The Runaways by Fatima Bhutto
Reviewed by Praveena Shivram
Fatima Bhutto’s The Runaways has words that dance to a music of their own, with tunes that once you catch – which you invariably will– sweep you into irresistible beats that throb with great urgency. Set between 2014 and 2017, with compelling characters – young, restless, full of glorious and tragic lives – caught in the web of politics and religion and their social implications, The Runaways is awash with such detail that you physically breathe in the world. Here, thoughts singe and burn, personalities crackle and simmer, and choice, that all pervasive thing, is like circumstance’s dangling noose, at once dangerous and inevitable.
The novel begins with Anita Rose leaving Karachi, her neighbour and comrade Osama’s words, still ringing in her ears: This city will take your heart… You don’t know what Karachi does to people like us. Take your heart, do you hear? And right there, a quiet sense of fear creeps in, and the motif of escape, central to the book, makes its first appearance. Escape, which, you will quickly learn, is intoxicated on its own sense of freedom, much like Anita’s old neighbour, who, forever with a glass of sharab in his hands, spews lines from Hafiz, Ghalib and Faiz, which Anita diligently notes down in her little red notebook. He calls her “lion” and that is what the first part of the book is also titled, “They Call Me Lion.” Bhutto has fashioned this book like a jigsaw puzzle divided among the three characters – Anita Rose, Monty and Sunny. Timelines, even though set within a specific time frame, do not matter here as Bhutto effortlessly moves from past to present, from yesterday to tomorrow, from Anita to Monty to Sunny, and even though it is confusing at first, you submit to its rigour.
If Anita’s life represents the journey of moving from the slums of Karachi to its more urban working-class town of Gulshan, then Monty’s life is the other extreme of Karachi, belonging to a world that holidays in London, that can indiscriminately hire and fire servants, and that can have the luxury to choose the life of superficial austerity (in Monty’s mother’s case) or a life of superficial hardship (in Monty’s case). Monty’s life has turned upside-down when he has met the mysterious Layla in school, a new admission, constantly smelling of cigarettes, a reader of Urdu poetry, a purposeful, ferocious rebel. He falls deeply in love with her. The first thing she asks him when they meet is: ‘What do you know of the world?’ and you can feel the ground beneath Monty’s feet being pulled away and there is nothing left to do but fall. In Bhutto’s words, here is how the scene unravels: When he spoke to her, she noticed that his pupils dilated, like coffee spilling in slow motion, until you could no longer see the light brown of his eyes. ‘What do you know about the world?’ Layla shot back, running her tongue along the seam of the cigarette. ‘What gives you the right to have an opinion about anything?’ And without meaning to, Monty gave the only answer someone like Layla would respect. Nothing, he replied. I don’t know anything.
And, then, there is Sunny, in Portsmouth, UK. The most misunderstood of the lot, the one carrying his immigrant father’s sedate bitterness most consciously, feeling most tangibly his Muslim roots, and grappling with the many-hued layers of his sexuality, and eventually choosing, within this morass of confusion, a path of no return. Bhutto saves a large part of her compassion for Sunny, almost as if she knows he is too fragile, where even one word that misses its mark could break him. Several times, you hold your breath as you watch Sunny struggle and flounder, and then are filled with dread when Oz, Sunny’s cousin, arrives and begins to tell him about the fight for the Promised Land. As you enter part two of the book, titled “And We Were Born Again”, that exclusively chronicles Sunny and Monty’s long trek through the desert as ‘jihadis’ fighting for the Ummah Movement in Syria, you read Sunny’s version with more care, you read his Twitter feed and Facebook posts with alacrity. Sunny is so deeply lost that he is willing to kill a large part of himself to be found, to be seen, and in this engagement with his pain, he discovers a semblance of order.
When their paths cross in part three, ‘Truly They Speak, Only Those Who Have Seen The Truth’, you begin to feel the anguish of endless hope and faith. When Anita asks Osama, ‘How do I stop it? How do I stop this city from eating my heart?’, and Osama says, ‘You fight. You take theirs first.’ you start to feel the descent, the descent into a void of heady freedom, freedom that is old by virtue of its birth and new by virtue of its constant, small, everyday deaths, evident even in the abbreviated versions of their names – Mustafa becomes Monty, Salman becomes Sunny, Ozair becomes Oz, Ezra becomes Feroze, and Anita becomes Layla. One of the triumphs of Bhutto’s novel is that even the characters that stand outside this circle are so richly detailed that they never seem incidental to the plot. Each one brings something precise and sharp that changes lives, so that, by the time we come to the fourth part, “The Land of Milk and Honey,” we are spent, having fallen in and out of the vastness of this landscape contained so precariously within Anita, Monty and Sunny’s young fists.
Bhutto, with her own history – of being raised in Syria and Karachi, being niece of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and deeply troubled by her father’s death who was killed by the police in Karachi – brings a sense of vulnerability to her writing, that is powerful and yet devoid of conceit. In the end, when we read, And at that moment Sunny thought Monty – whose face was slightly tanned, the bridge of his nose burnt from the sun – was somehow more beautiful than when they had first met, we know, with the inevitability of thunder following lightening, that this is true for the book as well – it resonates with a beauty we do not expect in the beginning when Anita leaves Karachi and the moon hangs low in the night.
Praveena Shivram is a writer based in Chennai, India, and currently the Editor of Arts Illustrated, a pan-India arts and design based magazine. She has written for several national publications, including The Times of India, India Today, The Hindu, The Swaddle, Biblio: A Review of Books, Asiaville, and Culturama. Her fiction has appeared in the Open Road Review, The Indian Quarterly, Jaggery Lit, Desi Writers’ Lounge, Spark, Chaicopy, and Helter Skelter’s anthology of New Writing Volume 6. She is a single mother of two children and an occasional powerlifter. Read her work at www.praveenashivram.com