The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

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I hadn’t read any review before beginning the novel because I prefer to experience the book firsthand. This book overwhelmed me.

Sahota has infused themes like Hindu nationalism, untouchability, faith, immigrant experience and many more into such moving prose that one does not even become aware of these themes as the prose is being read because all the reader cares about are the characters.

Sahota’s characters make you want to turn the page and that is the beauty of the novel. The back story of each main character is explained in separate chapters and in detail. This is a risk because could the details bore the reader? Sahota manages to grip the reader like talons of a falcon(in a good way) as each back story is narrated. We become so invested in the characters that we don’t just want to ‘know’ what happened and why are they the way they are but we want to ‘feel’ what they ‘feel’.

The prose could have been graphic and pithy and aimed at satiating the voyeuristic appetite of those who wish to know of the desperate lives of poor Indians. But no, Sahota narrates like a camera. We get to know what happens. His eye for detail and description makes me envy his skills. It is probably easier to describe the thoughts or feelings of a character than the surroundings and events with such clarity that actions speak louder than words.

I confess I started this book because of all the rave reviews but I have a bad habit of abandoning a book if it doesn’t hold my interest for long. I didn’t abandon this one. It taught me a lesson or two as a writer on character development, plot development, description, dialogue.

Dialogue! Sahota is not apologetic of the Hindi/Punjabi words used in the novel. It only makes the characters’ world more exclusive and real and private.

As an Indian born and raised in the Gulf, I have heard of many stories of immigration. This novel instead of making me yawn and say ‘okay tell me something new’, it only made me more empathetic towards my parents’ struggle to survive here and of others.

What I loved about the novel is that Sahota doesn’t become a spokesperson about immigrant life. People are just waiting to pigeonhole a book nowadays. His book is far more nuanced and will teach lessons to people irrespective of whether they are immigrants are not. These stories are of ‘people’. Their issues might be different but not so different that a reader will not be able to relate if they don’t have a similar background as the characters grapple with love, money, career, family, friends just like we all do.

Must Read.

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