Like an unfamiliar song that reminds you of forgotten stories, Sunjeev Sahota’s new novel, China Room, claims attention, demands absorption. To anyone familiar with Sahota’s fiction, it comes as no surprise that the book has made its way to the Booker Prize 2021 longlist. This is Sahota’s second nomination for the award, after his remarkable The Year of the Runaways in 2015.

The last book, six years ago, tackled the difficult subject of illegal immigration with great empathy. Set in Sheffield, England, the book traced the story of four characters, starkly different from each other, forced into the same hostile universe. Never veering into sentimentality, it coerced the reader into witnessing the debilitating intersections of class and caste and gender.

There is a social consciousnesses in Sahota’s writing that keeps him from slipping into the sort of self-indulgence that plagues much of contemporary, self-conscious “literary fiction”. This same social consciousness, an awareness of inequities, an almost atavistic acceptance of defeat informs the intriguingly titled China Room.

Inside the china room

You couldn’t not have asked that question. What is the China Room? The book introduces it early enough in the narrative. It is, in a display of almost disappointing commonplaceness, a room that is kitchen, bedroom, as well as single-shelf armoire for a set of willow-patterned china plates, for a family of modest means in the Punjab of 1929.

Mehar, Gurleen and Harbans are three young girls, married to three brothers on the same day, and brought to live in the marital home with the matriarch, Mai. Unsure of their place in this new family, the girls take care of household responsibilities and have scheduled sex with a husband whose face they have never seen. Mehar, Sahota’s primary protagonist, the opening line tells us, is “not so obedient a fifteen-year-old that she won’t try to uncover which of the three brothers is her husband.”

None of them has been told who the man they married is. Even as they cook and serve meals, pour water for ablutions, figure out how to use a teapot, an artefact that is alarmingly alien to their rural life experience, they cannot look up at the men’s faces.

Making eye contact would immediately brand them “loose”. Instead, they obediently follow Mai’s instructions to await the husband on the night designated for a marital visit for each of them. In the daytime, they catch glimpses of a foot, a knee, fingers; at night they try to match the memory with the shape hunkering over them in the darkness. Wrists, in an anatomical synecdoche, become the man. Sex is a duty, performed without complaint, without joy.

Mehar’s story unfolds within the walls of the home. There is no outside, no respite from the domestic, the inside world of women. Once the reader has been drawn into Mehar’s sterile marriage set against the backdrop of an intensifying struggle for independence from British rule, Sahota introduces another temporal stream. He brings to us an unnamed narrator, identified only as Mehar’s great-grandson, reminiscing about his summer of rehab at his ancestral village farm in 1999, when he was 18.

This Punjab of the 1990s, seven decades removed from Mehar’s village caught in the flux of change, is one where immigration from Punjab to other countries has become something of a norm. Many families have relatives “abroad”, all hoping to make a better life, to never have to return to the squalor of India. Like the prodigal son, the narrator returns to his parents’ homeland, hoping to shed his addiction, and in the manner of all coming-of-age narratives, to find himself.

The writer switches from one timeline to the other, never forcibly yoking them together or conjuring up exact parallels between the two. What holds these strands together is the desolation that both protagonists experience, and the china room, the material space that they share across a distance of seventy years.

Writing patriarchy

Mehar and her co-sisters live in a patriarchal world order. It is a world in which five-year-old Mehar, “who was not called Mehar then”, is assessed by her future mother-in-law, chosen as bride for an unspecified groom, given a new name, and allowed the grand largesse of living with her parents for the next ten years. On attaining puberty, she is instructed by Mai to bind her breasts so as to keep them small, because theirs is “not a family of obscenities”. Like all other girls her age, she is taught to be ashamed of her body, to make herself small, to know that she is subordinate to men.

Once married, she can never return home, the ritual of the wedding marking a permanent exile from all that is familiar. If she does not produce a male child soon enough, she knows she will be cast aside in favour of a younger, more suitable bride. As a woman, her value lies only in her ability to perform domestic labour and in her fertility.

Eager to identify the man she has been married to, Mehar mistakenly assumes his younger brother to be her husband. On a Shakespearean stage, this would cue a comedy of errors. In patriarchal, parochial India, it heralds tragedy. Mehar quickly realises how little control she has over her body and over her life. Tricked into sex by her husband’s brother, she cannot see a way out of his control even after she realises the truth. She cannot risk angering a man, any man, and must therefore, do as he pleases.

In a choice transgressive of the social sanctification of the great Indian family, the primary unit of codified cultural values, Sahota legitimises this “illicit” relationship by allowing the characters to fall in love with each other, to yearn for each other, to follow in the tradition of all star-crossed lovers ever. Mehar claims agency over her life by acknowledging her desire but much like Isolde or Juliet or Sohni or Heer, remains caught in an inter-generational pattern of abuse, ending in punishment.

