Synopsis: A breathtaking novel of love, oppression and the pursuit of freedom, China Room twines together the stories of a woman and a man separated by half a century but united by blood.
Mehar, a young bride in rural 1929 Punjab, is trying to discover the identity of her new husband. She and her sisters-in-law, married to three brothers in a single ceremony, spend their days at work in the family’s china room, sequestered from contact with the men. When Mehar develops a theory as to which of them is hers, a passion is ignited that will put more than one life at risk.
Spiralling around Mehar’s story is that of a young man who in 1999 travels from England to the now-deserted farm, its china room locked and barred. In enforced flight from the traumas of his adolescence – his experiences of addiction, racism, and estrangement from the culture of his birth – he spends a summer in painful contemplation and recovery, finally gathering the strength to return home.
Inspired in part by the author’s family history, and told with courage, compassion and deep humanity, China Room is an astonishing feat of storytelling from one of our most exceptional novelists.
Book name: China Room.
Author: Sunjeev Sahota.
The desire to go back and change the past is strong in most of us, isn’t it? Specially if it’s about bettering the course of our family history. But the past is river water that’s already flown. The best you can then do is trying to control your own life and the outcomes of your own struggles. Or at least, hope to be able to do so. Because maybe, even that’s something out of your control. Maybe it’s all fate.
This battle between Determinism and Free Will underlines the story of China Room. The narrator (standing in for the author) arrives at his maternal village to recover from addiction and find his place in the world. He has been a victim of racism, and found it tough to make his place in a foreign land (England), whose natives neither look like him nor want him to be with them. He’s just eighteen.
His great-grandmother is just sixteen in 1929, when she arrives in that village as one of the three brides in a family with three brothers and a mother. The mother, called Mai, can give Nurse Ratched a run for her money as far as being overbearing and scheming is concerned. The poor brides do not know which man is whose husband, and this leads to guesses and experiments. This is where the book jumps into the meat of the story. Innocuous-looking mistakes create profound, life-altering realities. Add to them the very human feelings of jealousy, cruelty and desires, and the tinderbox, simmering for long passages of the book, ignites.
At its core, China Room is an examination of what it means to belong, and how we keep searching for the feeling of belonging and being at home. Often, as both the parallel-running stories depict, home can be a concept removed from its physical manifestations.
Another feature of the book is the way it deftly balances both storylines, aligning revelations and plot connections across both timelines in a satisfactory way. In this, the book feels almost like a mystery thriller. There are genre questions – Who? What? How? – in both storylines that further build this seeming connection. It’s immense credit to Mr. Sahota that when we get the revelations, the resultant feeling is a mix of awe, disgust, wonder and loss. And like any good thriller, there are clues throughout that suggest what’s to come.
This is a story of pain, loss, oppression and rigidity. It’s a saga of how humans can suppress other humans, by dint of their authority or their numbers, try to quell any pushback, and then cloak the deep-seated issues under the garb of culture, honour and tradition, regardless of the place on the globe. It’s not an easy read, and the author doesn’t really attempt any levity. There are one or two genuine laughs in the book, maybe a couple more. But that’s it. This can be a challenge if you’re looking at a light read.
A feature of the book that I liked was that it is set in 1929. Given the immense canvas that the Partition provides, there might have been a temptation for the author to set it closer to 1947. But in removing the story from that seismic incident, he succeeds in keeping the focus firmly on the struggles of the family. The freedom struggle is there in the background, like a fire in the next village. The threat of the fight for independence disrupting normal life is there, but it is used as a plot device in the briefest of supporting roles.
The book opens up with a premise that sounds unreal in the modern age. But the reader needs to bear in mind that the main story is set almost a hundred years ago. Yes, some suspension of disbelief might come in handy. But it never goes into fantasy territory, if I may say so. To be fair, the characters are, in part, not important. Yes, on a surface level you care about who’s doing what. But on a deeper level, they are merely stand-ins in the struggle between Determinism and Free Will that the story is covering. They make choices because they won’t accept reality as is. Once you accept the outline, it becomes easier to see the story as Man raging against Fate. And there’s an undeniable universalism in that. This is why I believe the book will appeal even to readers who aren’t from the Indian subcontinent. I haven’t read the other books on the Booker Prize longlist this year, but I hope this one makes the shortlist. It’s devastating, and I hope it gets the wider readership a shortlist will bring.
P. S. – I’m looking forward to watching an adaptation of this book on the screen. I hope the BBC makes a miniseries out of this. A film might not do it justice in a 2-hour runtime.
Reviewed as part of Blogchatter’s Book Review program. Know all about it here.
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