Love makes for a great story, yet love stories are so much hogwash, especially those emerging from India via Bollywood. In Indian reality, love is all too often a scandal with grave consequences for lovers, consequences that arise out of a perception of love as “affairs” that bring dishonor to families’ prestige. Sunjeev Sahota goes deeper into this experience of love as a scandal in his new novel China Room, a story set in a remote village in Punjab of 1929 about a child bride who merely wants to know whom she is married for to, her mother-in-law, Mai, sends her sons to the wives only in the dark. But Mehar is audacious and she pays for it: her love is crushed by those who see the unfolding events—a case of mistaken identity, love and adultery—as an act of transgression.
Mehar Kaur is visited by her husband in the dark in the china room—the room reserved for the couples’ privacy whenever a husband asks to be with his wife —of the house whenever he feels like it. She literally does not know who he is because details such as the name of the husband are not seen as relevant to her parents and therefore do not inquire about it—they only want to see her married off. Her mother-in-law won’t tell her either for her role is merely to produce a male heir for the eldest son; if she fails, she’ll be discarded or passed on to one of the other sons. Her attempts to solve the mystery of her life end in tragedy but, worse, they immortalize her in the village in the countless rumors the villagers have kept alive. Her story is intertwined with another—that of her great-grandson who has come from the UK to live in the deserted farmhouse to overcome his drug addiction:
A little up ahead, we took a turning into such deep red sand that my trainers sank an inch with every step. I started to see a building, at first obscured by large plane trees, but then slowly, with a quality almost of shyness, it crept into view. It looked silent, neglected, all exposed yellow brick. The wheels of my case trailed snake-lines behind us, which disturbed me strangely, a feeling as if I was being followed, even watched, but when I turned back to face the house I felt an intimation that something here had been patiently waiting for years.
Tenses are inverted: the great-grandson’s story is narrated in the past tense while Mehar’s is in the present, as here in the novel’s opening lines:
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 her 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.
Mehar’s story is timeless, whence, perhaps, the choice of tense. As the great-grandson discovers during his stay, no one, not even he, really can escape the prying eyes of the villagers ready to gossip about a man and a woman seen together. Four generations have passed but the village hasn’t changed.
The novel fascinates for all the things left absent: how Mehar spent her life and how the great-grandson lives his life after return home.
Much holds the two time zones together: love triangles in the past and the present, explorations of how men and women love, with men falling in and out of love quite easily and women simply powerless to choose their husbands, the fact that people do not want girl children in their families.
Of all the questions about love, the most intriguing is: who or what is a husband? Merely that someone a woman is married to? The idea that wives might be kept from knowing who their husbands are (although admittedly somewhat odd ) indicates that husbands can anyway be swapped out. Sahota, in this moving study of love, desire, and time, nonetheless conjures up interesting characters: the matriarch comes to wield so much power, a wife who hates her husband, a wife who finds herself unloved, and more.