Fatima Bhutto’s new novel, The Runaways, portrays the dilemmas of the alienated individual in a polarised world. The book is an exploration of our age of extremes, writes Abhijeet Loreng.
The Runaways, Fatima Bhutto’s third novel, traverses between the bylanes of the subcontinent and the cold, unfriendly terrain of England. It deals with three different stories interwoven smartly in the narrative. Stories about what all human beings look for—a sense of belonging as well as a desire to escape familiar surroundings.
The three main protagonists of The Runaways are Anita, Sunny and Monty. Three lonely souls from three different strata of society, each in search of the meaning of life. Sunny is a second-generation Indian Muslim man living in England with his widower father. His father, we’re told, was compelled to marry his mother, Rafiya Begum. Both had come to England dreaming of a better life, only to realise that life in Albion was a far cry from the glamour and prosperity they’d imagined. Sunny can feel the coldness and alienation felt by his father as an immigrant in England, yet what makes him frustrated is his father’s refusal to acknowledge his outsider status. Sunny’s father has tried too hard to justify his decision to move to England, where his lonely life was further driven into misery by the death of his wife Rafiya soon after Sunny’s birth.
Sunny is the quintessential confused second generation immigrant in Britain—what one would call a BBCD, or British Born Confused Desi. Sunny has been dating women from a very young age but has come to resent it more and more. He is confused about his sexuality and in one scene, when he realises, with horror, that he might be gay, he pushes his friend—a handsome German—away from him at a gay bar. Yet after that he continues to surf male profiles on Tinder and is further confused about his feelings when he meets his cousin Oz. Sunny often laments why his father left India in the first place. He has come to strongly believe that the sense of alienation he feels in England would never have existed for him in India, despite the various drawbacks of life in the Third World.
Anita is a half-Muslim-half-Christian young woman from Pakistan who lives with her mother and brother, Ezra, in the slums of Karachi. He mother works as a masseuse in the upmarket Clifton Road area, where the wealthy of Karachi live. Anita is desperate to escape her poor setting and believes that the English language is her passport out of this miserable existence. Her quest for a better life takes her to England where she meets Monty, who comes from the other extreme end of society.
Monty belongs to a generationally rich family and is the only child of a very demanding and non-understanding father and an over-protective mother. The constant fights between his parents, about the right way to raise Monty, make him feel as if he is the main cause of friction in the family. This makes him a withdrawn person who is desperately seeking love and understanding.
All three characters in Bhutto’s novel are Muslims or have a deep connection with the Muslim faith. Hence in The Runaways, Bhutto’s larger subject is the sense of alienation that young Muslims face in an increasingly polarised world, and sadly, how this alienation often pushes bright young people towards violent extremism with tragic results.
Bhutto also takes a dig at social media and how it can easily distort or influence a vulnerable mind, especially if one feels alienated and lonely. Monty, for instance, has absolutely no idea about life outside his social bubble and when he meets Anita he finds a connect that he has been longing for. That’s why he decides to follow her to Mosul in Iraq. His love for Anita comes in sharp contrast to the hell that Mosul has become under the ISIS. Here they meet Sunny, who has been goaded by his local mullah back in England to fight the holy war against the West and is sent to Mosul. It is clear that Bhutto is trying to remind us of the skewed and destructive realities social media is creating. I couldn’t agree with her more, considering the spate of lynching incidents that have taken place in Indian recently.
The Runaways is a timely book as well. It reminds us that it is not alright to blame any particular religion for the spread of extremism in the world. It is more about the sense of exclusion that pushes people over the edge into extremism, when all they want is to feel a sense of belonging. Her characters make us feel the sadness amid the opulence, wealth and hope. And in their hopelessness we get a glimpse of the dark corners of our world.