Sunjeev Sahota’s China Room (Viking, 2021) was another slim selection from the Booker 2021 longlist, but unlike A Passage North, which is a little bit longer, I gobbled it up in one sitting; it’s the kind of storytelling I prefer, and Sahota weaves an intimate and heartbreaking tale of love, independence, hate, and the chains that bind us.
Set in India and based on his own family history, China Room is the story of Mehar and her great grandson. Mehar was sold as a bride when she was five. Her new family changes her name, and her destiny. When she was fifteen, they came calling. She is not told which of the three brothers she is marrying, and all three are married in the same ceremony. Neither Mehar nor her new “sisters” know who their husbands are; they are stock, bought and paid for, who must be bred and deliver a male child. Until then, they are kept in the “china room,” where they prepare the meals, complete domestic tasks, and sleep. When their mother-in-law commands it, they wait for their husbands in a completely dark room and do as they are bid.
The three women are curious about their husbands. Emboldened, one asks their mother-in-law to identify which son she is married to. Mai, ever cruel, refuses to tell her and snarls that maybe she sends all three men to all three girls. Mehar, younger than the other two and so curious, sets her mind to determining which brother is her husband.
When her husband tells her that he will bring her pearls so that she will birth a son, she wrongfully assumes the brother she sees twirling the pearls in the air is her husband and shyly approaches him. Suraj, full of lust for his brother’s wife, doesn’t correct her. They begin to meet in secret – Mehar still thinking this is her husband. When she learns the truth, it is too late.
Mehar’s struggles are framed by those of her great grandson, who is telling the story in 2019. Alongside Mehar’s tragedy, he speaks of his own. In 1999, he went to India to try and recover from a heroine addiction. He’d turned to drugs to numb himself from the racism and discrimination his family suffered in England. After he is no longer welcomed to stay with his uncle, he goes to the dilapidated family farm where he continues to painfully withdraw from the drug. He sleeps in the china room, feeling more of a connection to his past and begins to heal. He sets about restoring the property, painting it the same shade of pink it had been when Mehar lived there – her favorite shade.
China Room is the story of family and of life coming full circle. Mehar lost herself in the china room. Seven decades later, her great grandson finds himself there.
The novel is quick delight and well worth picking up.
Read this book.