The Dalit Subject in Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways

While discussing his second novel, The Year of the Runaways (2015), Sunjeev Sahota, in an interview for The Independent, remarked, “If novels can do anything, it is shining a light into the dark tunnel, faces, histories, stories” (sic.). Sunjeev Sahota is a British author of Indian origins. His novel, The Year of the Runaways, was nominated for the Man Booker Prize 2015.

The novel tells the story of four main characters. Tochi, Avtar, and Randeep are immigrants from India who travel to the United Kingdom in search of employment. Narinder is a devout “gursikh”, born and brought up in England, who becomes an agent in Randeep’s migration. The characters comes together to form a disjointed family under one roof. Tochi, in Sahota’s novel, can be read as a Dalit subject in a cosmopolitan setting.

Tochi’s identity can be understood in terms of three concentric circles, each corresponding to a subject position. The reader meets Tochi in the very first chapter, titled “Arrivals”, in Sahota’s novel.

His caste identity, the first concentric circle, is revealed in the very beginning. “So what are you?” asks Gurpreet (a fellow-immigrant). When Tochi informs him that his “pind” (literally, village) is in Bihar and that his surname is Kumar, Gurpreet responds, “Even the bhanchod chamaars are coming to England.” The label “chamaar” locates Tochi at the very bottom of the Indian caste hierarchy.

The second concentric circle in Tochi’s identity formation is his position as a visa-less illegal immigrant in England, a “fauji” (literally, soldier) as Sahota’s novel terms them.

The third concentric circle is that of the ethnic minority constituted by Indian immigrants in England, the “apneh” (literally, one’s own) in Sahota’s novel. Tochi’s status as an immigrant places him within the larger fold of this ethnic minority but his illegal status and his caste identity do not allow his assimilation within it.

This reading of Tochi’s identity in terms of three concentric circle ascribes a certain fixity to it. In the novel, these circles constantly overlap and intermix.

It is Tochi’s movement from Bihar to cosmopolitan England that initiates complex process of identity construction through the interaction of these subject positions.

However, I think that his caste identity looms large despite the interactions. An important marker of his caste identity is his surname. “Mera naam he tho hai,” says Tochi to his friend Kishen; “Vho he tho hai mera naam,” Kishen replies. In this “schoolyard phrase” about “their names being all they owned,” Tochi highlights the baggage of the name that he carries. This baggage never leaves him. “My family’s Kumar,” he explains to “English-born” Narinder, “It’s a chamaari name.”

The two most popular models in postcolonial and diaspora studies, today, may be termed as the ‘Diasporic Imagination’ model and the ‘Hybridity’ model. The ‘Diasporic Imagination’ model assumes ‘home’ and ‘host’ to be imaginative categories.

In “Imaginary Homelands”, Salman Rushdie describes the experience of travelling to Bombay and encountering his childhood home. Rushdie feels a “physical alienation” from his ‘home’ in Bombay, a ‘home’ which can only be reclaimed through memory and imagination.

In Sahota’s novel, Tochi associates ‘home’ with a horrific past, a past that he does not want to recall. He searches for a point where this ‘home’ ends, beyond which he is no longer bound by his caste: “It seemed amazing to him that there could be an end to India, one you could point to and identify and work towards.” Even in the ‘host’ country, he cannot escape this identity.

Therefore, one finds the ‘Diasporic Imagination’ model inadequate in explaining the processes of identity construction for a Dalit subject in a cosmopolitan setting.

One of the most significant theorists of the ‘Hybridity’ model is Homi K. Bhabha.

In The Location of Culture, Bhabha rejects the idea of an “originary” subject (taking cue from Michel Foucault and poststructuralism) and highlights the discursive, performative, and hybrid nature of modern subjectivity.

However, in understanding Tochi as a hybrid modern subject, I have asserted that his caste identity looms large. The ‘Hybridity’ model is limited in understanding a Dalit subject in a cosmopolitan setting as it often neglects and negates historical and political specificities (in this case, the caste system) as well as the continuing power relations among hybrid subjects (reflected in Tochi’s interactions with other characters in the novel).

Therefore, there is a need for revision of existing postcolonial discourses and for new and innovative models of understanding the convoluted processes of identity construction of modern subjects in a cosmopolitan world.