- China Room, by Sunjeev Sahota. Harvill Secker, $32.99.
China Room is the third novel by Sunjeev Sahota, a British-born Indian whose grandparents emigrated to England from the Punjab in 1966.
Sahota's own family history merges with the imaginary in this captivating novel. The first indication is an abrupt time change from 1929 Punjab to England in 2019, when the narrator helps his father recover from a knee-replacement. Back in his childhood home, sleeping in his old bedroom "behind a door that still reads S---'s", the books he had brought remain unread while he attempts to sort out his beloved parents' lives. Sitting at the dining table late at night, he focuses on family photographs, in particular one of his great- grandmother, an old Sikh lady wearing a white veil, gazing proudly at a new-born baby, himself. He realises that in abandoning the books, he was "clearing the ground the better to see what was in front of me, which was the past". There are several pasts, one his own, at age 18 rehabilitating on a Punjabi farm before starting university. At the book's end is a photograph of an old lady and a squalling baby. One must presume this is the author and his great-grandmother.
His name, man and boy, is never revealed, neither is the original name of Mehar, the central character. Mehar, meaning kindness and goodwill, was given her as a child at the first meeting with Mai, her future mother-in-law who added "may she bring mercy with her". The lack of names is intriguing, adding another element of mystery to a beautiful, heart-breaking story.
Mai's meeting with Mehar is to view her as a potential bride for one of her three sons. She declines to say which son, and years later three weddings take place in one ceremony. The "sisters" remain unaware to whom each is married. They toil daily in the household and are sequestered together at night. Mai the overbearing matriarch, really a beastly woman, ordains who is to sleep with whom overnight in the China Room. The wives, while not exactly in purdah, remain veiled whenever a man is near. They are unable to identify a face, only the look of a wrist or the feeling of calloused palms. Pretty Mehar, though the youngest at 15, has brought lightness and liveliness to the house which one of the sons says has "never been a kind house before".
As the boy in 1999 cleanses himself of heroin and alcohol, he simultaneously starts rehabilitating the farm buildings. While he cannot know that shards of willow-patterned china, a pile of enamel bricks or flakes of pale pink paint might have had particular meaning to anyone in the past, for the reader, they are moments of sad recognition. From the flat roof of the house, he sees in a distant field a huge statue under construction. It is the god Krishna, blue as the sky, endowed by a feudal landowner to protect the village. During communal violence in the nearby town in 1929, Muslim rioters destroyed the Krishna statue above the sweet shop in the bazaar. Krishna is the god of protection, compassion, tenderness and above all, love.
Why would a Sikh householder plant a peepal tree in her compound? The tree, ficus religiosa, while venerated and worshipped by Hindus and Buddhists, would never be planted close to their homes. The tree is home to Hindu gods, indeed Lord Krishna says in the Mahabharata that he is the peepal tree. Inhabited too by ghosts, peepals signify the cycle of life, death and spiritual reality. Mai is perhaps espousing Hindu belief that peepal worship removes obstacles in marriage and offers the reward of children. Undoubtedly she has created the major obstacles in the marriages of two of her three sons and she is fixated on the desire for grandsons. Later village gossip suggests she had Suraj's ashes buried beneath a peepal. "The tales we tell!" an old man says, "who's here to tell her story?" The answer in 1999 is, nobody, and the tragedy of 1929 is forgotten. Neither Krishna nor the peepal are essential to the plot but are brilliant little links in a finely crafted and gripping tale.
Descriptions are wonderful. Daily household activities are fascinating and word pictures of the Punjabi countryside are gorgeous - colour-washed days, starry nights, nocturnal animals rustling and scampering, even the headlamps of the builders of the Krishna statue look like fireflies as they work through the night.
It is a passionate love story but of doomed, unrequited, ill-fated love through generations. Mehar, Jeet, Suraj and others in 1929 against the looming background of India's fight for independence from Britain and in the 1990s, Kuku, Jai, Tanbir, Radhika, are star-crossed lovers all. In 2019, the dutiful son remembers not only his youthful self in India, but also sad episodes of racism and brutality in his early childhood in England. But his love for his parents is strong and resilient. The baby in the photograph is crying, but a look on his great-grandmother's face says this is a child who sprang from love.