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Desperate hope is crushing. Sunjeen Sahota’s Man Booker short-listed novel “The Year of the Runaways” is an unsentimental story of class, discrimination, prejudice, brutality, and gender bias that lies in the underbelly of England’s Indian legal and illegal migrant diaspora. Randeep is the product of a middle-class Punjab background whose father’s unemployment pushes his family down the economic and social ladder.  Avtar is the son of a lower-class Punjab family on the verge of destitution. Tochi is a chamar from a farming family from Bihar whose family tragically suffers from Hindutva- Hindu nationalism. Narindar is a religious young English Sikh woman whose wish to do a repentant good deed through a “visa marriage” is punishing.

The unrelenting story is third person narrated. While occupation is not the cause of Tochi’s family dalit (lower caste) status in Bihar, the social, economic and religious prejudice carries over to Sheffield, England where all the characters are ultimately deposited in search of survival work. Narindar suffers religious and gender prejudice as she temporarily disturbs the honor of her Sikh family. As is often the case, cruelty is meted out by one’s own, who have moved one rung up the ladder and step on those below them.

All the characters are strong. Coming from a middle-class background Randeep is the weakest in survival skills. Avtar is the most desperate. Tochi the most predatory.

The prose is unembellished. Mr. Sahota is a storyteller. A resident of Sheffield and a Sikh, he mines his locale. His first novel, “Ours are the Streets” was a well-received terrorism based novel. Although this novel was praised by Salman Rushdie, I was attracted to it by the testimonial of Kamila Shamsie, who I am a fan of.

Worth your time.

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