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Three Women Wait Every Day For Their Unknown Husbands In The 'China Room'


There's a photograph on the final page of Sunjeev Sahota's new novel "China Room," which we'll ask the author about. The narrator for much of the story is an 18-year-old Briton, urban and urbane, who returns to his family's ancestral home in Punjab in 1999 to try to detox from heroin addiction. His story on that farm is told alongside his great-grandmother's, Mehar, who is 15 when she's married to one of three brothers, alongside two other young girls. But the girls don't know which is which. They spend their days separated from her husbands and all men in the China room, a dilapidated building decorated with plates that were once part of a dowry. And they wait to be tapped on the shoulder in the dark. "The China Room" is the latest novel from Sunjeev Sahota, who joins us from Sheffield, England.

Thanks so much for being with us.

SUNJEEV SAHOTA: It's a pleasure, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And I know it's at the end of the book, but do you mind if we begin by asking about that photo?

SAHOTA: Yeah, sure, so it's a photo of my great-grandmother holding me when I was a very newborn. And the photo was always there in my mind, and in my mind, it was always at the end of the book has a way of knotting these two stories together - the story of a great-grandmother, a story of Mehar, as you outlined, which is loosely based on a family legend of mine or my family's, some piece of lore about a great-grandmother who didn't know which of four brothers actually, in fact, was her husband.

SIMON: Boy. And Mehar, we should explain, was actually, I believe, promised in marriage, if that's the term, I mean, or bound in marriage at the age of 5, right?

SAHOTA: Yeah, that's true. At that young age, there seemed to have been a pact made between her ancestors that a brother from that family would marry a daughter from this family. And so it was almost preordained. In Indian law, still today, there is that sense that when a girl is married into a family, particularly in some of the rural parts of India, especially in Punjab, which is a state I most know, that she's considered almost a - just a waiting visitor in the family she's born until she goes off to her so-called real family, which is the one she's married into.

SIMON: Yeah. And when we use a verb like given, any resemblance to property is intended, I guess, isn't it?

SAHOTA: It's very deliberate. Yes, she's very much handed over or taken, in fact. It's not like she has a choice. It's not even considered that she might want to know who she is, in fact, marrying. And the reason why she doesn't know who she's married to, it's left slightly opaque in the book. Is it just a sense of that no one thought to tell her? It's just a bit of negligence. Or is it the fact that her mother-in-law is so controlling and overbearing that it's a deliberate sign of withholding? I think it starts off as being that no one's actually thought that she might want to know who she's marrying into. And it becomes a way for her mother-in-law to actually control the entire house by extension.

SIMON: And the tap on the shoulder isn't necessarily a tap of love, is it?

SAHOTA: No. So the main reason why, in the book, the women are brought into the family is to bear children. And by that, I mean to bear sons. And Mai, the mother-in-law, controls very much when those encounters between husband and wives take place and where they take place as well. So the tap on the shoulder is a way, again, for her to exert her control over all these young lives.

SIMON: Let me ask about Mehar without giving away too much. She gets tripped up by a string of pearls, doesn't she?

SAHOTA: Yeah, she's a really brave, courageous, strong-willed, independent-minded young woman. And she's not willing to sort of settle for the cards she's been dealt. And she wants to know which of these three men is her husband. But more than that, it's about her coming to a place where she takes control of her personhood, of her right to feel desire. And, you know, it kind of all starts to take effect when a priest says that if you sleep with some pearls that night, it'll help you conceive. And the pearls lead to a mistake, and the repercussions kind of carry on from there.

SIMON: It is difficult, and I say this with admiration, to read about the total subjugation. You know, I would certainly feel free to call it a criminal subjugation of three women in a house. It's hard not to reflect on that part of what draws you in is it's hard for the great-grandson to understand how people lived. And yet, we're still - these generations are wound up with each other, aren't we?

SAHOTA: Yeah, well, trauma lives on, doesn't it? It's passed down. I think part of the reason why it's hard to see Mehar and her sisters-in-laws subjugated, as you say, is because part of subjugation comes from another woman. It comes from her mother-in-law, Mai. And I think it's important to remember that she is also a victim of sorts. She's internalized the pain and the misogyny that she's also suffered in her life and is sort of lashing out on these other women as a result. And Yen (ph), the 18-year-old narrator, which is looked back on by the 40-year-old - his 40-year-old self, he starts to see these connections. And in the end, he comes to this understanding that - he has this line where he says, the underlying hurt will not go away and can only be paid attention to - the idea, like, you can't remove trauma. It's something you have to come to some sort of acceptance, which doesn't mean that the pain is acceptable. But it means you have to learn to live with it, I think.

SIMON: And do I have this right? I have read that you were a math student who didn't read a novel yourself until you were 18, and you bought "Midnight's Children" in an airport.

SAHOTA: That's true. Somehow, kind of in my particular school year, we bypassed the novel. And I was at an airport on my way to India in the summer of 1999. And I picked up Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children" and kind of went on from there with a bit like a - I've said this before, like a dam bursting open. I felt like this wave of storytelling wash over me. I think as an adolescent, I was very much trying to search for meaning, search for what am I doing. And I found that when I was reading novels, that meaning is something that's created between reader and writer. Actually watching people going through their struggles in the imagined arena of a novel is a way in which meaning is constructed, actually. At the moment, I can see now because obviously, turning points are something that are only evident in hindsight. I can see now that it was a moment when I had a kind of quite profound change in me.

SIMON: Boy. Well, it sounds as if it unlocked something in you. Would that be fair?

SAHOTA: Yeah, very much so - this idea of dramatic truth, this idea of watching people struggle with going through life. So mine enables me to live my own life in a better and more self-aware way, I think. I still to this day derive a great deal of solace and hope from reading novels. It seems to me like reading novels is a perfectly viable way to spend your life, really (laughter).

SIMON: Yes, well, let's hope (laughter). I think that would be wonderful. Sunjeev Sahota, his novel "China Room" - thank you so much for being with us.

SAHOTA: Thanks, Scott. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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