China Room by Sunjeev Sahota: Book Review

China Room by Sunjeev Sahota, Penguin Random House India, 243 pages

China Room: An intuitive story on patriarchy, love, and despair intertwined with alienation, isolation, and addiction of a young immigrant. Deservedly, Longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize.

China Room’ by Sunjeev Sahota is an intrinsically Indian story; it takes you back in time to the rural landscape of Punjab. And, brings you to the present through an Indian youth who has returned from England to the same countryside, to reveal an uncomfortable past regarding his ancestral home.  

The premise of intertwined narratives – one told by the narrator about the visit to his great grandmother’s house in the year 1999 and his great grandmother’s personal story on a different timeline – is quite intriguing.

In the summer of 1929, fifteen-year-old Mehar is married. Within the socially regressive structure, she has no agency to know the identity of her husband. On the day of Mehar’s wedding, three brothers of a family are married to three women in a single ceremony. And the three brides are kept in complete darkness regarding the identity of their husbands.

After marriage, life is hard for these three women, burdened with household chores, farm work and saddled with the prime responsibility of delivering a boy for the family.

Mai, the matriarchal head is the stereotypical evil mother-in-law in the Indian context. She perpetuates the patriarchal notions; ensuring that the three young brides are under veils and barred from talking to their husbands. At night, Mai decides on the son who is allowed time with his wife. The intimacy between husband and wife is merely ritualistic performed with indifference.

The ‘China Room’ is the kitchen and accommodation for the three daughters-in-law to live separately from their husbands. This claustrophobic room chains down their freedom but spares them the liberty to dream and have a hearty laugh amongst themselves in isolation.  

Sunjeev Sahota refuses to redeem Mai’s character with a backstory regarding her plight, I suppose at some point she would have entered the china room too with her crushed soul. Instead, the author provides a fresh perspective on the national movement, about the lootings and unrest during the freedom struggle on the periphery of the main storyline. A plausible reason for the physical drudgery and emotional separation sought from the sons and daughters-in-law under the strictest vigil of the matriarch’s eye.

Mehar is free-spirited and sprightly, she is keen to find out the identity of her husband. She seeks love and affection in her utopian dreamy way. Hence romance brews but under the guise of treachery in the harshest circumstances.

“He is looking up to the window, at the square of the purpling sky. In that moment, Mehar sees what he sees, a country beyond convention, a life beyond the walls of the china room.”

On another timeline, there is the eighteen-year-old unnamed great-grandson of Mehar. He lived in England and became an addict to overcome the pain from alienation and isolation in a foreign country. Back in India, he is pushed to the same house where his great grandmother lived, restricted within the confines of a rural house. He explores this ruined house, the farm and hears a multitude of stories regarding Mehar.

Within the ambit of subdued characters, accepting fate and injustice, there is Radhika. She has come to the rural areas to provide medical support. Radhika and the narrator’s delicate relationship is key to revealing the deep entrenched conservative views on women and love, which have remained unchanged for more than seventy years, since Mehar’s story.

China Room’ is a great book, especially if you are seeking to read something on women in India, about alienation and isolation or despair in romance.

When I closed the book, I wanted to know more about the narrator’s backstory and his time in England. The theme of immigration, alienation, and isolation, even when it is sparsely scattered has a profound impact in contemporary literature. However, I would say it is Mehar’s character that overpowers every other theme. Mehar’s story lives through generations, becoming a local legend, smudged in collective memory and sidelined from family history.

Surely, ‘China Room’ is an immersive read from the first page to the last, deserving all the accolades that it is receiving.

Do pick up this book and yeah, the cover designed by Suzanne Dean is another enticing temptation to own a copy for your bookshelf.

Click Here to Order China Room by Sunjeev Sahota on Amazon

About the Author

Sunjeev Sahota is the author of ‘Ours Are the Streets’ and ‘The Year of the Runaways’, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize, the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, and won the Encore Prize, the European Union Prize for Literature and the South Bank Sky Arts Award.

He was chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2013. He lives in Sheffield, UK.

This review is powered by Blogchatter Book Review Program

12 thoughts on “China Room by Sunjeev Sahota: Book Review

  1. Enjoyed reading your review of the book. Your exploration of the themes of oppression of women and how it perpetuates through the ages is excellent. Now I wish I had focussed a bit more on this part in my own review. 😄😄😄

    Here’s hoping it makes the Booker shortlist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Suchita. And, yes you should try this one, it is unlike the stereotypical Booker list reads. Though I must confess anything related to Booker is the first thing that catches my attention. So in that sense, this book appeals to both the readers.

      Liked by 1 person

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