China Room tells the story of three young Punjabi girls contracted in marriage to three brothers, all of them controlled by the mother Mai, a woman who does not bother to cloak her iron fist in any kind of velvet glove. The family dynamics between Mai and her sons are interestingly uneven, and the arrival of the wives doesn’t change things one bit.
The wives are cooped up in a small brick room known as the china room because some of Mai’s wedding dowry, a set of willow-patterned chinaware, sits on a stone shelf in the room. There is a mud oven in one corner where the wives cook, and two charpoys which the three of them share. When night falls, Mai sends one of them to a room at the back where she awaits her husband, and does what she has to do silently, in pitch darkness. They spend the days in drudgery, all the while hungering for a kind word from the husbands they cannot see in the dense darkness of the cohabitation room.
It is 1929, and the story centres around 15-year-old Mehar who is curious about what the man she sleeps with looks like. When they serve the menfolk dinner, they are heavily veiled, so of course, they can neither see nor be seen. There are slats in the sole window in the china room, and Mehar peers out eagerly, trying to catch a glimpse of her husband. And then one day, she sets her eyes on disparate parts of a man: a lean body, narrow shoulders and long fingers. This is her husband, she decides.
However, this is not just Mehar’s story. Now it is 1999, and we meet a young British Punjabi, all of 18, trying to free himself, not very strenuously though, from the clutches of addiction. He has been sent for a spell of rehab to his uncle’s place in rural Punjab. His aunt’s palpable dislike gets to him, and he decides to go stay by himself at his uncle’s derelict farm, choosing to sleep in a bare-bricked room the reader immediately recognises. “This place,” muses the young boy, “held the kind of silence that could send a man mad. A brooding, hot, paranoid, creeping silence full of imagined sounds and nothing noises.” Soon enough, the reader realises the reason for this split narrative, and marvels at how these two different people suffuse that one room with their desires, despair, longings and anguish.
Even as Mehar’s life is filling with illicit hope and illicit love (‘under her veil, everything is light-filled’), the reader sees the tormented young man ruminating over endless racism, (‘where public displays of violence were only ever a door-chime away’), economic uncertainty, the inability to recognise or acknowledge his Indian roots. Alcohol and drugs are his twin crutches but neither is able to shore him up the way he desperately needs to be shored up.
The reveals are made gently but without warning, be it Mehar’s mistake or the young man’s post-hiatus future, life when the Free India movement was still in a nascent stage, the past and present link of a huge statue of the Blue Lord coming up in the village near the farm.
I know comparisons are odious but when you read Sunjeev Sahota, something of Nadeem Aslam comes to mind. It’s the same pared-down style of writing, matter-of-fact sentences that effectively wring the reader’s heart. The one difference is, Aslam’s prose suddenly soars lyrically high at times. Sahota’s prose, now, manages to elicit emotions while staying earth-bound.
This is an edgy, very moving story, just like Sahota’s last book, The Year of the Runaways. Switching between 1929 and 1999, the reader gets to know Mehar, Harbans, Gurleen, Mai and her three sons Jeet, Mohan and Suraj, the nameless young man living 70 years later in the china room, and discerns each one’s private pain.