The story of the Komagata Maru is an infamous chapter in our history, “a stain on Canada’s past,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week as he formally apologized in the House of Commons for the treatment of the 376 Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus who arrived on that boat in 1914. (Then-prime minister Stephen Harper also apologized while in office, but in a speech in British Columbia rather than in Parliament, and was told that wasn’t good enough.)
Under the rules of the British Empire, the passengers, from India, were British subjects, just as we were. They should automatically have been allowed entry. Instead, the Indians spent two months trapped on board, just miles from the Vancouver shore, near starving. All but 20 (who proved they were previous Canadian residents) were forced away. Upon their return to Calcutta, British soldiers tried to force them onto trains bound for the Punjab, and 19 Indians died in the ensuing riot.
Canadian people, politicians and journalists of the day made multiple arguments to demand the refusal of the Komagata Maru’s passengers: The newcomers were not white, they were here to steal our jobs, their culture was too foreign to assimilate into Canadian society, and there were too many of them.
The days are now long gone when “British subjects” are allowed automatic entry into the other (now) 53 members of the Commonwealth Of Nations. Even Mother England herself is persnickety about allowing Indians in willy-nilly. (Note that she’s persnickety about a lot of people, not just Indians.)
Still, that doesn’t stop migrants from hoping.
India is a huge country, the world’s largest democracy, yaar (that’s a Hindi word meaning ‘friend’ or ‘dude’). The country still struggles with its colonial past and the complexities of its population – a mix of Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist and Sikh, religious nationalism and violence, political hatreds and corruption, horrific poverty and rigid class barriers. The chamaar caste is Untouchable – literally. Even just a few short years ago, an employer offering room and board might feed a chamaar by flinging lentils and bread into cupped hands, while keeping as far away as physically possible. Chamaar certainly did not deserve plates.
You’ll find a fascinating portrait of modern India in Sunjeev Sahota’s astonishing 2015 novel, The Year Of The Runaways, shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize (the book is a New Arrival in the Lennoxville Library). Sahota is a fearless writer, and Runaways is filled with telling personal detail and cultural insight.
Sahota offers the lives of three men, each desperate to get into England. The chamaar might be considered a refugee, if Indians were ever to fall under such a category. Some countries do accept Indians as refugees, but these are mostly women who fear honour killings and rape; some few Sikhs also successfully claim religious persecution. The other two male stars of this novel, who are indeed Sikh, are economic migrants. They’re more than running away from a difficult life, however, they’re fleeing likely starvation, acha (another Hindi word, meaning ‘understand’ or ‘yes’ or ‘acknowledged’, depending on context).
Each chooses a different way in to England. One is illegal, two are legal, but lying.
Each discovers that their imagined land of milk and honey is no such thing. They live in filth, at times locked into sheds overnight, constantly fearing betrayal and imprisonment. There are few jobs, and those they “steal” from the English pay under the table and much less than minimum wage.
Their new misery turns them into very different people. And the novelist doesn’t flinch. Racism and British brutality are as much on display as is the casual viciousness of some of the Indians who already have their British citizenship safely in hand.
The chamaar, Tochi, finds that even in this new place, he is treated like garbage: “You’re the same. You think I’m just someone to laugh about,” he rages when wronged, yet again.
Avtar has a student visa, with no interest in ever attending a class. He is befriended by a comfortable Indo-British professor suffering an identity crisis who yearns to connect with India, a country he’s never seen: “Avtar returned to his room without asking about the job. He sat on the bed and gave in to his anger. What decadence this belonging rubbish was, what time the rich must have if they could sit around and weave great worries out of such threadbare things.”
Randeep has paid a small fortune to marry a British citizen, and must pretend to live with her, although she has banned him from the apartment. The homeless man seeks food and shelter in a Sikh gurdwara, or temple, where all are always welcome and cared for. In theory, anyway.
“You want me to leave?’ Randeep exclaimed. Some of the congregation looked over. ‘But you can’t! This is God’s house.’” God may stay, it would seem, where man may not.
The British Sikh woman Narinder agreed to marry Randeep for the single year necessary to prove their relationship and get citizenship out of the British government. Her secret has helped get her away from her severe family; they’ve set up an arranged marriage and expect her acceptance and helplessness. Her actions have caused a horrific humiliation to the family.
Upon her return, her father apologizes for forgetting to ask her brother to replace a burnt bulb. Narinder replies: “‘I did them all earlier.’
“He looked up from his spoon. ‘You can change lights now?’
“‘It’s not hard, Baba.
“’What else can you do?’
“’Fuses, and electricity meters. I can work them.’”
Sahota creates four fascinating characters, each of whom explores their responsibilities – to family, to friends, and to themselves. At least one of these three duties must lose out. And when you’re an illegal immigrant, the loser is often you.
England may still think of herself as the Mother Country, but she’s not got a maternal bone in her body.
— Eleanor Brown, May 20, 2016