A book raises important questions around identity and loyalty in an increasingly divided world
The Runaways by Fatima Bhutto narrates the story of how three young people from completely different backgrounds adopt the trap called ‘radicalism’ and end up in Mosul, Iraq. Bhutto’s protagonists are Anita, Sunny and Monty—the three runaways.
Anita’s mother is a maalish-wali who has two children to feed and gives massages to the well-off and chubby women in deluxe Clifton houses in Karachi, Pakistan. On the opposite end of the spectrum is her future lover Mustafa, aka Monty, who has privilege written all over him, thanks to his grandfather who was a nawab and a father who has a real estate business.
Sunny, who could easily be termed a stereotypical ‘BBCD’ (British-born confused desi) by someone reading the book superficially, is the son of a widower, desperate to realise the working class immigrant’s British dream—a life filled with security and luxury, which legitimises the fate of one’s children in a foreign country. Sunny can’t relate with his father’s attempts to worm his way into British society nor his hesitant efforts at moving on after the death of his wife.
Sunny seems to be confused about a lot of things—his sexuality being one of them. He pushes away a homosexual friend in a gay bar, but surfs male Tinder profiles and later experiences torn feelings for his cousin Oz.
In The Runaways, Bhutto writes about things that people want to avoid. Through Monty’s world, the writer shows how a life of privilege and comfort is hardly interesting, but when it clashes with Layla’s (the new identity that Anita takes) world, it becomes thought-provoking. How can Anita—a half-Christian, half-Muslim girl who is torn between her comrade Osama (a communist who tries to condition Anita to follow his ideals) and her brother Ezra’s consumerist aspirations—fall in love with Monty, an insolent boy reeking of privilege (which she has herself never possessed)? A boy who has no idea about her favourite Faiz Ahmed Faiz?
Perhaps the answer lies in Monty’s blatant yet simple honesty. “What do you know about the world?” Layla asks Monty in one of the chapters. “Nothing,” he replies.
While talking about the radical philosophy, which is pervasive almost throughout the book, Bhutto observes that when one’s country doesn’t offer one a vision or when it doesn’t include them in their version of society and its future, the young will take any vision that’s offered to them. She further adds that people are not radicalised because they belong to a certain religion. People are radicalised because they are pushed to the edges of society and made to feel alienated.
The writer has also satirised social media quite effectively. In the book, social media has been perceived as a tool to weaponise one’s feelings via Sunny who frequently takes to Twitter to showcase his musings. “My final stop isn’t some godforsaken Iraqi village. Hell, no. I am going all the way to the H-O-L-Y Land, I’m flying straight on to Paradise,” he tweets.
The above is quite reminiscent of people affiliated to terrorist groups—like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—which are spreading their propaganda through social media sites.
Bhutto reminds readers how easy it is to push a lonely soul, in this case a young Muslim, to fight the “sacred” war against the West. It could seem to some that Bhutto is playing with caricatures instead of characters because, let’s face it, a homosexual in denial, class envy, Muslim-British youth responding to the call of jihad, coupled with tropes like loyalty and abandonment, are nothing new. But some readers might be willing to overlook that due to her lucid writing, detailed character sketches and plot twists. However, the writer could have explored more of Anita’s character.
All in all, the three characters deserve readers’ sympathy—Sunny, for being a lost soul who is betrayed by his cousin Oz (who turns out to be a traitor after leading him to Mosul); Anita for being marginalised for being not only a woman, but also a Christian; and lastly Monty for being a lovesick person with a broken heart, chasing his love, but finding himself face to face with the horrors of Mosul.