Fiction about immigrants is commonplace today, so much so that there’s a whole course about it in my university’s English department. (I’d like to take it, in fact. It looks fascinating.) But like all literature, I suppose, this is not a question of repeating the same story over and over again under different names. The colonial and postcolonial and subaltern experience is different, not just for different countries and different communities and in different directions and different diasporas and different religions and different castes and classes and genders (although, that), but for different individuals. The stories can never be told enough.
And this is what Sunjeev Sahota shows us in The Year of the Runaways. This is a book about four immigrants to Britain from India. Three are more or less illegal immigrants, and one is endangering her legal status by helping one of the other three. Their stories entwine, they have similar experiences, but each person’s history, each person’s temperament, each person is unique, worth worrying about, worth getting to know.
Tarlochan (known as Tochi), Avtar, and Randeep have all come to England to make money. Avtar and Randeep come from the same neighborhood, though they didn’t know each other previously. They wind up living together in a precarious work situation in Sheffield, one on a student visa, one on a marriage visa, both trying to scrape together money for their families. Tochi comes from the untouchable chamaar caste, and suffered discrimination and violence in India. Now that he’s in England, he’s wary and closed off, but at last he can find work, and he’s not afraid to do whatever he’s offered.
Then there’s Narinder. She is a very devout Sikh woman who is just trying to do right by her fellow human beings, and has agreed to be Randeep’s “visa wife” for one year, so he can get his papers and stay in England to make money. (The title, The Year of the Runaways, is the period of this visa year, and the seasons turn the pages.) Narinder doesn’t return Randeep’s increasingly ardent feelings and gives him no encouragement; she just wants to help him, because helping people is the right thing to do. But doing right, in this book, is a complicated matter, a balance between looking out for your own interests in a hard world and honoring ethics and religion. Both are necessary and the balance is almost impossible.
One of the themes of this novel is the way Indian values, like caste and faith and modesty and marriage, follow immigrants to new countries. The people (perhaps especially the women) have no real ability to assimilate, and live on the fringes of society, living half in their old world and half in the new, not able to take legal possession of the new land and not able to go back. Randeep, Avtar, Tochi, and Narinder have confusing, painful, and saddening experiences in England, searching for work, undergoing hunger, missing home, trying to find a place in the world. The book isn’t glib about the cost of this search, or about the cost of doing right. Their stories are compelling.
This isn’t a perfect book. I’d say the main flaw is that Randeep and Avtar are too much alike from the beginning, and I had to keep turning back to figure out which one was which. (By the end I could tell them apart.) And I wanted to find out more about their stories, and the epilogue wasn’t satisfying. But Tochi and Narinder are marvelous, touching characters, and their slowly-developed, wary friendship was wonderful. In a world full of immigrants, full of so many throw-away people, this was a book that didn’t allow anyone to be discarded. I appreciate that.