The heroine must never choose love outside of the bounds set for her, is what romance narratives and race / caste / class boundaries have always told us, after all. As one of the characters says, “It’s different for women, isn’t it? They have no choice in where they go. They grow up in a prison and then get married into one.”

Narratives of azaadi

The book explores the binary of freedom / incarceration in interesting ways. Punjab of the 1920s was seething with various strains of tension. On the one hand, there was increasing protest against falling crop prices and the loss of both land and resources under colonial rule; on the other, there was simmering resentment between religious communities. The cry for poorna swaraj, which intended to shape a nation and set free its citizens, did not take cognisance of what freedom could possibly mean to the doubly marginalised.

“So where is this new India he mentioned? Is it as far as the river?” Mehar asks, after they have been visited by a reactionary leader recruiting man for a planned attack on the British. In the absence of any and all rights, what even is the meaning of freedom, seems to be the author’s question. She is told, unironically, “It’s just another idea […] That it’s better to be oppressed by your own than by the British. It won’t change anything for us.” Oppression, then, is the constant human condition, irrespective of political colour.

The cracks in any imagined version of a perfect new India were already apparent in the 1920s. Communal violence and rioting had marked parts of Punjab, the Central Provinces, Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, and Delhi. Sahota’s narrative captures these tensions without making them the focus of his story.

We see Jeet, one of the three brothers, visiting Jalandhar, witnessing its transformation into a city of bazaars and noise and colour, while he himself stays on the periphery of what look like peaceful protests, consciously keeping himself out of the way, dismissing the chants of “Free India!” as something that has no bearing on his personal life. Jeet, the oldest, and Suraj, the youngest, both venture into this outside world of cities and shops and dynamism.

Unlike his older brother, Suraj embraces the potential of modernity. He cuts his hair, he protests the unwritten rules of primogeniture that reward his brother for an accident of birth, he wishes to run away to Lahore, the city of dreams, he wants to shed old-fashioned values of “ruin” and “honour” to create a new, modern subjectivity. Within a socio-political space still attempting to define itself, Suraj becomes the subaltern, just learning to speak.

Our unnamed narrator is also caught between the abstractions of freedom and imprisonment. Unable to fit within the family he is sent to live with, he chooses to remove himself to an abandoned family farm, discovering there the china room, with its locked door and the forbidding bars on its windows that imagination effortlessly transforms into a cage. He learns later that this same space was Mehar’s site of punishment.

There is a scandal attached to the space, something the village hints at, with salacious delight. Seventy years after Mehar’s trauma, the room becomes a site for healing. Its bars keep the world and its monsters outside, leaving us to wonder at the gendering of this experience- in a patriarchal world, men and women experience spaces differently.

For the narrator, this house in ruins is where he finds a rootedness. He loves it there, he says, finding perhaps for the first time in his life, a sense of belonging. Hyphenated identities are a necessary fallout of the immigrant experience. Born in England, the colour of his skin never allows the narrator to assimilate within his social milieu.

Sahota details incidents of marginalisation and racial oppression, ranging from being turned away from a friend’s birthday party to actually fearing for his life because people who look like him have been held responsible for all the ills of the country that issues his passport but fails at protecting his dignity. His summer in Punjab becomes the fulfilment of that impossible diasporic dream – the return to the homeland.

The last page of the book carries a photograph. An old woman in a salwar-kameez, head covered with a chunni, holding an infant in her arms. There is no caption to explain the image. It is as though the writer expects the reader to have put it all together, to have intuitively understood the unspoken parts of Mehar’s story. In this black-and-white image, he gives us the one piece of material history that connects Mehar to her great-grandson.

The other thing that connects them, of course, is the homestead, the place both have called home. When the narrator paints the house a particular shade of pink, the reader is taken back to Mehar’s husband attempting to woo his wife by painting their home the same colour. Convergences between 1929 and 1999 are layered with extreme delicacy.

A red bunting, a pot of pink paint, a yearning glance at the sky, are shared by fifteen-year-old Mehar and her young descendant across temporal realities. Almost towards the end of the novel, when the narrator tries to excavate Mehar’s story from within the depths of scandal and social censure that it has been buried under, he is told: “Who knows? […] Who is here to tell her story?”

That question could well be posed to the readers. It ought to be posed to readers who imagine we are living in a world of liberal values. When history and politics have conspired to silence those on the margins, who tells the stories that need to be told? Perhaps books like China Room do.

China Room

China Room, Sunjeev Sahota, Harvill Secker.