One might as well begin by saying that Sunjeev Sahota’s new novel is the least strong of the three he has written so far – and it’s still very impressive.
The author’s debut, Ours Are the Streets, dealt with home-grown radicalisation; his follow-up, The Year of the Runaways, revolved around the plight of immigrants in a fractured world. Both subjects were topical when the books were published, and remain so today.
With China Room, he turns his gaze to the past. The novel is supposed to be based on his family’s history, specifically a rumour about his great-grandmother in pre-independence Punjab.
Early on in China Room, there is a mention of a small picture in a dark-wood frame, “of my great-grandmother, an old white-haired woman who’d travelled all the way to England just so that she might hold me, her new-born great-grandson”. These words strike home when, at the end of the book, one sees a black-and-white photograph featuring a matriarch cradling an infant, presumably the author.
This puts one in mind of Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What the Body Remembers, which is also set in colonial Punjab and, according to her, is based on recollections of her grandmother’s doings. As she wrote for the novel’s twentieth anniversary edition: “After all these years, I thought my grandmother deserved that the book inspired by her life be dedicated to her.”
Sahota’s China Room, though, is quite different in tone and treatment. There are two narrative strands here, largely set in the same location. The first takes place in the summer of 1929, and deals with the predicament of the young Mehar, a newlywed in a rural farmhouse, navigating relationships with her husband, his brothers, and her mother-in-law. The second fast-forwards to 1999, when Mehar’s great-grandson, referred to as “S—”, arrives in Punjab from the UK for an extended stay.
The dilemma of the 15-year-old Mehar, expected to stay dutiful, veiled and silent, is that she does not yet know which of the three brothers in the house is her husband. It is pitch-dark at night when he visits; at other times, she is either expected to carry out onerous household chores or stay with the other two brides in the “china room”, so-called because of the old willow-pattern plates on a high stone shelf, a part of her mother-in-law’s former dowry.
As for her college-aged great-grandson from Chesterfield in England’s industrial north, he arrives in India battling a nasty drug habit. Finding life with his fractious Punjabi uncle and aunt less than harmonious, he decides to shift to the same farmhouse, now abandoned and dilapidated. Here, he is attracted to a visiting doctor, and also strikes up a friendship of sorts with a teacher who lives nearby.
The two narratives intertwine throughout the book. Mehar has to grapple with desire and convention, facing a domineering mother-in-law against a backdrop of rising nationalistic sentiment. Her descendant has to come to terms with his relationship with his parents, a troubled past of racist taunts, and a present need to form human connections.
Sahota takes care to craft linkages between the two. Some of these can be rather overt: statues of Krishna, or pink-painted rooms, for example. The internal resonances are more acute. For both, there are issues of alienation and belonging, of freedom and agency, of independence and powerlessness. Their struggle is to turn themselves into individuals who are at home in a world that is of their choosing, not one that is imposed.
However, the strand dealing with the great-grandson does come across as the weaker of the two. For a start, there is less at stake, narratively speaking. Some of the other characters, such as the doctor and the teacher, are also more hurriedly fleshed out than those in Mehar’s orbit. Because of this, there is an uneasy juxtaposition between the two threads.
Sahota is too good a writer for this to bring down the entire enterprise. China Room is written – as are his earlier novels – with an admirable delicacy of touch and subtlety in probing under the surface of relationships. This is accentuated by the occasional use of unexpected, yet apt, metaphors: a day is “as bright as parrots”; a necklace looks like “stringed moons in the dark”; and night comes all at once, “like a cupboard door shutting”.In a recent interview, Sahota said of writing about that young bride who was his great-grandmother that he “stopped seeing it as me imposing a narrative on her and started seeing it more as an act of love, from me to this ancestor of mine, as a gift”. It’s a gift we can be thankful for.