Writers & Company

In his Booker Prize-longlisted novel China Room, Sunjeev Sahota reimagines a family legend 

In the season opener, the British author talks to Eleanor Wachtel about exploring a personal history of immigration and displacement through fiction.
Sunjeev Sahota is a British author. His novel China Room is on the 2021 Booker Prize longlist. (Knopf Canada)

In rural India in 1929, three teenage girls are married to three brothers — but none of the brides knows which one is her husband. Sequestered in a small room on the farm, known as the china room, they are expected to be silent, dutiful and bear sons, while their spouses' identities remain shrouded in mystery. 

The premise of China Room, Sunjeev Sahota's evocative new novel, is inspired by the life of his own great-grandmother — a story that has reached near-mythical status in his family. Compelled to give his ancestor a voice, Sahota imagines her in 15-year-old Mehar, a spirited young woman who risks her life in pursuit of passion beyond the walls of the china room. Intersecting with her story is that of her great-grandson, a young British Indian man in 1999, who turns up on the farm in search of freedom of his own.   

China Room has received enthusiastic reviews and is longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. Sahota's previous novel, The Year of the Runaways — a powerful, complex story about undocumented Indian migrants to the U.K. — was a Booker Prize finalist in 2015 and earned widespread critical acclaim.  

Sahota talked to Eleanor Wachtel from his home in Sheffield, England. 

Strong-willed yet subjugated

"The 'china room' is a room inhabited by three women on a family farm. The year is 1929, and one of the women is a young bride named Mehar. She and the other women have been married to three brothers, but they don't know which of the brothers they've been married to.

Mehar is brilliant. She's courageous, she's strong-willed. She's determined to discover the identity of her husband.

"It's called the china room because of the willow pattern china plates, which are hung on a high shelf by their overbearing, tyrannical mother in-law. The young women's lives are entirely controlled and they have to spend most hours inside the china room. 

"Mehar is brilliant. She's courageous, she's strong-willed. She's determined to discover the identity of her husband. But more than that, she's determined to walk her own path. So for her, the china room is a place she wants to flee. It represents her subjugation."

Rooted in personal history

"The novel is loosely based on an old family legend — a great-grandmother of mine was, along with three other women, actually married to one of four brothers. None of them knew which man they were married to until a year later, when they saw which man held which baby. 

"This is rural Punjab in 1929. There is no electricity. The women were kept sequestered from the men, and they had to remain veiled in front of any men outside of their quarters. The farm in the novel is based on the family farm in my history, which still belongs to my family.

"That room, with bars on it, is still there, though it's now used as a grain store.

The novel is loosely based on an old family legend.

'When you're in that kind of environment in the dead of night, you can't see further than the end of your own nose. The darkness is absolute and just seems to have this other dimension to it."

Intergenerational guilt and trauma

"The story's other main character is a nameless narrator. He is Mehar's great-grandson. He's 18. It's the summer before university. He's addicted to heroin, and his parents suggest he spend some time in India with his uncle and aunt.

"Things didn't quite work out with his uncle and aunt, so he shifts himself to the abandoned family farm — then finds himself trying to escape mosquitos in the china room. 

"He's driven to his addiction because it allows him to manage his feelings of exclusion. He has feelings of homelessness, parental sacrifice and guilt — and he tries to put those painful and quite abstract feelings into a vial, to try to give them form.

He's driven to his addiction because it allows him to manage his feelings of exclusion.

"It's to make these feelings, these abstract things, something he can touch and see and point to, and thereby attempt to control and make bearable. I don't think he's trying to obliterate his pain by turning to these drugs, he's just trying to make it bearable.

"He comes to the farm looking for sanctuary. And that's what I think the china room offers him — a place of refuge. He's come to process his pain and his past and, in doing so, find something to connect with, and a way forward."

Of home and loss

"Stories of economic migrants are timely and topical today, but they have been topical for the last 2,000 years — there's always been a sense of wanting to move somewhere and build a better life for yourself. That's always been a key part of being human.

My novels to date all spring from a very personal place. The idea of immigration has been so central to my history and my family's history. After the partition of India, my grandparents had to literally flee for their lives from what became Pakistan. They had to leave everything behind and run for the border. 

My novels to date all spring from a very personal place. The idea of immigration has been so central to my history and my family's history.

"I will always remember the stories my grandmother used to tell me about how her child, my uncle, was six months old and she had to hide in the fields in the day, trying to keep him quiet from crying so they wouldn't be found. And then they would travel, walking by night, trying to get to the border.

"In a sense, the second migration, from Punjab to the United Kingdom, had to happen — so they could almost make sense of that first, more dramatic migration that they went through."

Sunjeev Sahota's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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