Special Treatment

Character and community in Sunjeev Sahota’s novels

Sunjeev Sahota was born in 1981 in Derbyshire county, and grew up in the British SOMEDAVID LEVENSON / GETTY IMAGES
01 December, 2016

IT BEGINS BRISKLY, with a recognisable intimacy: a man is getting ready to welcome a woman to a flat. But things aren’t as they seem. He doesn’t stay in the flat; he has rented it for her to move into. He shows her around when she arrives—like a broker, or perhaps a friend. The rooms are bare and cold, but she says they are fine. A bus goes to town from the bottom of the hill nearby, he tells her. “And that hill will keep me in shape,” she says. “And this isn’t an area with lots of apneh,” he continues. “Like you asked.” Flats are apparently hard to find at this time of the year. “We were lucky,” he smiles. There is a pause, and, almost immediately, he offers to leave. She remains quiet and walks him to the stairs. He doesn’t tell her that his suitcase is just outside, in an alley. Instead, at the doorway, before saying goodbye, he hands her the month’s rent.

The couple, we soon learn in Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways, are joined in what is called a “visa marriage.” The man, Randeep Sanghera, lives with 12 other undocumented Indian migrants in a different part of the town. They are in Sheffield now, but they will work for less-than-minimum wages anywhere in England, having escaped from riots, unemployment and crumbling families back in India. The woman, Narinder Kaur, was brought up in a Sikh household in Croydon, in a way more conservative than many girls of her class and generation back in Punjab.

When The Year of the Runaways was being written, immigration wasn’t yet Britain’s top headline. Yes, there was a marked nostalgia for the Empire in many parts; and Theresa May, then the home secretary, had sent billboard vans to a few neighbourhoods in London telling undocumented migrants to “go home or face arrest.” But state multiculturalism still held some sway; May’s “Go Home” initiative was predictably short-lived; and the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party was largely, in the words of a Labour representative, a “protest party.” There hadn’t yet been a collective acknowledgement of the refugee crisis by the European Union; David Cameron, then the prime minister, had promised a referendum on remaining in the EU if the Conservatives came back to power in 2015; images of non-white migrants in queues were yet to appear as posters across the country, under the incendiary slogan “Breaking Point.” Hysteria was at its highest, however, by the time the book was published in 2015: immigrants were being accused of stealing jobs, houses, businesses, health subsidies and welfare benefits. They were being told, essentially, to both leave and pay more rent. A novel seemed to have anticipated the news.

Sunjeev Sahota was born in 1981 in Derbyshire county, and grew up in the British Sikh community. Recent events seem to pervade his fictional worlds. His first novel, Ours Are The Streets, began as a response to the 7/7 London bombings, after he found out that he was living not too far away at the time from the homes of the bombers. The British narrator of that novel travels a route we have come to recognise in the last decade: from his father’s ancestral village near Lahore to Kashmir and Afghanistan, before returning home to Sheffield, radicalised. The Year of the Runaways, his second book, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2015. The novel spans not only a year in the life of a group of undocumented migrants in England, but also their individual backstories—the poverty, familial pressures and Hindutva vigilantes they have run away from. Race, religion, immigration, violence: things we read about in the newspaper every day. One doesn’t need much convincing of the relevance of Sahota’s novels.

RELEVANCE IS a newly desired primary trait in novels, inevitable in a climate where we justify reading them in utilitarian terms. It seems even newer when used for Sahota, someone with manifest roots outside the United Kingdom—someone who, as the aftermath of the Brexit vote made clear, can always be conveniently called “less British.” Reviews of The Year of the Runaways never failed to underline how crucial the book was in light of the refugee crisis. The Independent hailed it as an “antidote” to “reductive discussions of immigration”; The Guardian called it a “brilliant political novel.” And the Washington Post, welcoming its publication in the United States in 2016, said that “America’s fresh spasm of xenophobia makes this devastating story about the plight of immigrants all the more relevant.”

It seems new for a minority writer to be considered so unanimously relevant to the concerns of society at large. Certainly, we don’t think of Hanif Kureishi or Zadie Smith—also British novelists of immigrant heritage, like Sahota; also writing about race, religion, immigration and violence in their novels—as, above all, relevant. Contemporary, yes; ambitious; subversive—and only then, maybe, relevant to the latest headlines. The adjective is, for the most part, an afterthought, perhaps because Kureishi and Smith both began their careers during the years of state multiculturalism, when the British media and the government made it seem that issues of race and immigration had altogether vanished from the nation.

