MARCH 24, 2016
WHAT IS a political novel? In the United States and Britain, political novels are sometimes assumed to deal directly with power and the government. According to Morris Edmund Speare in The Political Novel (1924), a political novel “leans rather to ‘ideas’ than to ‘emotions’: which deals rather with the machinery of law making or with a theory about public conduct than with the merits of any given legislation.” This view persists today in the popular critics’ assumption that political novels are dry, didactic, or full of thesis statements, and unconcerned with aesthetic pleasure or the emotional life of characters. Political novels, as Speare defined them, are out of favor in American publishing.
However, political novels can also be books that criticize a social order, and often the most effective critiques work on a reader’s emotions. This spring, two buzzed-about books by diasporic Indian writers have been described as political novels in this other sense: Karan Mahajan’s novel The Association of Small Bombs and Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways. Karan Mahajan grew up in Delhi, but went to school at Stanford University and the Michener Center at the University of Texas at Austin, while Sunjeev Sahota is a third-generation British Indian who grew up in a close-knit Sikh community in England.
Both are second novels for their authors and both address political violence in North India and lives of Punjabis abroad. The two novels are concerned with power and issues of political concern (bombs, illegal immigration, and caste), but they are far less concerned with the formal workings of power than how it operates on a social and emotional scale.
In Karan Mahajan’s accessible, panoramic second novel The Association of Small Bombs, a bomb detonates in Lajpat Nagar, a tumultuous, crowded Delhi market. The bomb is motivated by the fight for Kashmiri independence. Thirteen die and 30 are injured — in India, this is considered a small bomb. At the time of the bomb, two 12-year-old secular Hindu brothers Tushar and Nakul Khurana are picking up the Khurana’s used television set at a repair shop. They’ve brought along their Muslim friend Mansoor Ahmad against his overprotective parents’ wishes. The bomb kills the Khurana brothers, but Mansoor survives. Shell-shocked and bleeding, he runs from the market and only turns up at his parents’ home the next day.
The architecture of the novel is brilliant in its literary exploration of the aftermath of small bombs — bombs that are not big enough to seize the public imagination and create broad social changes the way 9/11 did, but instead are forgotten by the public, nonetheless causing considerable grief and suffering in the families of victims. Told from multiple perspectives, the narrative is propulsive. Given what could be extremely heavy subject matter, the dark humor keeps the novel lively rather than overdetermined. The highly personal nature of the novel’s stories elevates it into a study of the deep relationship between the political and the personal.
One of the central storylines follows Mansoor into his early 20s when he moves to the United States for an education in computer science just after 9/11, only to suffer serious problems with his wrists due to injuries during the bombing. What is perceived by society as a “small” bomb haunts him his whole life, and its effects culminate in a powerful, unsettling climax. The novel also traces the effect of the bomb on the Khuranas’ marriage, the bomb maker and his friends, and later, Mansoor’s friend.
When documentary filmmaker Vikas Khurana, the boys’ father, hears of the bomb, he drops everything and goes to find his sons at the market. He doesn’t locate them, and some of the most memorable writing in the novel centers on his grief during the bomb’s aftermath. For example, in his most frequent dream after the boys’ death,
he became, for a few minutes, the bomb. The best way to describe what he felt would be to say that first he was blind, then he could see everything. This is what it felt like to be a bomb. You were coiled up, majestic with blackness, unaware that the universe outside you existed, and then a wire snapped and ripped open your eyelids all the way around and you had a vision of the world that was 360 degrees, and everything in your purview was doomed by seeing.
Meanwhile, the police arrest those they believe are the terrorists responsible for the bomb. One of the men arrested is Malik, a close friend of the actual bomb maker, who has a reputation for being a thinker — ineffectual, effeminate, and eccentric. But the man who actually made the bomb that kills the Khurana boys is Shockie, a Kashmiri exile who is the leading bomb maker of the Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Force.
Early on, Shockie confesses to Malik that he’s thinking of defecting because the group’s leadership is corrupt and ideologically weak in focusing on small blasts, rather than one big one, as well as there being no innovation in bombs. But Shockie is not motivated solely by love of his homeland or radical politics; he is also a loathsome violent misogynist with no sympathetic characteristics. He imagines raping the wives of gluttonous men at a roadside restaurant: “He wanted to ram his penis into their wives.” His fate is foreshadowed early in the novel with the author’s insight that “Bomb makers, like most people, are undone not by others but by themselves.”
The Khurana boys’ mother, Deepa, is a South Indian Christian transplant from Bangalore to New Delhi. She is the weakest link, giving an otherwise complex novel a schematic feel. She has comparatively little inner life, while exclusively thinking in terms of Hindu mythology and belief. Of course, it’s possible that South Indian Christians like this exist, but in contrast to the detailed attention paid to the male characters, the throwaway nature of her characterization — a South Indian Christian who is actually just Hindu in her outlook — suggests that she was added to make the novel feel more ambitious. Deepa invokes India’s religious diversity rather than any complexity in character or individuality.
