Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Sunjeev Sahota | Themes can come, it’s the character which is foremost

Before we can get on with the interview, we have to do photos. Sunjeev Sahota uncomplainingly makes a few poses for the camera, arranging his face into pursed lips and a plain expression. It’s almost a grimace and I mention it to him. He says he has been told not to smile too much. “Maybe they think this is what a serious writer looks like", he shrugs. In many of his interview photos, in fact, he looks grumpy, as though he was quite annoyed to have been pulled away from his writing desk in the basement of his home in North England, where he likes to write “alone, in a room" trying for there to be “no light, and silence really, silence and semi-darkness." He breaks into a self-conscious laugh when he says that, as if he had made himself sound strange, and clarifies that it’s not that he wants darkness, “just no natural light." And “silence", he repeats softly, before letting the thought go. Is that why he is so often painted by the press as a painfully shy and full of reluctance? There is the gentle self-conscious laugh again. “I think I am quite sociable. I don’t understand the depiction, maybe it’s the frowning photos."

Shy or sociable, Sahota hasn’t had a moment of silence or semi-darkness in these past months, touring to promote his book The Year of the Runaways, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2015. In Jaipur, he is speaking at two panels, one titled the ‘Booker Bookshelf’ with fellow nominees Anuradha Roy and Marlon James (also the winner), and another titled ‘The Global Novel’ with, among others, Margaret Atwood and Colm Tóibín. There is something quiet and unhurried about his speech, as though even into the midst of this grand stage and frenetic carnival he had carried along a bit of silence and semi-darkness from his basement back in England.

Photos done, we settle down for our interview on an open terrace washed with warming sunshine. My first question is a line stolen from his book. The Year of the Runaways, in large part, is about the immigrant experience in England told through the back stories of three men who have arrived in Sheffield from Punjab. A recurring question throughout the book is “what’s your pind". It’s a question people ask to place each other, your ‘pind’ being shorthand for ethnic and caste identities, a recognition that no matter how far you have come or will go, you are forever from your pind. The question simply means ‘where are you from’ or which village you are from, but there is an unspoken bit to it; they are really asking ‘where are you from, originally?’

So, what’s your pind? I ask Sahota.

“My pind is a small village called Barwa, it’s outside a city called Nawashehr in Punjab. It’s my pind because it’s my dad’s pind but there is no one there anymore, everyone seems to have left. When I am in India, as after Jaipur, I am going to Punjab where I will stay with my maternal family, and they are in a pind called Kala Sanghian, which is outside Jalandhar."

One of his protagonists, Tochi, first appears in a field some two hours walk away from Jalandhar, unloading sacks of fodder. Is there a reference?

“It’s modelled too much on my family farm, my naniji’s farm in Punjab. My starting point for any description of Punjabi village life is my thoughts and images of Kala Sanghian."

Does the reference go deeper? Tochi, or Tarlochan Kumar, is ‘originally’ from Bihar, comes over to Punjab to work the fields for a wage; he belongs to the caste of chamaars. That identity is the defining driver of events in his life.

“Tochi came into my head as someone who was different from the rest of my characters, whose motivations were not purely economic, the ‘earn money-send back home-help their families out’, but something much more internal, and Tochi is about wanting to have a say in his own life. Who are the kinds of people for whom that would be vitally important to their sense of self, and ... in India … it would have to be…the people who are most hurt or most vilified…and immediately my head goes to the people who get called the scheduled castes or backward castes, so someone from that background. And casteism is something that is rife in England as well, it carries over from India to established immigrants. It is something you witness on a daily basis when you are wandering amongst the British-Indian community.

“Growing up, till up to my adolescence, the Indians I had ever met in England were all of the same historical caste group as me. I grew up in Derby, in north of England, where practically everyone was from my dad’s pind. It was like an Indian village had transplanted itself into north of England and started to live in these few streets around us. It’s only when I went to University in London and came into contact with friends from different backgrounds that I realized that others were boxed into different historical caste groups. From my visits to my family in Punjab, I was aware of course that there are caste groups and there is casteism, you hear it being spoken of, but it wasn’t something I started to take an interest in till I went to university and started having friends who were not like me."

