Personal and political independence converge in Sunjeev Sahota’s latest novel — China Room — a novel which apparently takes inspiration from his own family’s history in rural Punjab.
The two narrative strands explore themes of oppression and love through the story of a young Indian girl and her great grandson.
In the first strand, set in 1929, three young brides live on a small farm in rural Punjab with the brothers they married in a single ceremony. They mix with the men only when summoned by their domineering mother-in-law, Mai, to spend a marital night in a darkened chamber. The girls don’t know which brother is “theirs”; they glimpse them only through a veil.
As they labour in the “china room” — a cramped building decorated with willow-pattern plates — the women try to piece together the few clues about their husband’s identity. Mehrar, the youngest, and most curious, pays careful attention to the men’s voices and the calluses she sees on their fingers when she serves them tea.
Her curiosity combined with a case of mistaken identity, set in motion events that will put more than one life in danger. Mehrar reaches a point where she will weigh her desire for love and independence against the certainty of censure and repudiation by the whole community if her transgression is discovered.
The novel doesn’t explicitly explain what happens to Mehar; to discover that we have to turn to the second strand which is set 70 years later.
In this modern-day narrative, Mehar’s unnamed descendent, looks back on the trip he made to the Punjab in an attempt to wean himself off heroin. He had intended to live with his aunt and uncle but they’re not overly keen to have this troubled boy as a houseguest who thinks swigging copious amounts of whisky will is the remedy for drug addiction . So he ends up living in the ruins of the family farm. There he discovers the barred windows of the china room.
China Room is very much a novel of unequal narratives. I found the older part of the story engrossing, particularly when it dealt with the prevailing practices surrounding marriage and attitudes towards women who failed to conform to the expectations of their communities.
In Mehar we find a woman who’s aware from a young age that her life will be one of constraint and obedience. She’s pledged in marriage as a child, but the identity of her chosen husband is switched (without her knowledge) almost at the last moment. As a new bride, she is treated as little more than a baby-making machine by her mother in law, a single-minded woman who rules sons and daughters-in-law without affection or kindness.
Mehar knows nothing of the world outside the china room:
Nothing of the news that in parts of the country and of the state, in fact, not more than ten miles from her room, many thousands have died in sectarian riots fanned by the publication of Rangila Rasul. 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.
But she does know that, as a woman she has no power and no freedom to choose in a society where inequality prevails. She is “used to this life, to this small world of hers” where men are able not simply to desire something but to voice that desire out loud, whereas she must remain silent. Her wishes count for nothing. Forgiveness awaits men who misbehave but her life would be over:
She can see herself now: head shaved, breasts exposed, the iron pig-ring around her neck and the coarse rope parading her through the village. She can hear the crowds calling her a dirty whore and feel the rocks cutting her flesh as she lurches to the well and jumps…
Mehrar’s story is so captivating that it was irritating to be dragged away to read about her addict great grandson. The modern part of the story was largely a disappointment.
It’s meant to provide another dimension to the theme of oppression, this time in the form of racism that the boy’s immigrant family faced when they opened a shop in a former mining town predominantly populated by people with a different skin colour. The boy’s sense of helplessness and alienation led to his experimentation with drugs. While in the Punjab he is befriended by a young female doctor and a male teacher who help him discover new purpose and meaning in his life.
The problem is that as a character I didn’t find him very interesting and neither was his story. Because I found it hard to warm towards him I never felt invested in his redemption. I do wonder why Sahota felt it necessary to include the modern-day strand. It seems to be the trend now to have dual, or triple time frame narratives when sometimes the simpler approach would be just as effective. In the case of China Room, the second strand was so under-developed that it added little to my overall enjoyment.