In 2013, an employment tribunal in the UK heard testimony from Vijay Begraj and his wife Amardeep, alleging that they had been discriminated against by their former employers. Mr Begraj, who was then a law practice manager, is Dalit, and his wife, who was a lawyer at the same firm, is Jat.
The testimony was disturbing, if grimly familiar. Mr Begraj and Ms Amardeep placed 110 allegations of caste-based discrimination before the tribunal. After their marriage, Mr Begraj had faced name-calling and insults. He claimed that he had been assaulted by the relatives of their Jat employees.
The matter was unresolved – the judge had to recuse herself for technical reasons. But Mr Begraj’s case is just one of many instances that speak of an ugly truth: along with their labour and their dreams, immigrants from India have exported the toxic rigidities of the caste system to the UK.
The brilliance of Sunjeev Sahota is not just that he’s sharply aware of how caste discrimination operates today, or that he is well-informed on the realities of the lives of illegal immigrant workers who travel from Punjab or Bihar, or that he understands the dangers posed by the rise of rightwing groups in India who fan the flames of anger into deadly explosions of violence. If his writing had been driven solely by his sense of justice, he would have been only a polemical novelist, and that makes for terrible fiction.
Instead, Mr Sahota, who lives in Derbyshire, blends perception with a rare gift for empathy in his second novel, The Year of the Runaways. With careful skill, he lets the stories of three young men, Tochi, Randeep, Avtar, and Narinder, a visa-wife, emerge, the narrative ranging from the spare, broken-down house they share as a building crew in Sheffield to the places they came from: Patna, Amritsar, Chandigarh, Croydon and Anandpur Sahib.
The lives they’ve left behind are strikingly dissimilar. One is the child of a minor government official fallen on hard times, one was drawn to half a lifetime of love for the Sikh faith by her mother’s piety, one has a dead-end job as a bus conductor, one lives with his nightmares after the Maheshwar Sena holds a Pure Anniversary Day that spreads its flames across his family’s lives.
The sacrifices that immigrants make to acquire all that they need in order to leave home are given vivid life: the ticket, the elusive visa, the even more elusive job, all for the sake of being in a place where the way they stand, the way they stare, their sockless feet, how they speak is all wrong. “It seemed alongside the cosmetic changes there was a whole system of other things to correct.”
In return, what they earn is meagre: “Avtar studied the four small piles he’d made of his money.” The first is for a monthly repayment, the second a loan pay-off, the third for his parents, the fourth for his slender expenses. “No savings pile. There’d never been a savings pile.”
An uneasy camaraderie grows between the four, though Tochi holds himself apart: his full name Tarlochan Kumar coupled with his hometown follows him, stamps him as a chamar.
If The Year of the Runaways had stopped at documenting the lives of the workers who staff the UK’s restaurants, build its Green Projects, clean its streets, it would still have been a powerful novel. But what makes it so moving is that these four protagonists constantly face questions of allegiance, more even than belonging – who are they loyal to? What betrayals have they survived, and whom will they betray? The answers arrive through mishaps and misunderstandings, some of them heartwrenching.
Randeep goes to meet the retired army man with whom he’s had a long-distance correspondence for years, not realising that making a request for help will change and diminish their relationship. Narinder’s deep faith is shaken when she comes up against the brutal facts of the deliberate cruelty that can be aimed with impunity at one kind of person, while another is protected from these horrors by accidents of birth, caste, class.
Tochi begins to rebuild a life despite the weight of the memories he carries – he wants to be seen as himself, as a man, a worker, but identity closes on him like a prisoner’s shackle. His language betrays him: he says “Vho bokhegiya instead of eh bichhdah“. It turns out to be a terrible mistake, for in the community of Indians there, as here, the question “Where do you come from?” is freighted with vicious import.
Mr Sahota is on the Man Booker longlist, but that is not why you should read The Year of the Runaways. Read it because he will draw you into the fragile, intertwined lives of this small group of people, and read it to see what both India and the UK look like from the perspective of those who do the dirty work.
For an Indian reader – Mr Sahota is a British novelist – some of the spellings jar (dhal, Sena logh instead of Sena log). But this is a minor issue. This beautiful, detailed novel is one of the finest contemporary explorations of what it means to cherish dreams when you live in an unequal world, and it questions the unthinking foundations of these inequalities. As a novelist, Mr Sahota has a quiet, unshowy voice, but it carries a very long way.