Diaspora Fiction Books

The beautiful moments: Shuma Raha reviews Sunjeev Sahota’s ‘China Room’

Female farmer working in the field during sunset portrait outdoor.

Female farmer working in the field during sunset portrait outdoor.

Towards the end of China Room , the unnamed first-person narrator, an 18-year-old recovering drug addict who has come down from his home in northern England to stay at his family’s derelict ancestral farm in rural Punjab, experiences a quiet epiphany. He realises that “life need not remain a wail of anger, that it can also be full of beautiful moments that just seem to arrive with the birds.” It’s a moment of existential clarity for the young man who has lurched into adulthood dealing with the searing racism of his home town, and shooting himself up with heroin to dull the pain.

The novel, which has won a place in the Booker longlist, throbs with the sense of alienation that is central to Sunjeev Sahota’s work. The British Asian author’s debut novel, Ours Are the Streets (2011), explored the radicalisation of a British Muslim, the child of immigrant parents, who has borne the brunt of racism and feels he doesn’t quite belong anywhere. His second novel, the Booker shortlisted The Year of the Runaways (2015), narrated the experiences of a group of illegal immigrants from Asia.

China Room explores the same themes of in-betweenness and the search for self-fulfilment. However, coloured as it is by the author’s own memories of growing up brown in a white working-class neighbourhood in an English town, it is less political and more deeply personal.

Penned in the China room

Plaited with the story of the young man set in 1999, is another tale — that of Mehar Kaur, the narrator’s great grandmother. In 1929, 15-year-old Mehar arrives at the same farm when she is married to one of three brothers. As ordained by their Mai, a formidable matriarch, all three brothers are married in a

single ceremony on the same day. The three new brides, who are forced to be rigorously veiled in company, have no idea which brother they have wed. They do their chores by day, and are penned in the China room by night — so called because of the willow-patterned china plates it contains. On some nights they are told to go to another room so their respective husbands can have sex with them. But the act takes place in the dark, and hurriedly. Its purpose is functional — the birth of sons. The girls still don’t get to see the faces of their husbands.

But Mehar is desperate to find out which one of the brothers is hers. She is, in fact, married to the eldest, Jeet, but she jumps to her own conclusions and thinks her husband is Suraj, the youngest. One day, out in the fields, she drops her veil before Suraj. And he, instead of correcting her mistake, proceeds to make love to her.

Yearning for freedom

The two strands of the novel — the traumatised boy from England sweating out his drug habit in the rundown farmhouse, and the story of Mehar and her forbidden love — unspool in their own tracks, but they are also echoes of each other. Mehar’s world is one of chilling misogyny, one where young women have no rights, no voice, no space to even be — other than as a workhorse and an engine of reproduction.

Yet her liminal yearning for the freedom to live and love as she wants to, her desire to escape the harsh, brutal world she is trapped in, are, in essence, not unlike the experience of her great grandson 70 years on. The China room, with its solitary, barred window, a room which the young narrator too inhabits for a while, is a metaphor for the same prison house, the same crushing social aggression that both he and Mehar face in their own time and place.

Visual prose

Despite the author’s obvious effort to draw a parallel between the two storylines, it is the tale of Mehar, told in languid present tense, that is the more vital and powerful one. Her great grandson and his agonies pale before Mehar’s appetite for love and life. Indeed, what draws the reader into the book is her romance and her attempt to break free, as does the author’s startlingly visual prose that is at once lyrical and photographically precise in its descriptions.

China Room ’s autobiographical foundation is never in doubt — Mehar’s story is based on the author’s own family lore, and the novel ends with a picture of his great grandmother cradling a baby Sahota in her lap. The book is loaded with other autobiographical details, too, including his experience of racism when he was a boy. It is as if Sahota is harking back — to his own 18-year-old self, to his foremother in pre-Independence India — and seeing a pattern of crisis and struggle, repeated again and again. Thus are the generations connected to each other perhaps — by the double helix of their traumas and triumphs.

It is an appealing conceit, even though the two narratives never quite hang together. And though Mehar’s tale ends abruptly, you know that perhaps she too came to realise that life, no matter how excoriating at times, does throw up beautiful moments.

China Room; Sunjeev Sahota, Penguin Hamish Hamilton, ₹599

The writer is a journalist and author.

Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Aug 28, 2022 3:22:21 am | https://www.thehindu.com/books/the-beautiful-moments-shuma-raha-reviews-sunjeev-sahotas-china-room/article35743641.ece