Until the age of 18, Sunjeev Sahota had not read a novel. Though he’d always been fascinated with language and the rhythm and sound of words — a teacher had once written that he had a “flair for words” in a school report — somehow novels never figured on the school syllabus.
Then one day, when he was about to board a flight to Punjab — one of the frequent trips he and his parents made from Britain over his childhood —, he picked up a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children .
“It’s easy to say it was a turning point, and it was, but it only becomes a turning point when you are rationalising after the event,” said Sahota as we met at London’s Southbank Centre where the London Literary Festival was taking place.
More than 15 years on, Sahota’s life has shifted dramatically. An avid reader of fiction from across the world and a full-time novelist, he is now one of the shortlisters for the coveted Man Booker Prize, the results of which will be announced tomorrow.
Speaking to the moment The book — The Year of the Runaways — a powerful tale that grapples with the issues of caste discrimination, illegal immigration, faith and love — has won much critical acclaim in both Britain and India.
His previous novel, Ours Are the Streets , published in 2011, put him on literary magazine Granta ’s list of the 20 most promising authors under 40 globally. Like many successful authors before him, Sahota seems to have had an uncanny ability to speak to the moment. While Ours Are the Streets tells the story of the alienation and radicalisation of a Muslim boy growing up in the north of England — well before the rise of the ISIS and the steady trickle of British youth to join them —, The Year of the Runaways has come at a time that migration and the moral issues surrounding it have become one of the globe’s greatest challenges.
“I know it feels like I pick up the topics of the day but when I am writing them it feels like they come from a much more personal springboard,” he says.
Brought up in a Sikh Punjabi family in Chesterfield, a small town outside Sheffield in the north of England, Sahota felt he had much in common with the young Muslim protagonist he writes of in Ours Are the Streets , particularly a sense of alienation in an area where there were few Asian families, and which was going through huge social and economic upheaval. (In Chesterfield alone, between 1981 — the year Sahota was born — and 2002, an estimated 15,000 jobs went in the coal industry).
“I didn’t really have a sense of rootedness growing up. My rootedness in the north of England is probably to do with the difficult political climate. (Margaret) Thatcher killed off the mines… the manufacturing industry. There was a real sense of betrayal hanging around the northern former mining towns.”
He doesn’t, however, regard that feeling as a liability. “As I grew older the whole outsider thing — not feeling part of something has its advantages as well — you can be critical and see the bigger picture and what is happening.”
He admires the ability of Labour’s new leader Jeremy Corbyn to reach out to those who have felt sidelined. “Lots of his success is down to people feeling they don’t have politicians who speak their mind. Part of his success is that he seems like someone who does.”
Village lad Sahota speaks with a pronounced northern English accent, but slips Punjabi words readily and confidently into his conversation, reflecting the many visits he and his family made to the family village, Kala Sanghia, an hour-and-a-half east of Amritsar, and a couple of hours from the border, across which some of his family fled at the time of Partition. “I love India; it’s the place I feel very comfortable in, especially in the rural parts of Punjab.”
He recalls, even from his first trip to India, having a real sense of belonging. “Walking around the village I feel so at home. People know me by my ancestry — they know me as so-and-so’s grandson or nephew. When someone refers to you as that it really roots you to a place. This is my heritage.”
It was also on his visits to Kala Sanghia that he became acquainted with the issues of caste discrimination, poverty and the desperation to make it to the West, themes at the heart of The Year of the Runaways .
“Every time I go to India, it has become clear how much of a stranglehold caste has on the country. I don’t know if I’d see it as much in the cities, but I definitely see it in the villages. Caste infects us in every area of Indian life and British Indian life.”
Opening a world One of the things about a Sahota novel is his ability to magic up vivid and telling details that really spirit the reader into the character’s world — whether it’s to do with the laborious journey of a young Dalit Bihari man back to his village from the city, the constant one up-manship between neighbouring lower middle-class town families, and the way in which caste manages to insinuate its way into the relationship between illegal immigrants forced to live cheek by jowl in cramped accommodation once they make it to England.
Sahota, an easy-mannered, approachable conversationalist, got many of the ideas in his book from chats with people he met during trips to India, whether those working on the family land, or those who had made the journey to Britain, well before he’d ever had the intention of the novel.
He has also researched Indian politics extensively. “I did research Hindutva quite a lot. I was aware of the Ranvir Sena, the Shiv Sena, and how it does or does not connect with the BJP. All that fascinates me.”
A trained mathematician who worked in financial services before he gave it up to be a full-time writer, Sahota’s style has evolved over time. The first novel began with little framework and took several drafts to perfect. The second — which jumps across time and space in a masterly way — was done, he jokes, in a “slightly more dignified and stately manner”, with much more planning at the start.
Sahota writes in short, sharp bursts — around five hours a day with the curtains closed, the doors shut and silence. “I am far too easily distracted by the world around me.”
Personal and political While the drivers of Sahota’s writing may be personal, he admits to being a political person. “When you are a child of immigrants everything becomes political to some degree or another. I certainly don’t see myself as being a public figure and making grand pronouncements or pontificating on any particular subject. The words will do the work for me.”
“I think every book I write will have things that will be deemed political. The Year of the Runaways deals with ideas of goodness — what it means to be good and in this sort of environment what do you sacrifice for family, faith. To do what you think is a greater good. Those questions of allegiance and sacrifice have become deeply politicised. I am part of the British Sikh community — I am aware of the things that happen within the community that give you pause for thought. Because my books will deal with those questions they will be political in that way.”
“One thing that is true of all migrants is courage — they must have so much courage along with hopefulness to make that journey. Every single migrant that I’ve met in India or the UK has this ability to find their way through life. I really wanted to dignify that courage.”
Issues that have a nexus between the personal and the political for him are likely to continue to dominate his work, he says.
“I don’t think I will write a big historical Partition novel, like (Khushwant Singh’s 1956) Train to Pakistan or anything, but that will definitely be there in some form in a future work. I would like to touch on that… maybe an alternate history of Partition... I don’t know. I think my work will always have a foot in India and a foot in the UK. I don’t think I will ever write a book that is wholly set in one country.”