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Visa fraud, illegal migration and loss of jobs in host countries are part of every society’s current narrative, and economic migrants, legal or illegal, are looked upon with suspicion everywhere. What the narratives do not recount is the agony, isolation and humiliation of being a migrant and the unbearable burden to trying to lead a respectable, honest life.
The Year of the Runaways follows the lives of four young people who leave home. Three young men from India share a dilapidated house in Sheffield, UK. Avtar has sold a kidney to pay for his passage so he can earn enough money for his family back home, and marry the girl he loves. Randeep’s father falls sick and is forced off his job. Randeep’s dreams to study are crushed when he almost molests the girl he likes; he is forced into a visa marriage that brings him to UK so he can support the family. Tochi, a chamaar leaves India on a fake passport when riots against his community result in the lynching of his family.
They come to England hoping that their lives will become better. When Avtar steps out he allows himself some optimism. All the signs of a well-run country. A fair country. A country that helps its people. A country that might even help him.
But the optimism is gradually shattered. The men work in dehumanizing conditions for meagre pay at construction sites, subsisting on bare minimum after sending money back home. If their back stories were fraught with pain, the present day is no better for them. They agree to do any kind of work that will bring them some money, food and a roof over their heads. They exist in the shadowy spaces that illegal immigrants do, and as the crackdowns on them increase and the jobs dry up, it brings with it betrayals, back-stabbing and viciousness. The three young men struggle to keep their heads above water to just survive. And even as they fight off the loan sharks,immigration officers and suffer humiliations and indignities, the three men must paint a rosy picture of their success to their families back home.
And then there is the devout British Sikh girl Narinder. Brought up in a strict religious household in the UK, Narinder decides to save a life to save her own! Her faith begins to waver and she finds herself falling in love with Tochi, and she forsakes all that she has been taught to hold dear.
The Year of the Runaways is a well crafted book. The narrative is made up of mini novellas of the back stories of each of the characters and is tautly tied up to their present – the year that the book follows their journey. In the Epilogue, the book jumps ahead by a decade when we meet the four characters and the lives they have settled into.
For the better part, I found The Year of the Runaways an engrossing read, though the Epilogue felt rushed. I liked the fact that the Hindi/Punjabi words were not italicized or explained, even if it took me a while to get used to beita instead of beta, and ramala,not rumala. Ofcourse, toilet paper is not widely used in India, and definitely not in the chawls and slums, and that was the jarring note in the book!
A definite read.