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.