One Last Selfless Act

Thomas Jones

  • The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
    Picador, 468 pp, £14.99, June 2015, ISBN 978 1 4472 4164 5

Sunjeev Sahota’s novel begins with a man showing a woman round a flat. She is going to live there; he is not. We are told their names, Randeep Sanghera and Narinder Kaur, and that they’re in Sheffield, and that she used to live in London. We can work out that they’re Sikh from their names, and because she greets him with the formula ‘Sat sri akal.’ It’s obvious that they don’t really know each other, though they have met before, but not here: ‘So, even in England she wore a kesri.’ The scene is described in the third person, but from Randeep’s point of view. His seriousness doesn’t detract from the bleak comedy of it: ‘“There is a microwave too,” he said, pointing to the microwave. “And washing machine. And toaster also, and kettle and sofa-set … carpet …” He trailed off, ridiculous to himself.’

He fancies her – he has brought flowers, though wishes he hadn’t; ‘he’d forgotten how large, how clever, her eyes were’; ‘it was cold and he noticed her nipples showing through her tunic’ – but she evidently doesn’t reciprocate. They’re young: ‘He wouldn’t be one of those boys who turned up at a girl’s house unannounced.’ He’s tall: when he stands up after putting her suitcase down, he ‘knocked his head against the bald light bulb’. He has recently arrived in England; the fittings and fixtures in the flat seem strange and new to him: ‘the hand-held shower lay in a perfect coil of chrome, like an alien turd’; the knocked light-bulb wire is ‘flexing like a snake disturbed from its tree’. It’s unlikely if not impossible that Randeep would be more familiar with snakes than electric cables, but the simile, back-to-front though it may be, works because it shows he considers himself in unknown and potentially dangerous territory. It’s there for our benefit, not Randeep’s. Because Sahota doesn’t explain everything straightaway, or translate the Punjabi phrases he uses, or spell out the meaning of Sikh customs and rituals, the uninformed reader (by which I mostly mean me) finds himself, not unhappily, in unfamiliar territory too.

Still, one way and another, we learn quite a lot about these two characters in the first three pages of the book. But we have no idea about the most important thing: the nature of their relationship to each other. He clearly isn’t an estate agent. But then what is he? The material circumstances of their arrangement are soon revealed – it’s a marriage of convenience; money for her, a UK visa for him – but the questions remain: what do Randeep and Narinder mean to each other, and what do they owe each other? This isn’t a case of the author withholding information for the sake of it; his characters are as baffled as we are.

‘Randeep held his suitcase across his lap on the bus ride home. Of course she wasn’t going to ask him to stay.’ He lives in a house with 11 other men who work, undocumented, on building sites. It’s cold, exhausting and miserable. Early every morning, in the January dark, they scatter in pairs to different pick-up spots around the neighbourhood to wait for their boss, Vinny, to come by in his van and take them to wherever the work is. If he came to collect them at the house it would increase the chances of a raid. Today they’re preparing the ground for a new hotel in Leeds. In their break they play cricket, Sikhs against Muslims, with a tennis ball and a plank of wood. Most of Randeep’s housemates go unnamed (there’s a high turnover): two who don’t are Gurpreet, who’s several years older, has been in England a lot longer, and bullies Randeep; and Avtar, Randeep’s friend, though we have yet to learn what binds them together. Avtar works nights too, in a fast food joint. He’s in England on a student visa, but between his two jobs and his clandestine meetings with a vicious loan shark he owes money to, he barely has time to sleep, let alone study. Avtar complains when Vinny is late collecting them from in Leeds the evening: ‘Some of us have other jobs to get to, yaar.’ There’s a new face in the back of the van: ‘This is Tochi … Starts tomorrow, acha?’

Narinder, Randeep, Avtar, Tochi: these are Sahota’s runaways, one born in England, one here on a marriage visa, one on a student visa, one without a visa at all. The year in question is 2003 (Randeep and Avtar wouldn’t find it so easy to get into Britain on a bogus marriage or student visa these days; Theresa May and her predecessors have tightened a lot of ‘loopholes’ over the past decade). The shape of the year gives the novel its form; it’s divided into four parts, named for the seasons. The tight structure is at odds with the chaotic, moment-by-moment way the runaways live their lives, and that tension is one of the reasons the book avoids being either schematic or sprawling.

Every second chapter in the first half of the novel (‘Winter’ and ‘Spring’) is a flashback to the lives the characters are running away from, taking each in turn. First up is Tochi, the last to have been introduced and the one we know least about. A low-caste chamaar from the state of Bihar in India’s north-east, he went to work on a farm in Punjab at the age of 13. Four years later his younger brother calls to ask him to come home: their father has lost both his arms in an accident. It takes Tochi nearly a week to make the 900-mile journey by bus and on foot. He was an economic migrant, travelling immense distances to look for work, long before he thought of coming to England. Back with his family, he gets hold of an auto rickshaw, and begins making pretty good money. His sister marries, gets pregnant. But in the city, the Maheshwar Sena, an organisation of high-caste fanatics, are preaching about the ‘upcoming day of the pure’. Catastrophe strikes in a scene that would seem like a fantasy out of Mad Max if it weren’t based on real events. In January this year, 24 high-caste men accused of the slaughter of 23 men, women and children in the village of Shankarbigha on 25 January 1999 – one of a series of massacres of Dalits in Bihar in the late 1990s and early 2000s – were acquitted.

