While Marlon James was a deserved winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize for A Brief History Of Seven Killings, British Indian author Sunjeev Sahota, or rather his publishers, could have been forgiven for feeling a little disgruntled at the outcome. His brilliant second novel, The Year Of The Runaways, which was a runner up for the esteemed literary prize, is an enthralling look at the lives of illegal Indian immigrants living in Sheffield in Northern England. It weaves a compelling tapestry of hard luck stories and the brute determination needed to exist in the underbelly of society.
Soul crushing tragedy interspersed with brief moments of triumph co-exist in the lives of three men, Tochi, Randeep and Avtar, along with a British Indian woman, Narinder as we follow their journeys from India to England. All are in flight, living under the radar, surviving, fighting for scraps. Tochi, a chamar or untouchable, the lowest rung on India’s complex class system ladder, has the added handicap of dealing with the bigotry of his fellow Indians.
It’s the kind of novel whose characters and their plights seem as real as if they were blood relatives and who stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. As Salman Rushdie blurbed, “All you can do is surrender, happily, to its power.”
Jeff Vasishta: These characters are so detailed and rich, I wonder if you take a pen and pad every time you stay in India.
Sunjeev Sahota: I often think I should, but there’s always so much other, more pressing stuff to be getting on with in India – family, festivals, food, drink, the general havoc of the country – that a pad and pen just doesn’t figure. I am, however, constantly asking questions, constantly interested.
JV: There’s a little known faction of British Asian culture that you capture so well. In particular, Sikh culture often seems to be so insular and regimented which is why the depiction of Savraj, the prostitute living in a garden shed, is so shocking. How did her character come about? Was it based of someone in particular?
SS: Not on any one particular person, no, but her story does mirror what some women who made the trip across to the UK experienced. Really, her character didn’t exist, even in my mind, until I started writing Narinder’s chapter. I mean, I didn’t start the novel with an intention to show the plight of women from the subcontinent who have been forced into being sex-workers in the UK. I needed Narinder to have a UK-based, characterological link to India and from there Savraj grew.
JV: The world of your stories is so fully formed and you talk about India with real authority. How long have you been going there? Do you just stay with relatives or travel around?
SS: I was six when I made my first trip, a family holiday, and have been going roughly annually ever since – my maternal family is there, on the old farm. I used to always just stay with relatives, in Punjab, but over the last 10 years or so I’ve broadened things out: Kolkata, Kerala, Tamil Nadu (Kanyakumari, in fact). However, it’s also true that I was born and brought up on an estate in Derby amongst a strong immigrant community, full of recent arrivals from Punjab; so strong and recent that, looking back, it was like an Indian village transplanted to northern England.
JV: People may be surprised to find out that you did a degree in math before turning your hand to writing. Where did you work? How did you find time to write?
SS: I worked in financial services for a while – in insurance and then in mortgages – writing in the evenings, weekends, and holidays. I didn’t tell anyone I was writing a book and I think that was right for me: there was no pressure; I could take my own sweet time.
JV: How did you meet your agent and then get your first book deal?
SS: There’s a magazine here in the UK called The Bookseller and it often publicizes recent book deals. Once I thought my first novel was ready (and how naïve a thought that was!), I checked out that magazine for agents who’d sold debut literary fiction in the last year or so. I made a list of six agents, sent the manuscript to all of them and, luckily for me, signed with one of them.
JV: How hard was it to make the decision to become a full-time writer?
SS: Not hard at all. It’s all I wanted to do. Writing (apart from reading) is one of the few things in my life worth living and dying for.
JV: How is the reaction to your success in the Sikh community in Sheffield? Are a lot more people reading literature there now?
SS: The Sikh community in Sheffield is interesting, in that there really isn’t one. In Sixties UK, Sikhs from India settled mostly either around London (Southall, Hounslow, Ilford) or in towns and cities in the Midlands (Derby, Leicester, Birmingham). There just wasn’t the work in Sheffield. It is changing, though, and a few Sikhs are starting to arrive, not so much from Punjab anymore, but Kabul, Mombasa, Tehran, Beirut, Peshawar.
JV: The novel is obviously very complex and detailed. How much plotting do you do before hand? How much editing went into TYOTR?
SS: I didn’t plot my first novel at all and felt that was a mistake. This time, before setting down the first sentence, I mapped out in some detail the stories, plots and character trajectories. Inevitably, things changed during the actual writing – a character whose survival seemed impossible is still breathing at the end; a plot line that you thought the novel couldn’t do without is the first thing to go. I did about six drafts before sending it to my editors, who revise my work very closely. When I handed the script in it came in at around 680 pages; it’s about 470-ish now.
JV: How has your life changed, if at all, since the Booker nomination?
SS: Things got very busy for a while and to see my work receive that kind of attention was wonderful. Now, though, life, or the stuff of my life – family, kids, parents, work – has reasserted itself and it all goes on as before.
JV: Spoiler alert! Were you tempted to write an ending where Tochi and Narinder ended up together?
SS: No. It was always important to me that their states at the end should be ones they work for and arrive at individually, on their own terms. It really does surprise and intrigue me the number of readers who’ve said the book has a happy ending. I’m not sure I see it like that at all.
Sunjeev Sahota was in Derbyshire. His debut novel, Ours are the Streets, was called “nothing short of extraordinary” by the Observer; “a moral work of real intelligence and power,” by The Times. Sunjeev is a Granta’s Best of British Novelist 2013. The Year of the Runaways was a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.
Jeff Vasishta started his writing career as a music journalist interviewing legends such as Prince, Beyonce, Dr. Dre and Herbie Hancock for publications such as Billboard, Yahoo and The Daily Telegraph. These days he is an Op-Ed writer for AM New York and a features writer Interview Magazine, Tin House and The Amazon Book Review.