But part of our hesitation as readers is also embedded in the kind of novels both Kureishi and Smith write. We recognise their characters as much as we don’t: so much about them seems true only in the context of the books in question, not quite verifiable by journalism. As much as The Buddha of Suburbia, Kureishi’s first novel, chronicles the changes in a south London suburb before the Thatcher era, Karim Amir, its narrator, is very much his own man—“an Englishman born and bred, almost,” as he says, and “going somewhere.” That “almost” is impressive. It brings to life Karim’s fiercely individual voice and manner, while clarifying his allegiance to the imagined world over the real. The writer is not privileging relevance.

Or, think of Millat in Zadie Smith’s debut, White Teeth, taking a train to Bradford on 14 January 1989, in order to burn copies of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Born and brought up in northwest London, Millat is the son of Bangladeshi immigrants. At 14, he knows little about the author, hasn’t read the book. But television cameras frame him with the crowd burning books in Bradford, clearly enough for his mother to recognise him while watching the evening news. That day, Millat returns home to a surprise:

When Millat came home that evening, a great bonfire was raging in the back garden. All his secular stuff—four years’ worth of cool, pre- and post-Raggastani, every album, every poster, special-edition t-shirts, club fliers collected and preserved over two years, beautiful Air Max trainers … all had been placed on the funeral pyre, now a smouldering mound of ashes that was giving off fumes of plastic and paper, stinging the boy’s eyes that were already filled with tears.

Millat’s possessions are typically teenaged, but they also belie the image we have of those condemning The Satanic Verses for blasphemy. The contradiction doesn’t invalidate him; it makes him more human. By redirecting our attention from the public to the private, from the book-burning in Bradford to the bonfire “in the back garden,” Smith is being a novelist in the most fundamental sense. Millat is more important than the motives behind the protests of 14 January 1989: he is not meant to embody a line of thought.

A scene in The Year of the Runaways takes place in Southall, a London neighbourhood that is almost completely populated by South Asians, especially Punjabis. PICTURES LTD / CORBIS / GETTY IMAGES

On the other hand, Imtiaz Raina, the would-be bomber in Ours Are The Streets, appears to largely exist as an emblem. He defines himself representatively (“I felt fine rooting for Liverpool, not England”), mouths generalities about the place where he was born and bred (“So quiet the city is. Everyone sleeping contentedly. So indifferent to the crimes of their land.”), and once in his ancestral village seems very quickly taken in by the fact that he is no longer Imtiaz Raina but “so and so’s grandson or such and such’s nephew … I had an actual real past.” His father drives a taxi in Sheffield; his Ammi has “gorgeous eyes”—“the only bit of her you can see”—and is always inside the house, shuffling between the prayer room and the kitchen. When his college girlfriend, Becka, gets pregnant, his parents insist that she convert to Islam before marriage. Becka complies without any fuss, and once she moves in with Imtiaz and his parents, everyone seems briefly domesticated and happy. After his father dies, Imtiaz accompanies the dead body to Pakistan for burial. When he returns to England, he is recognisably religious and angry.

The novel is written as a 300-page diary, meant to be discovered after Imtiaz has blown himself up. And yet we read it—once, twice, thrice—failing to get to know Imtiaz any better. We do know he speaks in Yorkshire vernacular (the “sempt” for “seemed” and “were” for “was” dutiful in their recurrence); we know he feels “connected to the world” in Torkham, Afghanistan, where he undergoes weapons training; we come to know one sequence of events through which a reasonably well-adjusted British Muslim may be drawn to terrorism. All of this would suffice for an investigation or a case study, but seems too simplified for a novel. Imtiaz is seldom a specific presence; he seems to be standing in constantly for a type—that of a son, a disaffected citizen in Britain, a newly devout Muslim. Perhaps this is what social alienation entails: reliably following every norm as a ruse. But a diary seems an odd place to persist with the role play.

Besides, we are not apprised enough about the extent of his alienation. We hear Imtiaz scold his father once for tolerating passengers who piss in his taxi. There is a remarkable scene inside a South Asian restaurant where a white woman, out on a hen night, asks Imtiaz’s father to “cop a feel” of her breasts and kiss her for a photograph. His father, mortified, keeps saying “I am sorry,” as if these were “the only three words he knew.” The subtlety of the moment is, however, tarnished when the father says that if more people spoke out against such women, “we would not be having our children driving planes into buildings.” Once again our attention is shifted from the novel to the newspaper, from the imagination to reported reality.

