In her third attempt at writing fiction, Fatima Bhutto tackles the question of identity and tackles it well. The Runaways follows the journey of three young people who come from completely different worlds but are brought together in the end as they join an insurgency in Iraq.
The first of these protagonists is Anita Rose, a Christian girl who has grown up in the slums of Machar Colony in Karachi. The second one, Sunny, is born and brought up in Portsmouth, England, where his father Sulaiman migrated to from India before Partition. The third protagonist, Mustafa – aka Monty – Ahmed, is a teenager who belongs to an elite family from Karachi.
While narrating Anita’s story, Bhutto vividly describes her shame at her impoverished circumstances as well as her curiosity about and enchantment with the ways of a privileged world that she secretly observes and tries to emulate. We see her resentment gradually grow. When her anger finally comes to the surface, she begins to question the manner in which the rich and the powerful treat those from the ‘other’ side of the bridge.
Bhutto similarly captures Sunny’s sense of frustration as he struggles to adhere to his Muslim faith while at the same time trying to hide and stifle his homosexuality. Through his story, the writer also tackles the ever growing intolerance towards Muslims in the West. She narrates how he endures many incidents of racial discrimination that make him feel out of place in the small hamlet of Portsmouth, the only place he has ever known as home.
Even when Bhutto describes a rare and one-off connection between him and his German gym trainer, she only further highlights Sunny’s loneliness. The trainer does not treat him “like a spokesman (for all Muslims); he just spoke to Sunny as Sunny”.
Monty’s story begins in London where his wealthy parents are spending their summer. His father, a real estate tycoon, is frustrated with his son’s lack of masculinity and shows his disappointment by over-asserting his own macho behaviour. He fails to understand that his ‘alpha’ male attitude is one of the reasons impeding the growth of his son’s personality.
The clashing personalities of Monty’s parents are equally responsible for his emotional and psychological confusion. His father consumes expensive whiskey and wears sharply tailored pricey suits. His mother, inspired by her mentor who bears a striking resemblance to famous television show host Amir Liaquat Hussain, covers her head and routinely performs umrah.
Bhutto is highly successful in capturing the essence of the different worlds of her main characters. Where she errs is in giving too many details. She, for instance, not just writes in detail about the interiors of some of the most popular eateries in Karachi but also names the dishes they serve. Her detailed descriptions often appear tedious, even distracting. As American author Theodor Seuss Geisel, who went by his pen name Doctor Seuss, says, “The writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.”
The Runaways, in more ways than one, is a story about coming of age in a postmodern era where technology has compounded questions about identity. While, on the one hand, dating apps make it easy for one to lead a double life, on the other hand, smartphone cameras can expose every move one makes and social media renders it impossible to feel a sense of accomplishment without the validation of one’s ‘followers’. What further complicates the search for answers to these questions is modern-day politics that is characterised by hostility towards anyone who appears different — whether it is refugees and Muslims in the West, homosexuals in Islamic societies or the dispossessed amid high life.
That this highly confounding mix should lead young, confused and angry people to take up arms is not so much about the cause they end up fighting for but rather about their inability to cope with the world around them. Identity in postmodern times is as much personal as it is political — as it always has been.