Family Secrets and Bloodlines

In the airport before flying, Sunjeev Sahota purchased a copy of Salman Rushdie’s most popular work, Midnight’s Children. He was on the way to visiting his relatives to spend the summer before entering university; he studied maths at the Imperial College. Prior to that fateful day, Sahota never read any novels; he was eighteen at that time. Reading Midnight’s Children was a new experience for Sahota, with the book opening up new and unexplored worlds for Sahota. This one book ignited a new passion in him. From Rushdie’s magnum opus, he read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. With each new book came a new experience. To cover as much ground as he can and because of the feeling that he needed to catch up, Sahota read four books a week.

This new passion eventually turned into a pursuit; reading has become a transformative experience. Over a decade after reading his first novel, Sahota published his debut novel Ours Are the Streets in 2011 to critical acclaim. Two years later, he was listed in a Granta list of 20 best young writers. One thing was for sure, a promising and excitable literary voice is about to conquer the global stage. More recognition followed with his second novel, The Year of the Runaways (2015). His sophomore work was shortlisted for the Booker Prize; it is of note that three of the first four novels which introduced him to the world of literature were all Booker Prize winners. The book also earned him the 2017 European Union Prize for Literature. With momentum on his side, he published his third novel, China Room, in 2021.

At the heart of Sahota’s third novel is Mehar. One day, in the year of 1929 in Punjab, India, Mehar was taken as a bride in fulfillment of an arrangement made by her parents when she was younger. She would never see her family again. When she was taken by her mother-in-law, Mai, she was sixteen years old. In her new home, Mehar was taken to the titular China Room where she met, for the first time, Harbans and Gurleen, who, like her were teenage brides. The three of them were married on the same day to a set of three brothers. The crux of the situation is that none of the veiled girls had any idea who of the brothers was their husband. Meanwhile, the three brothers – Jeet, Mohan, and Suraj – knew who they were married to.

“What was he thinking? Did he think he had made the right decision in coming here ? To this town? To England ? Did he wonder, like I did, like I still do whenever I see my daughter be so casually, so unthinkingly, sidelined in the playground, did he too wonder if these people would ever agree to share ownership of this land ? Did he worry that our lives here would always be seen as fundamentally illegitimate?”

~ Sunjeev Sahota, China Room

The China Room was a cramped and idle structure located at the back of the farm. The room was adorned with willow-pattern plates which were once part of a dowry, hence, the room’s name. Confined into this space, the three girls spent their days performing the chores their mother-in-law assigned to them. Come nighttime, they wait for who will receive the tap on the shoulder which summons them to the marital bed where their husband awaits. Even the conjugal visits were veiled in mystery as marital duties were performed in the darkness. It was mainly through the hushed voices exchanged at the marital bed that the girls tried to identify who their husbands were. However, even these exchanges were scant, fleeting.

China Room provides a vivid image of early 20th century India. The book was rife with cultural details, particularly those that characterized the era, including the prevalence of arranged marriages. The novel digs even deeper, examining the plight of young women. For one, young Punjabi women had to contend with a highly patriarchal society, which, unfortunately, is a reality that persists in some areas of the world. The voices of young women were muted as gender roles were predefined. While men till the farmland and earn money for sustenance, the women were left to perform domestic chores. At the end of the day, they are subservient to their husbands’ needs. There was also an unhealthy emphasis on the need to bear a son, particularly as a firstborn, a facet that is shared with other cultures in different parts of the world.

Through Mehar’s experience, we read of the deeply-entrenched misogyny that was once prevalent in various parts of the world. We read of women being stripped of some levels of their personal freedom. For one, marrying in the name of love was a farfetched idea. They had no voice on who they will marry. In the case of Mehar and the two other girls, they were left in the dark, unworthy of knowing the identity of their husbands. Exacerbating their situation was their domineering mother-in-law who ruled the household with an eagle eye, constantly surveilling tasks performed by the young women, at times, even tormenting them. Mai was the personification of internalized misogyny in Indian culture.

As the story moved forward, the timeline diverged as the story leaped forward to 1999. It also introduced a troubled but unnamed Indian man in his late teenage years. He was born and raised in England where his parents immigrated. Before entering university, the anonymous character traveled to Punjab to spend the summer vacation with his relatives. Disagreements ensued between him and his uncle’s wife, thus, he was forced to stay on the unused family farm. As the story unfolded, it was revealed that the farm of the present was the same farm where Mehar lived. Both characters are also connected by blood. Mehar is his great-grandmother and, in his solitude, he learned more about her.