As a result, Imtiaz’s transformation is difficult to believe. The point of no return is reached in Kashmir, when Imtiaz, his cousin and a few other men from his ancestral village watch a phone recording of some brown prisoners being tortured by “a gang of Americans in camouflage gear.” Afterwards, Imtiaz feels that the rest of the audience is conflating him with the Americans. He can sense he is being shunned, so when the group is later making plans to drive down to Peshawar and Torkham, he is hesitant to join in. “What?” one of the men asks Imtiaz. “You still want special treatment?” He replies:

“I never said anything about special—”
“I thought you are just like us now.”
“I am.”
“But it seems you still think of yourself as a valetiya.”
“But I don’t.”
“Good. Because no one here thinks of you as different. You are not a valetiya anymore, you understand? You’re an apna. You’re ours.”

One is tempted here to compare Sahota’s “apna” (or “apneh”) to the “almost” in Kureishi’s The Buddha Of Suburbia. Where the former is inclusive, the latter is an assertion of difference. Imtiaz wants to fit the sort of labels that Karim is careful to qualify. From the beginning we are taught to think of Karim as a distinctive human being, while Sahota reminds us that Imtiaz belongs to a community.

COMMUNITY LOOMS LARGE again in The Year of the Runaways, three of whose four main characters are Sikhs. The fourth, Tochi, is a Dalit, and is called a “chamaar” wherever he goes, even in Southall. British Sikhs are shown to be far more prejudiced than their subcontinental brethren; in Sheffield, Tochi is routinely dismissed by employers if he reveals his last name. We recognise very well the layovers in Tochi’s journey from India to England. The arrival in Istanbul, the goods trucks sneaking in people from Turkey to France, the security checkpoint at Calais: if nothing else, the refugee crisis has enabled a fuller understanding of Europe’s geography. Tochi has no option but to trust this illicit system. Sahota describes his state of mind with restraint:

For the ferry to England, he hid in the back of the lorry … Tochi hunkered down, knees tight to his chest and head tucked in. It was as dark as a well. Metal barrels surrounded him—right above his head, too—their clinking the only sound. He fell asleep. At some point he lifted his head off his knees and felt a deep stillness inside him. The barrels weren’t wobbling. The engine wasn’t running. All was peace and darkness. He closed his eyes, though the insides of his lids were painted with images of dying and the dead. He was woken by the rear shutter rattling up. He held his breath, didn’t move. Daylight made a faint blond entrance. There were voices, Deniz’s among them, and knuckles being rapped on the containers. More voices, white-sounding, until the shutter clattered back down. A little later the engine roused and he felt the truck’s clunking descent.

“This is England,” Deniz said, when at last Tochi was able to wriggle out. They were in some sort of car park. Shops, white people. Nearby, the grey noise of fast traffic. The sky looked the same as in Paris.

Tochi ends up in the same house and crew as Randeep, the man in the visa marriage. Randeep charms the immigration officers who visit to check on his marital status. He talks to them about children, good school districts, his plans to save up and buy a house “with a garden.” The officers are deceived, and Randeep feels sanguine for the first time since arriving in England. But his happiness is cut short when the construction project that recruited him and Tochi is abandoned all of a sudden, forcing the entire crew to scatter and look for jobs elsewhere. The most desperate of the lot is Avtar, who came to England with Randeep on a student visa. He sold one of his kidneys to raise funds back in Amritsar, and borrowed money from a cartoonishly crooked creditor named Pocket Bhai. Avtar ends up cleaning underground pipes and tunnels. The conditions are unhygienic and exploitative: the contractor seizes his passport and keeps him locked in a shed. His stomach aches frequently, perhaps due to the absent kidney. He cannot visit a doctor, for fear of his visa fraud being discovered. By the end of the novel, Avtar has a limp and cannot work.

The Year of the Runaways is formidably well plotted. It derives much of its energy from questions of food, shelter, labour and wages, where Ours Are The Streets had been preoccupied with grander ideas of belonging and respect. Avtar seems to be reprimanding Imtiaz Raina when he thinks about an older British Sikh acquaintance struggling to feel at home in England:

What decadence this belonging rub- bish was, what time the rich must have if they could sit around and weave great worries out of such threadbare things.