With nothing left for him in his village, Tochi goes to work in a brick factory for two years to earn the money to travel to Europe: by plane to Turkey, via Turkmenistan, on a false passport, and then on by truck to Paris and, two months later, Southall. The caste prejudice follows him, and the hatred is just as strong in England, even if it’s less likely to manifest in deadly violence. When a woman who gives him a job, and hopes he’ll marry her niece, finds out that he’s not from as high a caste as he’d claimed, she’s incandescent: ‘Go back to cleaning shit, you dirty sister-fucking cunt.’

That isn’t to say, however, that the novel adopts a simplistic ‘low-caste good, high-caste bad’ view of the world. Randeep, whose father is a senior civil servant until he loses his job after a severe depressive episode leads to a suicide attempt, is attacked by a group of boys at college: ‘Let’s see how much the high-caste fucker likes being shat on.’ In Sheffield, Gurpreet mockingly calls him ‘little prince’. Violence erupts from unexpected quarters, and Randeep more than once shows himself to be a lot less meek than he imagines he is.

Randeep and Avtar’s back stories are told together: they didn’t really know each other in India, but Avtar and Randeep’s sister Lakhpreet are secretly in love. She asks the family lawyer, who organises Randeep and Narinder’s marriage, to arrange for Avtar to go to England with Randeep as his companion. His father’s shawl-making business is struggling, and he’s lost his job as a bus conductor because the driver he worked with, the boss’s nephew, was stealing from the company to pay for drugs. The lawyer’s fees and other costs for the student visa are far more than he can afford. To scrape it together he sells one of his kidneys but that still isn’t enough so he goes to a loan shark too. Unsurprisingly, he comes to regret both decisions, each in its way life-threatening, though at the time he makes them it seems to him that he doesn’t have any choice.

Narinder’s reasons for ending up in Sheffield are the most surprising. Following her dead mother’s example, she is extremely devout, giving as much time as she can to voluntary work at the gurdwara in Croydon and making an annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Anandpur Sahib. A woman there asks her to look for her daughter, Savraj, who’s gone missing in England. Narinder finds her working as a prostitute in a back alley in Poplar. She does everything she can to help her, but baulks at marrying Savraj’s brother as a way of bringing him to England. Not long afterwards his body is found by a roadside in Russia. Narinder’s decision to marry Randeep – it’s only for a year; after that he’ll have earned the right to stay and they can get divorced – is an attempt at atonement, one last selfless act before getting married to the man her father and brother have set her up with in Croydon. Or at least, that’s what she tells herself, but she may have other motives she won’t admit to: being away from her family, losing her faith, she finds new freedoms in Sheffield, which in some ways is further from Croydon than Anandpur Sahib is.

Sahota’s characters inhabit a complicated moral universe. They do what they have to do, moment by moment, to survive, even if that means abandoning or betraying or stealing from one another. They make endless misjudgments, their fear of authority figures – immigration inspectors, a doctor’s receptionist, a lollipop lady – leads them to trust the wrong people: Avtar hands over his passport to a man who’s giving him work, and never sees it again. The competition they find themselves reduced to is degrading for everyone, but clinging to each other, as Randeep clings to Avtar, is just as likely to drag them down as save them. And self-sacrifice too often ends up doing more harm than good, to the people they are trying to help as well as to the martyrs themselves. Yet none of that means that there isn’t a right thing to do, or that they don’t feel guilty when they don’t do it.

As the year passes, the building work dries up, Vinny disappears, the house gets raided, the runaways scatter, separate, regroup in unexpected ways. Tochi and Narinder find themselves living in the same house, and there’s an extraordinary moment towards the end of the novel when their points of view almost merge. Until then, there’s never been any question which of the four main characters’ eyes we are looking through. She’s been leaving him notes telling him to share her milk, but for some reason he won’t. She’s also been wondering why he takes such a roundabout route home. Eventually she asks him. It turns out he’s been avoiding the lollipop lady outside the primary school, thinking she’s police. ‘The following afternoon, at work, he pulled her crumpled notes from his pocket and asked Harkiran to read them for him, and when Narinder got back from work that evening she opened the fridge and saw that he hadn’t bought his own separate carton of milk, and had instead drunk from hers.’ No other sentence in the book switches perspective in the middle like that. But nothing comes of their relationship. This isn’t a fairy tale.

Given the misfortunes that Sahota heaps on his runaways in the course of their first year in Sheffield, the epilogue comes as something of a surprise: it’s ten years on, and all four of them, against the odds, are more or less OK. Or perhaps it isn’t against the odds: the first year in a new place is always likely to be the hardest. Live through that, the novel implies, and you’ve got a chance. (David Cameron in his Party Conference speech was full of praise for a few well established immigrants; under current legislation it’s unlikely they would have been able to establish themselves.) If Sahota’s runaways are not living happily ever after, they are at least settled: two of them in Sheffield with their families, one in London, one back in India – though ‘back’ is hardly the word, since Kanyakumari, on the southernmost tip of the subcontinent, is in some ways further from Bihar or Punjab than Sheffield is.