“You know what the best thing is about falling out of love? It sets you free. Because when you’re in love it is everything, it is imprisoning, it is all there is, and you’d do anything, anything to keep that love. But when it withers you can suddenly see the rest of the world again, everything else floods back into the places that love had monopolised.”

~ Sunjeev Sahota, China Room

Mehar and the unnamed character’s connection go beyond blood. Both characters were battling different forms of oppression. In Mehar’s story, we read about a life defined by gender, the difficulties faced by young women, realities that persist in certain parts of the world. In the contemporary, we read about the plights of being the child of immigrant parents. The anonymous narrator and his family had to contend with rampant racism, discrimination, and exclusion in a small racist English town. At one point, he pondered, “Why had they come here, to this broken white town? Had things really been so bad?” He was cognizant of the treatment of his parents and he wanted to protect them from these ugly realities. Unfortunately, he was equally helpless in the face of such a deeply-rooted prejudice.

A recurring theme in the novel is the feeling of isolation. The China Room’s confined space was the physical manifestation of isolation. There also existed a form of isolation driven by how she was perceived by her family and by society as a whole. Society can be a demeaning force; the skewed voices of the majority can push the marginalized to the brink. These were vividly captured in the unnamed character’s story. Being confronted with these realities, and the helplessness that stemmed from it, fomented the anonymous character’s march towards his own destruction. He resorted to addiction. His travel to his homeland, drug-addled, was not just to spend time with his relatives. He went home hoping to find an antidote to his heroin addiction.

What he did not expect to uncover was an important piece of his family’s history. The interplay between the two storylines, however, can be a challenge, particularly at the start. On its own, Mehar’s storyline was compelling and was the emotional backbone of the story. The effectiveness of her story rendered the secondary storyline superfluous. Sahota reeled the reader in and made them invested. As the story moved forward, clarity is achieved as the connections between the two characters became firmer. The novel was draped with historical contexts as it was juxtaposed with the changes taking place in India. Political and economic events shaping modern India served as a background for the story. Details of India’s struggle for freedom against British rule were also vividly captured by the novel.

The gap in time between the two storylines highlighted the changes that took place but it also subtly underscored the changes that did not take place. India has obtained its independence. Women were able to obtain some level of independence. However, paradoxes persist. Several are still struggling against physical and virtual imprisonment. Many are stuck in the quagmires of poverty. Others have been incarcerated in prisons of their own making. There were others who resorted to addiction. Women have earned their rights. But it is still limited as many women find themselves the victims of abuse, whether it’s on the streets, in their own homes, or even in schools. Questions of sexuality, caste, and religion also constantly made their presence felt.

One hundred. Two hundred. Three hundred, he counts, barely working his lips and standing unmoving in the yard, in the moon. The sun in the moon. He looks about him, from the quiet of the barn to the charpoys stowed upright under the veranda, their long round legs like rifles, all the way across to the china room, shuttered in silence. He’d skipped over the double-doors at the rear of the porch. Now, he walks towards them, applies his hand to the flaking paint and steals inside, to where Mehar has been instructed to wait for her husband.

~ Sunjeev Sahota, China Room

The events that have transpired in the background brushed crossed paths with Mehar’s family. However, the novel remained, at its core, an intimate landscape of a family dealing with their own forms of imprisonment. Years of familial abuse and trauma were handed down to succeeding generations. The passage of time did little to assuage the fears and anxieties that were accumulated over time. There was a ruminative quality to the story as descendants contemplate their ancestors, their individual journeys, and the prices they have paid to form their own life choices. Freedom, after all, comes with a price tag.

The novel’s fine elements were woven together by Sahota’s writing. His prose evoked a strong sense of time and place. The characters came alive with his deft characterization. The women, Mehar, and the modern-day character Radhika who befriended the unnamed narrator were finely drawn. Their stories are the antithesis of each other. In one, we read of a young woman whose joie de vivre was zapped by the patriarchy and by history. On the other end of the spectrum, we read of another young woman who, brick by brick, endeavored to undo the legacy of the patriarchy by living her life on her own terms.