What decadence this belonging rubbish was, what time the rich must have if they could sit around and weave great worries out of such threadbare things.

But such moments of lucidity are a little too rare. For the most part, the book is busy steering characters from place to place, problem to problem—what Virginia Woolf calls the “appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner.” The effect is not so much confusing as dreary. The allegiance is always to the event, not the inner life. The characters are seldom more than pawns of a certain class and ethos; they always seem to be thinking what is most expedient to the storyline.

This is most palpable in the story of Narinder, the “visa-wife.” Narinder has run off from her own approaching engagement to keep her pact with Randeep. Her family doesn’t know that she is already officially married. To better explain Narinder’s selflessness, her wish to help Randeep, Sahota makes her a caricature of steadfast devotion. She listens to gurbani in the mornings, and spends her evenings praying in a gurdwara. At 20, she asks her father questions such as “Baba, why does God make people suffer?” or “Baba, in India, did you ever meet chamaars?” It began apparently from her childhood—her chapter is titled “Narinder: The Girl from God”—when her mother justified an averted accident by observing that “God, sick of waiting, had come directly for Narinder.” So Narinder, of course, is incapable of thinking much else. She is portrayed not as a human being, but as a Delphic spook:

She lifted her head out of her arm and was met with the images of her gu- rus. They spoke to her, reminding her that she always knew it was going to be hard, that doing the right thing is never the easy choice, but to remem- ber that Waheguru is her ship and He would bear her safely across.

She lifted her head out of her arm and was met with the images of her gurus. They spoke to her, reminding her that she always knew it was going to be hard, that doing the right thing is never the easy choice, but to remember that Waheguru is her ship and He would bear her safely across.

Or this, when she is going through a major crisis of faith:

Near a church, she stopped and looked across the green depth of the country, at the vast spirit of those giant hills. Is that where He was hid- ing? Help me, she said. Someone help me. He wasn’t there and she didn’t know why He’d gone. In the past, ev- ery leaf, every light in every window, every brick in every wall confirmed His presence beside her, inside her. Tonight, she felt so horrifically alone.

There is something inherently vulgar about sentences like “Is that where He was hiding?” They are not just refusing to engage with the complexity of belief, or reductively rendering spirituality; they are pandering to our worst fantasies of how religious people think. Narinder must be incredibly puerile if she can only conceive of God as a ship or a hide-and-seek companion. Faith is not treated as an intricate adult choice.

THIS IS NOT TO SUGGEST that Sahota is incapable of subtlety as a writer. His portrayal of Sheffield feels very instinctive. One glimpses, in both the books, a sensibility responding imaginatively to the town, quietly rearranging its streets and landmarks. Narinder, for instance, is discouraged by the names of the areas surrounding her street: Rawmarsh, Pitsmoor, Crosspool, Burngreave. “They sounded so angry … like they wanted to do you harm.” Late at night, Randeep thinks about Narinder alone in a flat somewhere in Sheffield, “somewhere in that dark corner beyond the lights, beyond that pinkish blur he knew to be a nightclub called the Leadmill.” The Leadmill is also the club where Imtiaz, in Ours Are The Streets, asks out his future wife, Becka, for the first time. Similarly, the shopping centre where Imtiaz plans to detonate himself is of little use to Tochi in The Year of the Runaways, because “there’d be no work for him in a place like that.”

Roughly half of both the novels, however, take place in the subcontinent, and one seldom encounters anything exact in those pages: they are full instead of incongruities and broad projections. Where Pakistan is, for Imtiaz, a place where he felt “really solid, rooted to the earth,” India is a byzantine prison for Tochi, and Kanyakumari attractive because it is “an end to India, one you could point to and identify and work towards.” Places are reduced here to their lowest prevalent stereotypes. When in Punjab one can expect to hear expletives as reliably as when in Tamil Nadu an acquaintance is likely to ask “How’s things, anna?” Brands and institutions are freely name-dropped to claim authenticity—‘NIT,’ ‘DTTP,’ ‘Honda City,’ ‘Tiger Flakes.’ Too many sentences—“He found work quickly, doing weekend shifts for a British insurance firm who’d outsourced their call centre to Mirla Business and Technology Park”—retain the whiff of undigested research. The overall effect is of a loss of balance, and there is a palpable discomfort in the tone of these sections. It is as if Sahota is somehow unsure of his characters’ pasts.

