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The Runaways book review: Fatima Bhutto explores what it is to be young and Muslim in a polarised world

“You are looking everywhere but the right place," a minor character in The Runaways tells Sunny, one of the three protagonists. The right place is something all the three lead characters in the book keep yearning for.

Anita Rose, born in the slums of Karachi, is searching for a better life, which she believes mastering English will lead her to. The blue-blooded Monty, of old money and a demanding father, leaves a life of cushy privilege to follow his love into oblivion. Sunny, the misfit from Portsmouth, chafes at his father’s overarching love and expectation while experimenting with his own sexuality. Through these three disparate, young characters, Fatima Bhutto tries to understand the question which is at the heart of this poignant novel: What is it to be young and Muslim in an increasingly polarised world?

It’s very easy for these three characters to be caricatured as clichés. Anita could easily have been reduced to any other young girl trying to trade her life in the slum for a better existence. Monty could be the typical lost rich kid on the lookout for something more substantial than his wealth, while Sunny, in the words of his father in the book, could be a trademark BBCD (British Born Confused Desi), but it is Bhutto’s deft handling of these characters and their narratives which adds to the ebb and tide of the novel.

One feels invested in their character graphs, and what the novel responds with is an adroit peek inside into the mind of a young Muslim who is straddling two different worlds at once. One being the delirious freedoms of social media and the lure of the West, with its ideas of democracy and equality. The other is the insidious world of mullahs, blasphemy laws and using religion as an overt and covert means to establish supremacy over the populace.

File image of Fatima Bhutto. Reuters/Stringer

File image of Fatima Bhutto. Reuters/Stringer

At the soul of the story are Anita, Sunny and Monty. Anita and Monty are at diametrically opposite ends of the spectrum that is Karachi society. He is of the manor born, the grandson of a Nawab, who was met with a 13-gun salute every morning and who gave up his monogrammed Rolls Royce and bespoke Cartier leopards to make a life in Karachi while his son added to the family wealth by siphoning off prime real estate belonging to the Parsis fleeing Pakistan. Anita’s mother works as a maalish wali, and the young girl grows up trying to be invisible in the grand homes her mother works at. Her constant companion is a red notebook, in which she scribbles her dreams and desires while an upturn in her brother’s mysterious business results comes at a cruel personal cost.

Also read on Firstpost: Fatima Bhutto on her new novel The Runaways, identity, and her love for Karachi

In the UK, Sunny is the only son of Sulaiman Jamil, a James Bond aficionado who moves to England and marries his second cousin, only to realise that, ‘he did not have to love the woman he married and that she did not have to love him, either’. Training his affection and hopes onto his only offspring, Jamil wants to be redeemed of his own personal failings and tragedies through Sunny’s success.

The cover of The Runaways

The cover of The Runaways

Bhutto is at her best when she explores the mind of a millennial. The worlds of hashtags (#automtovakalashnikova, #killtime and #naturalbornkillers) and Twitter co-exist with the world of radicalisation of young Muslim youth by confounding them with false propaganda. She explains the lure of terror which young Muslims in the West can be subjected to, through Oz, a cousin of Sunny who dabbles briefly with terror and jihad, only to go back to the comforts of his plush life by being an inspirational speaker who reforms young radicals. This, after he goads and sends Sunny to fight the holy war against the West, is a cruel irony but a succinct showcase of how easy it is in today's world of Whatsapp forwards, insidious propaganda and Youtube videos to waylay the young.

Bhutto doesn’t shy away from exploring other critical threads which are plaguing Pakistan in particular and the sub-continent in general. The travails of young Muslims who are confused about their sexual identities (You are not becoming a fruit, asks a concerned father) and battle guilt and confusion at multiple levels, the treatment of minorities in Pakistan (explored by Nadeem Aslam to a greater extent in his works) and the misguided interpretations of Islam easily available to the young. The parts where Oz radicalises Sunny appear terrifyingly true. She ensures that these ideas find a place in the gripping narrative, giving a glimpse to the reader about the underbelly of Pakistani society caught in a time warp of religion, fundamentalism and division.

The tone and tenor of Bhutto’s prose flows freely and she explores the various time-honoured ideas of family, religion and terror to great effect by creating a believable world where young love, parental aspirations and individual freedoms mingle with misplaced loyalties, religious extremism and sexual identities.

At times, the narrative plods along a little too conveniently (would it be possible for a youngster to simply stroll into one of the World’s deadliest conflict zones) and we wished she explored the arc of Anita Rose’s character a little fully, but Bhutto takes a brutal and unsparing look to provide a powerful mirror at which society can look back at the havoc it is creating on its young, making The Runaways a riveting read.


Updated Date: Oct 26, 2018 08:52 AM

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