Economic migrants are not refugees but their desperation is shared, as is their perilous journey over air, sea and pitted tarmac, their difficulty acclimatising to alien languages and customs, their scrabbling to find jobs and earn money. These are bruised, broken people, sometimes physically but always psychologically, people damaged by choosing to forsake their homes. Why do they do it? Randeep and Avtar, two of the protagonists in The Year of the Runaways, ask themselves this question: “[Gurpreet] said it’s not work that makes us leave home and come here. It’s love. Love for our families.” Avtar is contemptuous: “We come here for the same reason our people do anything. Duty. We’re doing our duty. And it’s shit.”
The men are talking in a squalid kitchen near midnight, a kitchen in a house they share with nine or ten other ‘faujis’, or illegals, just a few hours before they have to be up for the dawn shift at a building site. The men, boys in their early twenties, are together in Sheffield having lived in the same block of flats in Amritsar. They are of different social classes—Randeep’s father was a civil servant—but find themselves united in misery in England. Back in Amritsar, though the oblivious Randeep doesn’t know it, Avtar dated the former’s sister. Not dated, of course. As if any respectable family would allow their daughter to go on dates, much less with a boy below her station, however marginally. Instead the two meet up for hurried but passionate sex in an empty cement factory. The boys travel to England together. Avtar has had to re-mortgage his father’s barely profitable shawl shop, sell a kidney, and borrow from a people trafficker just to get the money together to go to England on a dubious student visa. Randeep, whose senior civil servant father appears to be depressed or bipolar and attempts suicide, makes his way to England on a marriage visa. He has bought the services of a devout British Sikh girl who, though she will barely speak to him and will not live in the same house with him, has agreed to a sham marriage for a year, after which Randeep will become a legal UK resident in his own right.
Narinder, the girl, is another of the novel’s four protagonists. British-born, she is the only one who is not a migrant but has lived so circumscribed a life, cocooned by Sikh religious tradition, that she is in some ways as much a stranger to England as any new immigrant. The fourth main character is Tochi, a ‘chamaar’ from Bihar who has spent years working in the flourishing fields of Punjab. He returns home after his father is crippled in an accident. Tochi buys a battered auto rickshaw and starts making a success of his return when his family is murdered by right-wing Hindu goons, part of an organisation with a virulent hatred for ‘lower castes’. A sympathetic landlord in his village helps arrange for him to get to Paris through Russia and Turkey and then, hidden in a barrel in the back of a truck, to London. Scarred, literally and metaphorically, by what happened to him in Bihar, Tochi barely speaks to anyone in England, wanting only to forget. Caste hatred, though, is not easy to escape when even in England you are entirely reliant on the Indian community.
Sahota is a thoughtful novelist, humane, sympathetic. Sometimes though The Year of the Runaways feels forced, characters twisted into situations to make broader social points. Despite the extensive backstories, each of the characters also feels too lightly sketched, their motives occasionally opaque. Why does Randeep’s violence, presumably uncharacteristic but frequent enough to suggest otherwise, go unexamined? So much happens to alter Narinder’s world view, to make her less passive, that it is mystifying that Sahota chooses to explain away 10 years of her life with a single incident—her father’s stroke. This reader also felt a little cheated by what Sahota does with Tochi, overegging his suffering, his flinty isolation for a conclusion that feels saccharine, sentimental. But these are quibbles that should not detract from what is a worthy, plangent, even wise novel.