‘The Runaways’: A Whimsical Experience Of Twisted Twists
Hira Shah reviews Fatima Bhutto’s new novel ‘The Runaways’. The novel revolves around three ‘Runaways’ who succeed in breaking the shackles of their homeland (to which they never belonged).
“It’s never the serpents hiding in the rose bush, never the users of the liars. They hit you in the front. Only your family, your blood, come at you from behind”. (The Runaways)
In the beginning, the plot of “The Runaways” by Fatima Bhutto seems to be languid and slow till we enter its second part where, as we turn over its pages, everything that made sense earlier now seems to be falling apart. With so many questions brewing in mind, we begin to look for answers and so find ourselves stranded out of time and place.
“He did not want to leave one life full of lies only to walk right into another”. (The Runaways)
Weaved with the traces of Fatima Bhutto’s personal life experiences, ‘The Runaways’ is a novel that keeps shifting its reader from present to past until at the end we find ourselves back in present which then seems a bit hard to digest. Without the page of contents, it is later that we discover its division into three parts. Each following different sense of time: 2014-2016, 2017, 2016-2017.
“‘A’ridh anil jahilin (Ignore the Ignorant)” – The Runaways
The novel revolves around three Runaways who succeed in breaking the shackles of their homeland (to which they never belonged). When the novel begins, we meet one of the protagonists ‘Anita Rose’ who seems to be struggling with herself at the somber airport of Karachi (April 2016). Everything there seems gloomy until she picks her bags and says, ‘I’ll be safe soon’. Right afterwards, we are sent back in times of 2014 where things start to make sense until later on we again find ourselves standing one step before the quagmire of events.
“That was who she (Anita) wanted to be, the kind of girl who could forget someone in a week. Who didn’t need anyone, who wasn’t afraid, who was brave and free. A lioness who was not, and would never be a man’s woman”. (The Runaways)
Anita Rose belonged to slums of Karachi where she lived with her mother who worked as a maalish wali, massaging the rich women with her scented oil by visiting their homes. And a brother who used to accompany them. Anita was bullied at her school by her classmates for being poor. Out of all the houses where her mother worked, house of Clifton was her favorite as she admired Rima, for her independent life and freedom. Anita had special association with her neighbour Osama Saheb who despite his drinking habit had been a friend, associate and comrade to her. Osama was an old man who was well-read and so with him Anita explored the world of poetry. He always used to give her mountains of books to read. She started learning English from the dramas she frequently watched on TV, committing them to memory before she went to sleep.
After living in darkness for some time, Anita’s brother finally started working for big and important men, English speaking and powerful people. His brother even changed his name for he believed that his name did him nothing good. With time, their lifestyle began to upgrade from one home to another. And as they set on the journey to better days, we lose track of Anita Rose. Narration to her life suddenly disappears, until we see her again but then nothing remains the same.
“He (Sunny) had known Islam only for its refuge, its tolerance. It was submission not violence. It made no distinction between sons – neither Sunni nor Shia. They all were one. But Sunny did not want to lose the one thread he had ever found that led somewhere”. (The Runaways)
The second protagonist, Sunny, lived in Portsmouth with his widowed father Sulaiman Jamil. His Pa wanted to see his boy settled despite his own personal failures. Jamil himself ‘had not studied and so was denied the life he deserved’. He had come all the way to Portsmouth from Lucknow with a prospect of a better life yet he failed badly to materialize the new beginning of life that he had imagined. However, Sunny too led a life that had been aimless and hollow, where he had been trying to find the right direction that was missing altogether. After he experienced unusual associations with different men, everything made sense when he met his cousin Oz (Ozair) who seemed to be a radical Muslim. Oz showed a new world to Sunny where, he promised, everything would be fine. He believed that he was returning Sunny to his ancestral beliefs, guiding him through the teachings of his forefathers onto the land of milk and honey. Oz assured Sunny that after lying low in England for a while, raising some funds and recruiting some more soldiers he will meet him there, in Mosul Iraq, where they will fight together in the name of Islam. And so Sunny began his journey to Mosul after cutting all his threads attached to the land of England.
After following all the directions given by his dear cousin Oz he reached Mosul for the sake of Ummah Movement, and kept wishing to meet Oz. Everything seems sane till he realizes it had been a trap for Oz seemed no longer a man, he knew.
“Life before Layla had been easier. Until Layla, it had simply not occurred to him that all lives were lived in a glass houses. And one’s duty as a conscious man was to be a stone-thrower”. (The Runaways)
Monty belonged to the other side of Karachi where his father influenced most part of it. But when we first meet Monty, he is on vacations in London with his father, Akbar Ahmed and mother Zahra. Khadijah, their maid, is with them too. His parents insisted to bring her along for the housekeeping like cooking and cleaning the flat, leaving behind a new Filipina.
Monty’s father had been a grumpy man who hated to get lectures on religion and morality. He highly disapproved of BBCD British Born Confused Desi. Torn apart between two quarrelsome parents, Monty felt conflicted till his friends managed a video call to show him the new girl at school – Layla.
A girl who wore see through man’s shirt and puffed cigarettes under the shade of Bunyan tree while maintaining her power – privacy and mystery. And so Monty wanted her because she was fearless while he always had been afraid. And then finally, fate worked for Monty as Layla came in his life full of love and trust. While they kissed and held hands, a gap prevailed of their tale and we find ourselves stranded on the land of Iraq amidst the stranded lives of Sunny and Monty who with different motives have embraced the life of a Jihadi – apparently leaving behind all their connections and association. However, at heart still longing for them. Sunny still awaits for his cousin Oz and Monty aspires to meet Layla who now is the female representative of Ummah Movement. A woman who now is seen in her black abaya and bare face.
“Sunny looks over at Monty. All of them – even this duffer – came out here to die. To fight for a world on fire”. (The Runaways)
As we reach the last page, we start to empathize with the characters who get transfixed at such situations where one slight mistake can alter the path of their lives. Also, Bhutto designed two different book covers for ‘The Runaways’ with Lion for editions in Pakistan and India while for UK chose Mynah.
Reading “The Runaways” has been totally a whimsical experience where rush of events entirely change the map of characters’ lives! Just when you feel it’s the same old story of lost love, monetary deprivation and religious extremism right then, Bhutto jolts you with a twisted twist.
A novel that asks so many questions yet provides answer to none.
“Why do we always ape the West?” (The Runaways)