Deepa moves from grief and desire for revenge to wanting to meet one of the terrorists. We’re never brought as close to her thoughts as we are to Vikas’s, and so this trajectory feels like a standard American literary move rather than an organic one. A tendency to dip too shallowly into a female character’s perspective also slightly marred the effects of Mahajan’s satirical debut novel Family Planning, a novel about Rakesh Ahuja, a Hindu government minister in New Delhi who has 13 children because he is only attracted to his wife when she is pregnant.
In Family Planning, Rakesh pretends to be a Hindu bigot who wants to outbreed Muslims because he doesn’t want his eldest son to know that he is the son of Rakesh’s earlier marriage. Throughout Mahajan’s debut novel, various Hindu characters say fairly detestable things about Muslims, suggesting Mahajan’s early interest in bigotry and how it manifests. Mahajan’s take on Hindu-Muslim tensions in The Association of Small Bombs is more interesting. Occasionally, however, it feels like a paint-by-numbers effort. An unpleasant generalization made by a Hindu character about Muslims must be perfectly counterbalanced thereafter by an equally unpleasant generalization by Mansoor’s family about Hindus being the real terrorists. Ultimately, The Association of Small Bombs comes to a far bleaker conclusion than its predecessor.
While the novel is very enjoyable, the language is sometimes showy at the expense of true emotion. More concerned with linguistic fireworks than its characters, it aestheticizes violence without getting to any compelling truth about violence. At no point are you permitted to forget that you’re reading a clever, gifted writer. I found myself more taken with the care and beauty of the language — from the first page, the parked car that comes apart in a “dizzying flock of shards” or people with hands pressed to wounds “as if they had smashed eggs against their bodies in hypnotic agreement and were unsure about what to do with the runny, bloody yolk” — than feeling or thinking about the book’s ideas.
Viewed as a whole, The Association of Small Bombs is a thing of loveliness — its structure and concept are a marvel, and the close-up study of Vikas’s grief is quite moving. However, the artful language in an overly plotted larger story emphasizes the grotesque aspects of humanity, tugging the reader between twin poles of delight and disgust without as much exploration of what lies between.
Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is a bold, immersive novel that coincidentally ties into an ugly and sensitive political issue in India right now. The suicide of 26-year-old Dalit PhD student Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad in southern India on January 17, 2016, has served as a flashpoint in the controversy about Dalit complaints of discrimination at Indian universities and elsewhere. Dalits were formerly known as untouchables, and are sometimes referred to under the government rubric as “scheduled castes” or “scheduleds.” As is the case for many black Americans when discussing race, Dalits are subject to government-sanctioned abuse, but if they bring up caste in an effort to change the status quo, they are accused of being casteist. In his suicide note, Rohith wrote of the growing gap between his soul and body and how it made him feel he had become a monster. He’d been expelled from the university under questionable circumstances for an alleged assault that was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The conservative Indian government, meanwhile, took five days to respond to the death and public uproar, and once it did, attacked Vemula and the Dalit cause.
Shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, The Year of the Runaways is a leap forward from Sahota’s emotionally vibrant but conceptually shaky debut novel Ours Are the Streets. The debut was structured as a long, nonlinear letter by Imtiaz Raina, a second-generation Pakistani British suicide bomber. In the letter, Imtiaz explains to his white British wife, young daughter, and family how he became radicalized while on a trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan for his immigrant father’s funeral. The actual drama of the radicalization itself, however, was bypassed. The novel considered everything except what was most dramatically engaging and mysterious about the story. By novel’s end, Imtiaz’s radicalization seems to be the product of grief, alienation, and mental illness.
Sahota’s gifts of empathy and observation were on display in his debut, but they are more fully realized in The Year of the Runaways. This latest tells the intertwined stories of four young immigrants to England, three of them there illegally. It moves back and forth between their difficult lives in India and Sheffield. The narrative thrust of the novel as a whole is not immediately clear and the pacing at the outset is slow. Is this just a slice of life about migrant workers in the United Kingdom? Is there a cohesive plot that ties these characters’ separate backstories together? These concerns fall away soon enough, however, as the reader comes to care deeply about these carefully drawn characters. Sahota’s style is subtle, mostly transparent. The sentences are clean and well constructed, allowing a reader to forget his authorial presence and think about the urgent nature of the story. The four characters’ stories join together in an unforgettable way.