At the end of the story was an old photograph of an elderly woman cradling a baby. Sahota has also mentioned that the story took inspiration from his own family’s history. Beyond these subtle biographical elements, China Room flourished with its exploration of several seminal themes and subjects. Sahota’s third novel is a multilayered narrative that echoed with elements of history, family dynamics, and cultural norms. These elements provided a rich fabric upon which the story was drawn. At its heart are stories born out of the different forms of incarceration, from the physical to the psychological. Parts-historical, parts-family saga China Room is an absorbing story, deserving of the praises it has received.

“They live in the china room, which sits at a slight remove from the house and is named for the old willow-pattern plates that lean on a high stone shelf, a set of six that arrived with Mai years ago as part of her wedding dowry. Far beneath the shelf, at waist level, runs a concrete slab that the women use for preparing food, and under this is a little mud-oven. The end of the room widens enough for a pair of charpoys to be laid perpendicular to each other and across these two string beds all three women are made to sleep.”

~ Sunjeev Sahota, China Room
Rating

71%

Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 
19%
Writing (25%) – 
18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
12%

When the 2021 Booker Prize longlist was released, I didn’t plan on reading the majority, if not all of the books on the longlist. To challenge myself, I resolved to read all thirteen books; in the end, I managed to read 11 of 13 books. Some tore me apart. Some touched the proverbial heartstrings. Some made me think. One of the books that made me think was China Room by Sunjeev Sahota; I have never heard of him prior to the longlist. Honestly, I wasn’t really too keen on the book, at first. I found the alternating narrative a little challenging. Moreover, I wasn’t as invested in the story of the modern-day character as I was in his great-grandmother. But after a period of contemplation, I started to appreciate the story and what Sahota aimed to achieve. The connections, which were neither ostensible nor logical at first, started to make sense the more I think about the story. The touchstones of culture and history also made me appreciate the story. Now, I want to read Sahota’s earlier works.

Book Specs

Author: Sunjeev Sahota
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 243
Genre: Historical, Literary

Synopsis

A breathtaking novel of love, oppression and the pursuit of freedom, China Room twines together the stories of a woman and a man separated by more than half a century but united by blood.

Mehar, a young bride in rural Punjab, is trying to discover the identity of her new husband. It is 1929, and she and her sisters-in-law, married to three brothers in a single ceremony, spend their days hard at work on the family farm, sequestered from contact with the men. When Mehar develops a theory as to which of them is hers, a passion is ignited that will put more than one life at risk.

Spiralling around Mehar’s story is that of a young man who in 1999 travels from England to the sun-scorched farm, by now deserted for decades. In enforced flight from the traumas of his adolescence – his experiences of addiction, racism and estrangement from the culture of his birth – he spends a summer in painful contemplation and recovery, finally gathering the strength to return home.

Inspired in part by the author’s family history, and told with courage, compassion and deep humanity, China Room is an astonishing feat of storytelling from one of our most exceptional novelists.

About the Author

Sunjeev Sahota was born in 1981 in Derby, Derbyshire, England to a family of immigrants; his paternal grandparents emigrated to Great Britain from Punjab in 1966. When Sahota was seven years old, his family moved to Chesterfield. At Imperial College London, he pursued and completed a degree in mathematics.

It was not until he was eighteen years old that Sahota first read his first novel. On a trip to India prior to entering university, he obtained a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. While he studied English literature at GCSE level, they were never required to read a novel. Midnight’s Children left a deep impression on Sahota that he followed it up with Arundathi Roy’s The God of Small Things, Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, all considered classics of contemporary literature. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 2011, Sahota published his first novel, Ours are the Streets. He worked on the book in the evenings and during weekends as his job occupied the majority of his time. His debut novel was critically acclaimed. More recognition followed with his second novel, The Year of the Runaways (2015). It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the International Dylan Thomas Prize, and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. It also won the Encore Prize, the 2017 European Union Prize for Literature, and the South Bank Sky Arts Award. His latest novel, China Room (2021) was also longlisted for the Booker Prize.

In 2013, Sahota was chosen as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. In 2018, he was elected a Fellow at the Royal Society of Literature in its “40 under 40” initiative. A year later, he started teaching creative writing to undergraduates at Durham University where he is an assistant professor.

He currently resides in Sheffield.