First Published at hikayaat.com on 20 Nov 2020.
This novel embodies radical empathy. It’s radical to understand the lives of the radicalised; to understand what it is that made them take their path. Fatima Bhutto
gives a counter-narrative of three radicalised teenagers that humanizes the characters which, outside of fiction, is a rarity and very controversial. It is conformist and easy to perceive those that have gone to places like Syria to fight in the name of “Islam” as monsters birthed by their belief in God, faith and value system. It is difficult to see that such individuals share something with us, because the darkness of the atrocities they commit eclipses every inch of their humanness. The radicalisation of the protagonists in The Runaways is disabled from Islam – their lack of awareness of Islam and its practical teachings stood out to me. This brings me to the words of Fatima Bhutto in her brilliant interview with the brilliant interviewer Dr. Sofia Rehman* for the Leeds Lit Club:
“You’re radicalised by being afraid. By being hungry. It’s not ‘here is a verse, read it’.”
In this story, we follow the inner lives of three teenagers before their radicalisation: Sunny, Monty and Anita Rose. Sunny is a British Born Confused Desi (BBCD) from a southern town of England, Monty is from a rich family of Karachi, while Anita Rose is from the slums of Karachi. We get an insight into their personal struggles: families and status they are born in to, their state and country, their time period, parents, sexuality and identity. The characters are created realistically and as readers we feel a growing connection to them, so that when they do go to fight ‘in the name of Islam’, we remember who they are and how they came to this path. It was desperation, it was survival, it was freedom. Like the book cover asks; how far would you run to escape your life?
Anita Rose is the daughter of a malash wali and experiences the extremities of poverty that restrict her life in more ways than one can imagine. In the slums of Karachi, she goes to a local school where she is bullied and abused and thus has no real companionship of her age. There is no mention of her father or extended family members and she lives with her mother and brother. When she is sent to an elderly neighbor, it becomes her place of alternative education. He becomes her mentor and teacher, as he introduces her to poets such as Mir Taqi Mir and Faiz Ahmed Faiz and texts that are of a political and anticapitalist nature. Unknown to him is that the very prose, pages and poetry he asks sweet Anita Rose to recite are fuel for her radicalisation.
The stories of the characters are non-linear and they are not given to us entirely. When asked about the missing information of some of the characters, Bhutto noted that “there is an importance of mystery in novels” and that this is reflective of life – is there any single person that we know entirely? The way an author talks of their characters is always quite special, like they are their children, since they are metaphysically given life via the author. Bhutto spoke of them with such love and empathy to the point she felt sharing certain stories of the characters was an invasion of their privacy.
Bhutto’s language in this novel stood out to me particularly the codeswitching. Words from Urdu like jora, charpai, chamcha-ing were italicized and not given any translations. It highlighted the importance of having different languages alongside the main language of the manuscript, as it textured the novel with real life speech and thoughts, and further established the characters’ identity and their distinct perceptions and worldview. The understanding of language is further reflected in the connection Anita Rose has with Urdu which highlighted how much languages hold with respect to culture, memories and pain:
“She read in Urdu because it was the language she suffered in, a language that encompassed all her sorrows. Don’t you feel strange, speaking a language every day that’s not your own? Layla asked Monty. But Monty had never spoken anything besides English.”
My concentration dropped during the desert scenes, but I find it hard to believe it wasn’t intended since Bhutto strikes me as a writer that does everything with an intended effect. I wanted the desert scenes to end yesterday, but I got that sense of ‘wandering in the desert’; the delusional states; the discovery of the truth; the physical and emotional pain; the darkness and ugliness of all the different selves. In a way it was as if the very extremities of the desert contributed to their degree of radicalisation, which we see in the climax.
The dark and vastness of the desert is where we also get to know the dark and vastness of social media. “Radicalisation and the internet come together,” says Bhutto and truth bombs exploding on social media are toxic and critical in the radicalisation of all three characters. We had pictures of Kalashnikov’s uploaded onto Twitter (together with incredibly accurate and creative hashtags), a sex tape that led to brutality and the fall of a major influential member of the Ummah Movement, as well as Tumblr, Facebook, newsletters and emails from Reforming Radicals – an organisation set up by a reformed groomer. The newsletters were very amusing, I appreciated the tongue and cheek nature that somewhat plays on the character’s degree of wokeness and sincerity.
A question the novel raises is how two people, who on the surface share similar pain and vulnerabilities, can make different choices that leads one of them onto the path of radicalisation and not the other? Is it enough to say that it is vulnerabilities alone? Crudely speaking, what trips the switch? We don’t learn this in the novel and I believe that is reflective of the complex reality of human beings. It is hard to really know what is the deciding trigger, the factor that causes one to fight. Perhaps the novel is teaching us that it can’t ever be one switch, but it’s the entire makeup of that person which is complex: their history, their relationships, the time period they are born in, the state’s relationship with the individual; their personality and archetypes; their pain.
‘Pain places us in such a fragile space, you become a delicate human. It is difficult to get through on your own — we don’t have the tools to access our pain, to get through our pain.’
Bhutto writes with a great degree of intelligence, care and gentleness. This novel is quintessentially an exploration of empathy and an important read.
*The quotations in this review are taken from the interview of Fatima Bhutto by Dr. Sofia Rehman.