Sanjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways could not have been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize at any better a moment than in the current political climate. Sahota’s political novel outlines the lives of three Indian migrant workers and Narinder, an Indian-British woman fighting her own personal battle between morals and abiding by the law.
In a typical book review one might find the phrase “a page turner”, commonly used to imply a positive reaction from said book. However, on turning the first page of Sanjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways, with a little despair, I found a good smattering of Punjabi dialect dotted throughout the text. Have no fear, I think as I search for the glossary, only to find that, in this particular novel, there isn’t one. Thus, this novel is not a page turner by any means. Sahota’s novel calls for careful care and attention throughout, perhaps a clever initiative made by Sahota and indeed a highly successful one. His use of two vocabularies, Punjabi and English, not only immerses the reader into the very lives and cultures of the book’s protagonists but also conveys the sense of alienation met by each character in their struggle to adjust to the life of a migrant worker in Britain. As readers, we share that same sense of alienation. Just as there is no glossary to help the reader translate between cultures, there are no guides or handbooks for these characters as they are thrown into a culture that contrasts their own.
The novel is split into four sections; ‘Winter’, ‘Spring’, ‘Summer’ and ‘Autumn’. ‘Winter’ tells the story of Tochi, Randeep and Avtar, who come from different backgrounds and castes, how their fortunes and misfortunes brought them together under one roof. We first meet Tochi, a young man born into the “untouchables” caste, and witness the acts of utter brutality and barbarism meted out to him and his family by his fellow countrymen in a state of religious and political uprising in his hometown. Sahota does not dwell on the graphic violence of the terrible acts of violence to convey political injustice: rather, he uses the power of allusion around such atrocities, allowing the reader to feel the full force of the jarring and incomprehensible loss the character would have felt. Sahota offers little events as building blocks to the reader in order for them to create the bigger picture themselves. The characters Randeep and Avtar are constructed in similar ways as their individual tales begin to slowly yet smoothly intertwine. Again, it is the giving of small events that allows the reader to twist their tales together to see that both characters’ lives are closer than they think.
The character of Narinder is arguably the most powerful as her story conveys the responsibilities and expectations of people belonging to more than one nation and culture. We witness how her constant moral tussles between the religious and legal commitments she holds, and has some insight into how beautifully different cultures can harmonise but also how they can also collide. Narinder’s story raises the question of religion versus law.
Sanjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is not a page turner. It is a page hover. The soothingly comfortable pace of storytelling enables us pay attention to each and every word, both English and Punjabi. With each page, we anticipate the next page to continue on the journey with each character and to witness how entwined each tale will tangle together. A worthy competitor for the 2015 Man Booker prize.