But in this, he may not be alone. Here, for instance, is Alsana Iqbal, Millat’s mother in White Teeth, explaining her arranged marriage to her niece:

Because, Miss Smarty-pants, it is by far the easier option. It was exactly because Eve did not know Adam from Adam that they got on so A-OK. Let me explain. Yes, I was married to Samad Iqbal the same evening of the very day I met him. Yes I didn’t know him from Adam. But I liked him well enough. We met in the breakfast room on a steaming Delhi day and he fanned me with The Times. I thought he had a good face, a sweet voice, and his backside was high and well formed for a man of his age. Very good. Now, every time I learn something more about him, I like him less. So you see, we were better off the way we were.

The length of Alsana’s clarification is as baffling as her need to clarify; it is less a character’s rationale, more the author’s. Alsana’s recollection of her first date seems too good to be true: “We met in the breakfast room on a steaming Delhi day and he fanned me with The Times.” The sentence itself seems to belong more to a fable, or a myth. Elsewhere in the novel, a central character is born during a terrible earthquake in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1907; and Samad, Alsana’s husband, is introduced as the great-grandson of Mangal Pande, the sepoy who famously rebelled against the East India Company in 1857. The problem is not one of veracity: novels need correspond only to their made-up worlds. But, all through the five-hundred pages of the book, Smith is uncharacteristically silent about how the Iqbals of Bangladesh could have descended from a Pande posted in Barrackpore, or how the newborn in Jamaica survived the tremors. We are uncertain, once again, about our immigrants’ pasts.

Sahota began writing Ours Are The Streets as a response to the 7/7 London bombings, when he learnt that he lived not far from the bombers GARETH CATTERMOLE / GETTY IMAGES

Could it be that these novels, lauded for their multicultural ethos, are actually oblivious to their immigrant characters’ backgrounds? Or that, by obscuring the early lives of such characters, these putatively realist novels are gesturing towards myth and fantasy? Karim Amir, our “almost” English narrator in The Buddha of Suburbia, seems to wish the latter were true, when he accidentally finds his Indian father and English stepmother having sex on a garden bench:

Was I conceived like this, I wondered, in the suburban night air, to the wailing of Christian curses from the mouth of a renegade Muslim masquerading as a Buddhist?

But the uncertainty is also manifested in less mystical ways. These writers often seem undecided on how intelligent their immigrant characters are. Randeep, who can impress his immigration officers in The Year of the Runaways and strike up a friendship on the phone with a British war veteran, will point to a black man casually and ask, “Do they have their own language? Like ours is Panjabi?” In White Teeth, Alsana is smart enough to know who William Gladstone is while walking through Gladstone Park—“Alsana was from a respected old Bengal family and had read her English History”—but, a few pages later, we must also believe she is a “barefoot country girl” who “never went to the universities.”

The immigrants in these novels are contraptions, not characters; they can be, at the flick of a switch, clever or ignorant, repressed or prurient. They are draped in the histories and cliches of their places of origin, incapable of perceiving themselves as individuals in any complicated way—because individuality is, of course, as recognisably Western as community and conformity are Eastern, and how can someone have simultaneously bridged both the geographical and ideological distance? It is not that we aren’t told much about their previous lives, but the details are external and of a defamiliarising kind, so that each time we learn something more, we seem to know them less; just as Alsana grows to dislike her husband the more she gets to know him. Perhaps these are, in the end, distorted representations; or perhaps our immigrants indeed lead such charmed and circumscribed lives. Either way, we are thinking of them as anomalous, or bizarre.

WHILE WAITING FOR NARINDER to arrive in the opening scene of The Year of the Runaways, Randeep stands nervously in front of a map of the world:

The map had come with the flat, and though it was big and wrinkled, and cigarette butts had once stubbed black islands into the mid-Atlantic, he’d kept it, a reminder of the world outside.

It is a promising moment—the “stubbed black islands” is especially sharp. We wonder what is going on in Randeep’s mind. For the idea to manifest, two hundred pages later, in an awkward question he poses to Narinder—“If you could go anywhere in the world where would you go?”—seems cynical and rather inadequate: is Randeep capable of no more than this crude escapism? Sahota, despite his good intentions, ends up conflating the social and the self. Must our refugees, vulnerable as they are, always be thinking of how to survive? By denying their “belonging rubbish,” their hopes and lesser confusions of displacement, we are, in our imaginations, cutting them down to size.