A continent and decade spanning story about the ways we fight to live on our own terms in a world that has other plans.
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Mehar, a young bride in rural 1929 Punjab, is trying to discover the identity of her new husband. Married to three brothers in a single ceremony, she and her now-sisters spend their days hard at work in the family’s “china room,” sequestered from contact with the men—except when their domineering mother-in-law, Mai, summons them to a darkened chamber at night. Curious and strong willed, Mehar tries to piece together what Mai doesn’t want her to know. From beneath her veil, she studies the sounds of the men’s voices, the calluses on their fingers as she serves them tea. Soon she glimpses something that seems to confirm which of the brothers is her husband, and a series of events is set in motion that will put more than one life at risk. As the early stirrings of the Indian independence movement rise around her, Mehar must weigh her own desires against the reality—and danger—of her situation.
Spiraling around Mehar’s story is that of a young man who arrives at his uncle’s house in Punjab in the summer of 1999, hoping to shake an addiction that has held him in its grip for more than two years. Growing up in small-town England as the son of an immigrant shopkeeper, his experiences of racism, violence, and estrangement from the culture of his birth led him to seek a dangerous form of escape. As he rides out his withdrawal at his family’s ancestral home—an abandoned farmstead, its china room mysteriously locked and barred—he begins to knit himself back together, gathering strength for the journey home.
Partly inspired by award-winning author Sunjeev Sahota’s family history, China Room is at once a deft exploration of how systems of power circumscribe individual lives and a deeply moving portrait of the unconquerable human capacity to resist them.
Mehar is not so obedient a fifteen-year-old that she won’t try to uncover which of the three brothers is her husband. Already, the morning after the wedding, and despite nervous, trembling hands, she combines varying amounts of lemon, garlic and spice in their side plates of sliced onions, and then attempts to detect the particular odour on the man who visits later that same night, invisible to her in the dark. It proves inconclusive, the strongest smell by far her fear, so she tries again after overhearing one of the trio complaining about the calluses on his hands. Her concentration is fierce when her husband’s palm next strokes her naked arm, but then, too, she isn’t certain. Maybe all male hands feel so rough, so clumsily eager and dry.
It is 1929, summer is erupting, and the brothers do not address her in one another’s presence, indeed they barely speak to her at all, and she, it goes without saying, is expected to remain dutiful, veiled and silent, like the other new brides. Spying from her window, she sees only the brothers’ likeness: close in age, they share the same narrow build, with unconvincing shoulders and grave eyes; serious faces that carry no slack, features that follow the same rules. The three are evenly bearded, the hair trimmed short and tight, and all day they wear loose turbans cut from the same saffron wrap. Most hours the brothers will be out working the fields, playing, drinking, while she weaves and cooks and shovels and milks, until those evenings when Mai, their mother, says to her, raising a tea-glass to grim lips:
‘Not the china room tonight.’
Why I love it
Author, Late in the Day
When I scan down the first page of a new book, I’m always looking out for warning signs—a slack sentence or a cliché, fake solemnity, cheap tricks, overwriting. So what bliss when from time to time the writing on that first page pushes back at me and I’m carried out of myself, into a new world. This is how I felt when I picked up my copy of Sunjeev Sahota’s China Room. The material was entirely fresh and new, the writing economical and elegant.
And—what a compelling story. Three teenage girls in India are married to three brothers, but none of them knows which of the three is actually her husband. Mehar is determined to find out which one of the men visits her at night in the dark, in the China Room. She tries putting different spices in the brothers’ food—then she sees one of them carrying a rope of pearls, which end up under her pillow, to help her conceive. Now she believes she’s sure.
Confusion and passion follow—and high drama. It sounds like a fairy tale, but it reads as breath-taking realism. And running alongside this story from the past is the present day tale of a boy from the UK who’s returned to his family in India, to be cured of his heroin addiction—we come gradually to see the connection between these two parts of this tender and enthralling book.
Member ratings (1,365)
This book swept me up in a way I haven’t felt for a while. It’s not perfect, but the writing & setting are beautiful. I appreciate that the author left room for readers to draw their own conclusions.
Urbana , IL
With the exception of the overuse of the word “charpoy,” this was a beautifully written and thoughtfully composed novel. The characters jump out of the pages. The plot is deliciously deep. Too short!
Smart writing. Interesting. Short&impactful. Provides insight into Punjabi womens’ lives in the early 1900s&growing up Indian in England. Would have liked to understand why Mai made certain decisions.
I loved this book! Beautiful writing and storytelling, with an over-arching theme being the seemingly never-ending human struggle (sometimes successful, often not) against societal constraints.
This book was amazing! When it ended I just wanted more. The historical parts of the book were so good and I was hanging onto my seat at the end trying to see what would happen. Highly recommend!