China Room by Sunjeev Sahota is one of the only two books by South Asians to feature in this year’s Booker Prize long list. Sahota’s last novel, The Year of the Runaways, was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize and the Dylan Thomas Prize, and awarded the European Union Prize for Literature.
Alternating between the past and present, the dual narrative of China Room follows Mehar in pre-Partition India and her great-grandson in 1990s England, both characters bound by blood and their strife to liberate themselves from a society that wants to slot them neatly in boxes because of their gender and race, respectively.
The story begins in rural Punjab of 1929 where Mehar, a child bride, is trying to uncover the identity of her husband. Married in a single ceremony to three brothers, Mehar, Harbans and Gurleen are sisters-in-law who spend most of their days together, sequestered in the eponymous China Room, named for “the old willow-pattern plates that lean on a high stone shelf.” The mystery of the plot hinges on the identity of Mehar’s husband, which Sahota uses to set up the main conflict and climax.
What lends plausibility to this seemingly farfetched premise is the notoriously patriarchal society which, sadly, is prevalent in rural India to this day, but was even more pronounced in the 20th century. To maintain the gender status quo, female subjugation was the norm and strict segregation was observed — which is what leads to the confusion in this story.
The three brides are under constant, heavy chenille veil, commanded to do menial or domestic work all day and prohibited from communicating with anyone from the opposite gender. Interestingly enough, the one upholding these tyrannical traditions is the family matriarch, the formidable mother-in-law Mai. She is the one who summons her sons’ wives to them when she wishes, thwarts any romantic overtures between them and goes to extreme lengths to ensure that none of her sons goes astray from the path she has predetermined for him.
One of my qualms with this novel is the depiction of Mai’s general malevolence, which seems to lack nuance. We are given no backstory to justify her vile acts against her sons later in the narrative. However, Mai’s character serves as astute social commentary on how the issue is not with the gender, but with the mindset. The women in China Room are not just meek, submissive individuals who are victims of their circumstances; they are sometimes perpetrators as well. Female tyranny and oppression go hand in hand.
A Booker Prize long-listed novel delves into the lives of characters trying to liberate themselves from being slotted in boxes because of their gender and race
In the second narrative, Mehar’s great-grandson arrives from London at his uncle’s place where his bitter aunt cuts a figure similar to Mai. She is cold, vicious and even slaps her husband. Still, in the aunt’s case, her villainy is salvaged when we find out her backstory which involved a forced marriage.
The teenaged boy has travelled from England to India in a bid to battle his demons — heroin addiction and generational trauma afflicted by the discrimination he and his family faced in Britain. After being ousted by his aunt from the house, he decides to ride out his heroin withdrawal symptoms in the nameless family farm in rural Punjab, beyond the outskirts of the village.
The idea of the dual narrative structure is to show how the past informs the present, but it does not come to fruition, since the trajectories of the two protagonists never intersect or inform each other’s experiences. Mehar’s grandson starts living in the China Room on the farm, where legend has it that his great-grandmother spent the majority of her life locked. He sees the iron bars and hears local gossip according to which she was embroiled in a major scandal. However, he never shows more than a passing interest in exploring her story.
Sahota is at his strongest at depicting the emotional toll and intergenerational trauma of racism as experienced by immigrants. The second storyline features frequent flashbacks of these incidents. The protagonist ruminates about a classmate’s birthday party, where he was turned away from the door by the latter’s racist father. After doing two circuits of the nearby lake and a slow walk home, he is greeted by his own father who asks, “with a mix of hope and worry”, whether he had fun. The boy obliges by saying yes, just to see his father’s face flood with relief.
The struggles of first-generation immigrants are highlighted in the father’s struggle to give the family a good life. The protagonist remembers him lifting huge, bulky bricks all day, returning home with his back scraped raw and covered with bleeding sores. He also remembers men beating up his dad with no other intent than “to inflict violence on a middle-aged brown man.” He feels unmoored since it was almost impossible to feel at ease in that place, “where public displays of violence were only ever a door-chime away.”
Alienation is something Mehar resonated with, since she was so far removed from the outside world, where the fight for freedom from British rule was quickly gaining momentum. “Nothing of the news that in parts of the country and of the state, in fact, not more than 10 miles from her room, many thousands have died in sectarian riots ... She knows nothing of the necklaces of shoes some Muslims are being made to wear, nothing of the banning of foreign cloth, or that the drumbeats she sometimes hears at night are a signal to the British that their time is coming to an end.”
The end of the book features a photo of an infant Sahota held by his grandmother, which indicates that part of the story is autobiographical. China Room is a stirring account of interior lives being informed by oppressive power structures in the outside world.
The reviewer is a Karachi-based book critic writing for several international publications
By Sunjeev Sahota
Harvill Secker, UK
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 5th, 2021