Did he find himself outraged?

“Always. I remember coming to India and every time I would be appalled. You would see the way people from different caste groups are spoken about. We would be eating at the table and others, maybe who worked there, eating on the floor. Those kind of things. It was difficult to stomach and it was difficult to see people who in other aspects of life are quite compassionate but when it comes to this aspect of Indian life, their mentality becomes so much more…abhorrent, actually."

It brings us to a question about writing a ‘political novel’. What level of consciousness is there when you are tackling themes as big as caste?

“Character is foremost. Themes sort of come, they trail behind characters. I think if the interior lives of the characters are complex, well patterned and well depicted, the themes will look after themselves. It’s not that I want to talk about caste system and I need to show these things happen. It is not my job to … that’s for a polemicist to do; my job is to show the world as I see it and feel it."

I quote him what novelist Kamila Shamsie wrote in her review of The Year of the Runaways for Guardian newspaper. “There’s a strange whiff of mistrust in these British isles around the description ‘political novel’; it’s a term sometimes confused with the polemic, and an absence of nuance and subtlety. Sunjeev Sahota’s second novel makes a nonsense of common assumptions about what it means to write a political novel."

So, yes, characters are foremost, but did he see his book as a political novel?

“I think it is a political novel but it is political because the themes that it deals with—almost because of the characters—are about ideas of goodness. What does it mean to be a good person in this world today for, a, the immigrant himself who is bound by ideas of duty and loyalty and family solidarity but also for those in England, people like Narinder (a character), who on the face of it had quite a lucky existence purely by the quirk of their birth in that they have been born into an established, already emigrated family in the UK. What does it mean for them to be good, what do they owe to people back home, who haven’t been as lucky as them. Do they owe them anything at all?

“And that’s a question that is alive for me and should be alive for established immigrants and the children of immigrants in the UK. So the question about goodness is what makes it a political novel, what does it mean to be good in this sort of global world where there is this desperate need to have a share of the world’s spoils. What does it mean to be good in that exchange. That’s what makes it a political novel to me, not so much in that it talks of the ‘plight of the immigrant’, but it talks about what do we owe to who.

It’s something I wrestle with a lot. What do I owe my cousins who are still over here and quite desperate to move to the west, how do I negotiate those feelings and those sacrifices, if at all."

That’s why, he says, the talk about his book being topical, given that it is a book about immigrants and it comes in the midst of the Syrian migrant crisis in Europe, is “silly". The point of the book, he argues, “is to say individual histories are important and we just can’t lump all immigrants into one brown mass of people trying to get over to Europe. There are nuances and subtleties, as Kamila says."

But does he think there is something ‘unwriterly’ to be overly focused on political issues?

“I don’t think it’s unwriterly. For writers like me, with my background, with the fact that my grandparents were affected by Partition of their native village, they then moved from India to the UK, politics is sort of inevitable in the way I view the world. Writers and novelists can’t confuse writing a political novel with writing a didactic novel. If you are going in to the politics it’s inevitably to show that it’s more complicated that those with vested interests would have us believe."

He adds that “I have grown up in a very political country" and I ask him about his first novel, Ours are the Streets, which goes into the mind of a British-born second generation immigrant on the path to become a suicide bomber. Like his new novel, at the time (2011), that book too had seemed topical.

“Even in Ours are the streets, I wasn’t trying to explain the British-born Muslim bomber. It was about a particular person at a particular time with a particular historical background acting under particular circumstances how he might go down that path. I was trying to keep my gaze on his psychology as strongly as I possibly could, and for me psychology and patterning a character is the key to my novels."

That’s two novels so far. Is there a third, political or not?

“There is an idea there, slowly" he says, adding that he would like it to “be a bit less tightly bound" than the Year of the Runaways, and to be “messier".

As for getting it written, he leaves it at “I need to get back to my basement".

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