Fatima Bhutto’s latest, powerful novel, The Runaways, highlights the whys and wherefores that drive young people to join such terrorist organizations as the Islamic State. Anita Rose and Monty live in Pakistan and Sunny resides in England, despondent, living with anxieties about their identity and their place in this world. When a propagandist radicalized narrative presents itself as an answer, they latch onto it in a desperate attempt to fulfill what they feel are their destinies.
Bhutto has stated elsewhere that radicalism does not have much to do with religion; she drives home this point by layering her characters with profound economic, political and personal difficulties. 16-year-old Anita, aspires to a life in Clifton, Karachi’s most affluent neighborhood, despite her origins as a servant’s daughter born and raised in the city’s largest and oldest slum, Machar Colony. On the other hand, 17-year old Monty, the blue-blooded son of a business scion, is looking for purpose in the midst of privilege. Sunny, quiet and disillusioned, is first-generation British born to Indian migrant parents. Feeling alienated and suffocated in Portsmouth, he is restless by the expectations that his father places on him.
The roots of Anita’s alienation lie in the impositions of an unequal society: she struggles to express her views and be heard in a world that only sees her as a servant. Sunny faces his father’s disappointment, rejection from his neighborhood and almost no space for self-expression and acceptance. Monty’s father calls him a sissy for lacking maturity and self-confidence. With acute attention to detail, Bhutto highlights how such emotional vacuums are often waiting to be filled by extreme actions.
“Heartsick for the promise of a new world,” Bhutto writes, the runaways seek to shed the vestiges of personalities that the society places on them. When Sunny’s cousin Oz offers clarity in the form of jihad and Islamic caliphate, he is drawn into a narrative embellished with freedom and purpose. “We’re the periphery, we’ll never be the centre. We’re not like them. They don’t understand our people, our cultures,” Oz states, pointing to Londoners. Similarly, when Monty finds Layla, he is drawn to her fearlessness and individuality that is unique and allows him to understand a world beyond his friends and family.
While countries like the UK try to work out what to do about ISIS returnees, or whether or not to even allow them to return, Bhutto offers a timely read into the psyche of such youngsters. As the three navigate the deserts in Iraq, they are confronted with loneliness and estrangement deeper than that they escaped from. When Sunny realizes his cousin Oz won’t ever be joining him in Iraq, he transforms his desire for vengeance against Oz into a megalomaniac jihadist narrative. “This here’s just a pit stop, a battle run till our real jihad, our true war – reclaiming the world for our wounded people. Punishing + destroying the infidels within our tribe,” he posts on his Twitter account. Monty seeks solace in knowing he “came here to be a part of something beautiful,” thinking of Layla.
A striking trait of The Runaways is Bhutto’s use of Urdu without translation, as if challenging the reader to understand what she is saying through the emotions and landscapes she has built up. In Layla’s words, “Don’t you feel strange, speaking a language every day that’s not your own?”, Bhutto weaves some subversive traits of South Asian diaspora by using local phrases to convey a message. The colloquial disappointment that Sunny’s father expresses when he calls him Beta (son) is eponymous of the regret that he has turned out to be.
Via references to Pakistan’s revolutionary poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib, Bhutto helps Anita draw strength in her fight against an oppressive system. Faiz, in fact, provided the words that might serve as the book’s summary: “There are other griefs in this world apart from that of love. And other pleasures apart from that of union.”
The Runaways is as much about about knowing which truths matter, as seeking truths themselves. Sunny’s sexuality, Monty’s empathy, and Anita’s ambition lurk in shadows, even when the three take their most dangerous decisions. Despite Bhutto sometimes letting the message overpower the natural development of the narrative, the result is a timely read, bringing back an urgency to understand the root causes that push youngsters into joining terrorist organizations, as a way out of their economic and social deprivation and society’s failure to accept them. As Bhutto said, “the job of writers is to observe, to have their eyes open and use their observation to push things towards the confrontation. Whether it’s their job to ask or answer questions, I’m not sure.”