In this time of masses of refugees fleeing to Europe and the sad news of the dozens of Vietnamese who died inside a lorry trying to enter the UK late last year, The Year of the Runaways is a very apt novel. While not as tragic as the Vietnamese lorry disaster, the story contains more than its fair share of unfortunate events.
The “runaways” are four young Indians who find themselves in the northern English city of Sheffield for different reasons whose lives become tangled up. Narinder is a British-Indian Sikh whose “husband” Randeep comes from a middle-class family in India. Randeep works with Avtar, his friend from India who is also secretly dating Randeep’s sister. Their new housemate and coworker is Tochi, a brooding Indian who is hiding something related to his past. Randeep, Avtar and Tochi are all working illegally, hoping for either British citizenship or simply to make lots of money.
Admittedly, the story starts off somewhat bleak as we get introduced to the characters’ existence working as illegals while eluding the police. In between, the back stories of all four are revealed. As we find out more about each character, the story opens up and things become clearer. Tochi is a dalit or a member of the “untouchable” castes back in his home state Bihar. Bad enough as it is in India, Tochi also receives shocking treatment in England from fellow Indians, especially when he is “outed” as a dalit in what is one of the book’s most shocking and cruel moments. It’s probably one of the cruelest scenes I’ve read in a book.
I’d have preferred if the story had focused more on Tochi, whose background is the most moving and tragic. Instead, the main focus is on Randeep and Narinder, both of whom I found it hard to sympathize much with, though at least Avtar’s resolve was admirable.
The Year of the Runaways is a poignant novel that really brings to the fore the despair and desperation of the characters. It’s also a good indicator of life. Sometimes life is not fair, but we always need to make of it as much as we can.