Review: China Room by Sunjeev Sahota

There are two incredible facts at the core of the premise of this Booker-longlisted novel. The first is that Mehar, 15 years old and married off to a family of Punjabi farmers in 1929, does not know the identity of her husband, only that he is one of three brothers. The second is that it is so dark at night when her husband comes to her in the marital bedroom/impregnation chamber, that she still cannot be sure which brother he is. One is an expression of patriarchy; the other a reminder easily forgotten that the electricity-free world can be a very dark place. The brothers and their mother do know whose wife belongs to whom. Mehar and her two “sisters” Harbans and Gurleen, who must go under veil and with eyes downcast in the presence of men who aren’t their husbands, are literally and figuratively in the dark. They live together in the “china room”, a bedroom that doubles as a kitchen so named for the kitchenware gifted with their mother-in-law Mai as part of her dowry.

Sunjeev Sahota makes much of this information asymmetry throughout this slight but full novel. Mehar at first tries to guess which brother is her husband (legally the eldest, Jeet). Later Suraj, the youngest, exploits a case of mistaken identity to begin an affair with Mehar. He is clear on the implications for her:

Her own obliteration would result. Her head shaved and her naked body paraded through the village on the end of a rope. She would be made into an example … No more the respected wife of the eldest brother. Everyone’s bhabi. She would live at the bottom of the pile.

Although Mehar is understandably distraught when she finds out that she has been tricked, she continues to be drawn to the erotic thrills of sex with him, and the possibility of carving out a little “purna swaraj” (pure self rule) among the oppression of the household. She understands all too well the burden of patriarchy, that “the essence of being a man in the world” is “not simply desiring a thing, but being able to voice that desire out loud”. It’s as if patriarchy is a kind of sensory deprivation; Mehar finds her other senses – particularly touch and imagination – heightened.

But before all this can unfold Mehar’s tale is interrupted by 39-year-old S- in 2019, who has returned to his childhood home in England’s midlands to help his father recovering from surgery. Above the kitchen table is a portrait of him as a baby being held by his great-grandmother, who travelled from India. It is no spoiler to say that this woman is Mehar, nor that the story is based on Sahota’s own. The photo triggers him to begin writing about when he was 19 years old in 1999 and travelled to Punjab to recover from addiction, staying in the same farm where his great-grandmother was kept. Rumours of her ill-fated romance suggest that S- has taken it upon himself to fill the blanks in her story with his imagination, attempting to correct that gendered imbalance in how her story is told and remembered.

There’s a lot going on. In the background in 1929 revolutionaries are organising against British rule, which is where Mehar develops her own idea of self-rule. Violence threatens constantly between Muslims and Hindus. S-‘s childhood is marked by experiences of racism, both to himself and to his father. But Sahota has a masterfully light touch when it comes to fleshing in the broader socio-political context, centring intimate family drama in the ebb and flow of history. His writing is similarly fleet-footed, and there’s an interesting tension between some of his more surreal and romantic touches and the mundane lives of his characters.

Sahota’s characters behave monstrously, but are never monsters. There is something terribly sad behind Mehar’s mother-in-law’s behaviour towards the wives, and Suraj’s deception and jealously of his older brother. “Your father never protected me either,” Mai tersely admits to her son. They are all, past and more recent past, nursing “the underlying hurt” that “does not go away and can only be paid attention to”.

Gay rating: not gay.

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