate crossing of borders. This is the sort of story that swallows one whole. Sahota doesn’t contend with determining right from wrong, but rather, questions the point of vantage. He recedes the great conflicts–employment, honor, immigration–into the background, drawing focus instead to small circumstances: Randeep’s shallow hope Narinder will desire him beyond the terms of his visa; Avtar’s shameful bill roll of savings, handed over; the job-stopping ache of a kidney sold to pay this or that fee.

Funny how God offers you everything you’ve asked for, only to force you to turn it away... What a horrible feeling it was, hearing the disappointment in the boy’s voice as he came off the phone. Really, the choice should have been easy… And yet there was no choice.

It’s like that again and again: take the job or stay together, help someone or help yourself, defy your honor or your heart. Escape your past to create your future but always: the reckoning of the present moment. The story is immediate and heartfelt and raw, depicting in fine details the immigrant’s hard truth. I found myself awake in bed, turning pages to find out what would happen. Divided into four novella-length, seasonal-segments, the story finishes with an epilogue 10 years later, offering a final satisfaction to the reader.

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