Review: China Room by Sunjeev Sahota

In the Booker-longlisted China Room, the past is not something that is long gone but coexists with the present in strange ways
A bride clutching her veil. (Shutterstock)
A bride clutching her veil. (Shutterstock)
Published on Aug 13, 2021 08:34 PM IST
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By Nawaid Anjum
243pp, ₹599; Penguin Random House
243pp, ₹599; Penguin Random House

In the fine-drawn worlds of his novels, Sunjeev Sahota foregrounds the struggles and anxieties of people grappling with desire — for home, love or freedom. His well-etched characters, often given short shrift by life, go to great lengths to achieve whatever their heart is on, with passion and with all the courage they can muster. Their destinies are fundamentally tied to who they are and where they come from, and when we meet them, they seem to be seeking release from the quagmire of oppression that thwarts their ambition or impedes their optimism.

As a British-Indian writer, Sahota dwells on the dualities of identity and belonging. Imtiaz Raina, the suicide bomber whose monologue drives Ours Are the Streets, is torn between the place of his birth (England) and the country of his origin (Pakistan). He is assailed by a conflicted feeling of home and has no sense of belonging; it is his quest to belong that leads him down a devastating path, and a point of no return. The cast of characters in The Year of the Runaways comprises Indian immigrants who land in England in search of work; they all burn with a desire to break away from the violence of caste and the inequality of class which they have left behind, but their shadows continue to follow them. In that process, they make themselves vulnerable to fresh humiliations that the endeavour of eking out livelihoods away from their homeland entails.

In China Room, Sahota harvests his own family history; the woman protagonist in the novel is based on his great-grandmother, a part of family lore passed down through generations. She married into a family of four brothers but remained clueless about the identity of her husband till she saw him cradling their child. China Room’s two characters, living more than half a century apart but united by the ties of blood, attempt to escape oppression of different kinds. In the case of Mehr, a 15-year-old new bride unwittingly caught in a love triangle with her brother-in-law, it is subjugation, misogyny and the difficulty of being a woman. For her unnamed 18-year-old great-grandson, who has travelled from England to India to rehabilitate his broken sense of self , it is exclusion, addiction and racism. Alternating delicately between the third-person story of Mehr, set in 1929, and the first-person account of her descendant, who is trying to have a conversation with his past in the India of 2019, the novel foreshadows a shattering tragedy that lies at its heart.

Sahota holds the reader’s interest, engaging him from the opening line: “Mehar is not so obedient a fifteen-year-old that she won’t try to uncover which of the three brothers is her husband.” All three brothers in the family were married in Punjab in a single ceremony. Since their wives remain veiled and sequestered from the men at home, not much gets in their field of vision: “The veil makes a red haze of everything, a sparkling opacity against which bodies move as dark shadows.” Therefore, neither Mehr, nor the other wives, Harbans and Gurleen, can put a face to their husbands’ names; they make love to them in the darkness of night. Even as she locks limbs and loins with her husband, Mehr is constantly trying to cling to a clue that may lead to recognition: callused hands, the odour of food on his fingers, the tone of his voice. The suspense around the anonymity of husbands — it stretches credulity, but Sahota crafts his story in such a way that he makes it sound convincing — jettisons the narrative as the reader keeps flipping the pages in fevered curiosity.

When Mehr obliquely broaches the subject of who is married to whom with Mai, the brother’s tyrannical mother who presides over everything that moves in the house, including when they should copulate, she jokes: “Are you certain I send the same son to you each time?” And, then adds, in all seriousness: “You don’t need to know... Be thankful you’ve no father-in-law to paw and prowl over your body every night.” Questioning Mai is always unnerving “as if the rules of the cosmos are being challenged.” It’s no surprise then that it’s an unkind house with no laughter; Mehr’s liveliness, her joie de vivre, is the only saving grace. The thought of progeny perennially hovers on the minds of men. All three brothers — Jeet, Mohan and Suraj — want a child, a child that must be a boy. It’s the only thing that matters in a society where patriarchy is deeply entrenched; “a wife was a wife, there to bear sons and otherwise live behind her veil...” Even as the rhythm of the household keeps revolving around daily chores and the ritual of lovemaking in the dark, a chain of events leads Mehr to mistakenly think that it is Suraj, the youngest, she is married to, and not Jeet, the eldest, who is her husband.

British novelist Sunjeev Sahota (Courtesy the publisher)
British novelist Sunjeev Sahota (Courtesy the publisher)

Sahota dexterously draws out the sexual tension between Mehr and Suraj. Jeet had changed his mind when he saw Mehr during the bride hunt, denying his younger brother what was rightfully his. So when Suraj makes love to Mehr — first in blissful ignorance on her part when nobody is at home, and then clandestinely in an old parrot farm’s disused stone hut after she has discovered the lie and the shame of deception has washed over — he does feel the tugs of desire, but the act also allows him to assuage his pain and exact revenge. The reader is aware that what blooms between them is illegitimate, and yet his sympathies lie with the couple, filled with burning desire for each other. He keeps fervently hoping that they escape and form a separate peace away from the household, in another city, where Mehr gets to live out her dream — walking through the streets freely, with her face uncovered. And, yet, there is a sense of impending tragedy — the tragedy that often marks forbidden love — which exacerbates the tension in the second half of the novel.

In the parallel account of the young narrator, we learn about Mehr’s great-grandson’s quest for freedom from the painful memories of racism experienced as an immigrant in England as well as his fight with addiction. As he takes up residence at the house where the China Room stands as a sore relic from the past, it dawns on him that the past is not something that is long gone but coexists with the present in strange ways: his great-grandmother lives on in the stories told and retold by the people of the village. There is another set of characters — the young man’s uncle and aunt, Jai and Kuku, Radhika Chaturvedi, a doctor, and Tanbir Singh, a teacher, whose lives intersect; they become the vehicles through which the narrator attempts to connect to his roots. Each of these characters channels his or her pain; it’s their pain that impels them to make what they make of themselves. As a writer-artist, Sahota paints the brocades his characters make of their lives with tremendous empathy, measuring one person’s sense of rupture against the other, outlining how each of them navigates their private pain.

China Room is vividly written, in precise chapters, which sometimes constitute just a page, and economical sentences. Sahota excels at portraying the psychological and the sensual, and infusing the novel with an atmospheric flavour, especially towards the end when the sense of doom deepens. The novel shows us how the underlying hurt and trauma that travels with each of us doesn’t go away easily. It also explores the links between falling out of love and letting go of pain. The author shows us how falling in love can be imprisoning. It’s only when the love withers that one “sees the rest of the world again, everything else floods back into the places that love had monopolised.” What love did for Mehr is no different from what it did for Kuku and Radhika several decades later. Looking at the iron bars that have replaced black lacquered slats in the China Room, through which Mehr had first glimpsed Suraj and taken him to be her husband, Tanbir suggests that things are slightly better for women now even though they continue to “grow up in a prison and then get married into one”. To this, Radhika retorts: “Not all prisons have bars. And not all love is a prison.” China Room pulsates with both kinds of prisons, and with love that both confines and sets free.

Nawaid Anjum is a Delhi-based freelance feature writer, translator and poet.

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Sunday, October 17, 2021