When his first-born was just five days old, Sunjeev Sahota received a “life-changing” telephone call announcing he had scooped Granta magazine’s Best British Novelist accolade.
The recognition came after he penned his debut novel, the acclaimed Ours Are The Streets about the radicalisation of a British Pakistani teenager in 2013.
Two years on, the 33-year-old from a small mining town in Derbyshire, delves into the issue of illegal immigrants from India trying to make a new life for themselves in his latest offering, The Year Of The Runaways.
Sahota’s book has been longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker prize, it was announced on Wednesday (29). He told Eastern Eye his interest in the subject grew after speaking to Indians who were in England illegally and had been caught and deported.
The author, who recently became a father for the second time, visits India regularly to see his family in a small village in Punjab. In his book, he explores the extreme lengths people go to to gain entry into the UK in search of a better life, including selling their organs to raise cash.
“One of the most heartbreaking things about illegal immigrants who come here is the amount of debt they have to get themselves into. And for the first five, sometimes up to 10 years, they end up paying off that debt before they can start saving,” Sahota said.
“A visa to come here costs about £8,000-10,000, which is an unbelievable sum for these boys in India. Some of them I spoke to said they knew there was a scheme to sell your organs on the black market, and some of the poor in India find themselves doing this to raise some money. Sometimes it’s to pay towards a visa or a bill or to make their way in the world, or if the crops fail one year. It’s such a hand-to-mouth existence.”
His characters, who hail from the Punjab and Bihar and are thrown together by circumstance, settle in Sheffield, and the novel charts their travails over the course of one year.
Tarlochan, a former rickshaw driver, remains tight-lipped about his past in Bihar, and Avtar has a secret that forces him to protect Randeep, who has a ‘visa-wife’ Narinder in a flat on the other side of town. She is a clever, devout woman whose cupboards are full of her ‘husband’s’ clothes, in case immigration officers surprise her with a call.
“It was important to show how these men get the money together, how desperate they are and to make clear that this is actually what some of these boys go through,” he said.
Sahota, who grew up in Chesterfield, was the only Asian boy along with his brother at his school. He read maths at Imperial College London, and went on to get a job as a marketing manager for a financial services provider.
He didn’t read his first novel until he was 18, but it was Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which he picked up at Heathrow airport en route to India, that would lead Sahota to developing a love affair with literature.
“At some point, I started asking questions of the writer beyond the page – how is he doing this? Why has he put the novel together in this way? And I think once I started wondering about the cogs and mechanics of writing a novel, it was only a matter of time before I wanted to have a go myself,” he explained.
It was while holding down a full-time job that the son of Punjabi immigrants who arrived in the UK in the 1960s, began to work on his first novel.
“I was still working full time when I wrote my first novel and half of my second novel. It was very much an evening and weekends thing.
“I didn’t tell my parents for a long time, I think they just thought it was some kind of hobby. I don’t know what they thought I was doing upstairs in my room.
“It was only when writing had become a viable career that I was able to give my full-time job up. By then, they had seen the first novel published – it did quite well and it was more acceptable to them,” he said.
Ours Are The Streets, which was hailed as “nothing short of extraordinary” by the Sunday Times, explores the psyche of Imtiaz Raina, who transforms into an Islamic radical preparing to carry out jihad in the West. With the subject of disillusioned Muslim Britons heading to Syria to join terrorist groups there dominating the headlines, Sahota believes a more inclusive sense of national identity could help tackle the problem.
“Imtiaz feels that he doesn’t belong in England, there’s a yearning for a place to call home. He thinks he finds it in Pakistan where, for the first time, he feels he has a real sense of who he is, his heritage, his people, as he calls them and he has a strong sense of wanting to protect them.
“If there was a stronger sense of national identity that was inclusive, I do think it would go a long way to address some of these issues [of radicalisation]. There needs to be a greater representation of everyone who is in this country in our public spheres,” he said.
Having grown up in a predominantly white northern town, Sahota says he understands the feeling of not belonging.
“I’m not sure if I belong especially any where. When I compare it to my cousins in India, the sense of belonging they feel to their land and to what my white English friends feel with their connection to England, I don’t have any of those.
“In the north, in the late 1980s and 90s – which was a difficult time in the manufacturing industry with everything Maggie Thatcher did – it was a difficult time growing up. It wasn’t always as welcoming as it could have been so that probably had an affect on me.
“Me and my brother were the only brown kids in our school in Chesterfield, a former mining town. Racism was there. I was always aware that things could turn quite quickly.”
After he completed The Year Of The Runaways, Sahota returned to his day job where he says he will remain until he is inspired with a new idea.
However, having risen to prominence in such a short period of time, it is hard to imagine Sahota working in marketing and finance much longer.
He told Eastern Eye he would be “eternally grateful” to Granta for recognising his talent two years ago and propelling him onto the world stage.
“That was a fantastic honour to be on that list, for a writer who was very unknown with one novel out, to get given that endorsement changed my life. It took me around the world with some of the events Granta took me on, sales increased, and other countries wanted to know about me. It gave me a great boost to my confidence. I was very lucky.”