Randeep Sanghera is a middle-class Sikh whose father, a government worker, experiences a mental breakdown and is forced out of his job. After sexually assaulting a girl, Randeep is expelled from school. In order to help his financially struggling family, he goes abroad through a visa marriage to Narinder Kaur, an extremely devout Sikh woman living apart from her family. Randeep tries to convince Narinder that they should live together, to make their phony marriage more convincing to officials. She isn’t fooled by his ruse and rebuffs his advances. Right off the bat, the reader wonders why a woman so pious and candid has agreed to a visa marriage.
Avtar Nijjar knew Randeep’s family in Amritsar, India, and maintained a secret affair with Randeep’s sexually confident sister Lakhpreet. Unable to find a job, he sells a kidney just to be able to travel to England on a student visa in order to find work, which he must do alongside his studies. Randeep, Avtar, and 10 other undocumented workers share a large Victorian house in Sheffield.
Within the first 20 pages, Randeep meets his new roommate Tochi, a chamar (a Dalit) from Bihar, India, who witnessed the massacre of his family and has suffered daily hardships based solely on his identity. Tochi’s story is the most compelling; it’s admirably honest and brave; Sahota doesn’t shy away from caste-related content for fear that it will be too foreign for a non-Indian readership. For many Indians, caste is a taboo subject — the country’s dirty laundry and not to be talked about — even though it informs so many social interactions within India and in the diaspora.
After Randeep meets Tochi, he has the following simple, but telling exchange with another of the undocumented workers, the thuggish Gurpreet:
“Where’s your new friend from?”
Randeep said he didn’t know, that he went to sleep straightaway.
Randeep thought for a moment, shrugged. “Never said.”
Policing people’s last names is how some Indians discriminate against other Indians, how they determine where someone fits within the caste hierarchy and how much dignity and respect is owed to them. While skin color and clothing and vocation do provide some social cues, information about a last name coupled with where an individual is from can be more telling than appearance within Indian communities.
Throughout the novel, Sahota shows tremendous insight into the ways that discrimination is not just about a single horrific event (although the novel contains one of those, too). It is mostly made up of all the discomfort and little daily injustices compounded over a long period of time to wear down the victim’s moral resolve and emotional wellness. Sometimes Sahota narrates these more subtle incidents from the victim’s point of view, while at other times, he weaves it in as casual mention in a section told from a more privileged character’s point of view. For example, while Randeep is watching television with his love interest at college, “The only interruption came when two girls entered the lounge and asked if they could change channels. They must have been scheduleds because some of the other girls pinched their nostrils together.” Randeep, of course, says nothing, but it’s an emotionally complex moment, not a didactic one, because we feel for Randeep and his longing for romantic intimacy, as well.
All four characters’ stories reveal ways in which excessive hardship does not necessarily make an individual better or stronger, but instead turns into fuel for extremely immoral behavior. Tochi’s story as it intersects with visa wife, Narinder Kaur, most clearly illustrates this moral concern, and shows how even a single act of true kindness and compassion can do just the opposite.
Early in the novel, shown from other characters’ perspectives, Narinder is not given much depth or complexity. This is intentional; both Avtar and Randeep have shallow perceptions of women. However in the latter half of the novel, Narinder’s story from her own perspective is carefully imagined and wholly believable. She is a religious woman accustomed to following the commands of her father and domineering brother, almost entering into an arranged marriage before leaving to enter into the visa marriage with Randeep instead.
Although her choice in this regard is portrayed as an individual decision motivated by an interesting back story, the placement of this decision alongside the other themes of the novel allows Sahota to intelligently intimate one of the true, societal purposes of traditionally arranged marriages: to keep the familiar evils of caste and endogamy and — by default, in most cases — discrimination alive. Casteism is a close relative of racism and xenophobia that lurks in diasporic communities and is rarely called out, even though, ironically, the perpetrators themselves may be victims of racism or xenophobia from the majority population.
One of the most frustrating things for the children of immigrants is the realization that even though they were born in the country they call their home, and even though they are assimilated, they may still be treated as an “other” based solely on the color of their skin and the culture of their families. The desire for belonging can give way to an emotional backlash — a fierce adoption and defense of the prejudices of their ancestral homeland. As a Punjabi doctor born in Britain tells Avtar,
Something happened a few years ago that made it clear to me that I’m only ever going to be a guest in this country. That it didn’t matter how many garden parties I threw for my neighbors, this would never be my real home. It’s important that a man has a sense of a real home. A sense of his own ending.
This feeling of home is what all the characters in The Year of the Runaways are desperately looking for.
The Year of the Runaways may be a less accessible book for Western readers than The Association of Small Bombs, but it is also more clear-sighted and fair in its meting out of empathy among the characters. In sincere and truthful prose, it reveals the grim close-mindedness of an immigrant community and the way nostalgia — motivated by equal parts longing, lack of acceptance, and extreme hardship — can intensify prejudice. The simplicity of Sahota’s delivery belies the nuance and sophistication of his stellar observations. An ineffable radiance shines through, a quality made up of more than the sum of its sentences.