Mehar, the hero of Sunjeev Sahota’s third novel, “China Room” (Viking, 256 pp., ★★★½ out of four), lives a life so constricted she’s not permitted to see the face of her husband.
It’s 1929 in Punjab, India, and 15-year-old Mehar is the youngest of three girls forced into arranged marriages with three brothers, laboring on a farmstead. (They keep mainly to a “china room,” where a set of plates are kept.) The fatherless men are under pressure to deliver sons, so the women are compelled into sex in the dark while wearing a veil. The household is brutal and compassionless. “Are any of you seeded yet?” asks the boys’ mother, Mai.
A switcheroo involving a string of pearls meant to increase Mehar’s fertility leads her to go to bed not with her husband, Jeet, but his younger brother, Suraj. A furtive romance soon develops, and the predicament would have the absurdity of a French farce if it didn’t imperil everybody so deeply.
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“She won’t say anything. She can’t,” Sahota writes. “Her own obliteration would result. Her head shaved and her naked body paraded through the village on the end of a rope. She would be made into an example.” Meanwhile, a betrayed Jeet and infuriated Mai have their own plans for Suraj, once the infidelity inevitably comes to light.
Mehar’s story is braided with another plot thread, set in 1999, in which her great-grandson returns to the now-abandoned farmstead from his home in England. Here’s there to kick a heroin addiction, but his recovery prompts him to investigate the fate of Mehar and the three brothers, and pursue a relationship with a doctor helping him.
In Mehar, Sahota has powerfully imagined a life under extreme constraint. Imprisoned in her marriage, she becomes all the more attuned to the sensory details she is allowed to take in, from the differing touches of the two brothers to the whispers of an Indian independence movement.
But as a woman with no approved role beyond motherhood, she has to take it all in mutely. When Suraj suggests leaving the farmstead, Mehar is baffled at his audacity: “She’ll wonder if that is the essence of being a man in the world, not simply desiring a thing, but being able to voice that desire out loud.”
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Mehar’s story is so strong in itself that the plot line involving her great-grandson feels almost extraneous. We don’t need it to learn Mehar’s fate, and she carries the novel well on her own. The strongest notes of romance and tragedy are there.
But moving the story 70 years into the future underscores how much has – and hasn’t – improved since Mehar was forced into her marriage. India became independent but also struggles with poverty. More people can speak their minds but also imprison themselves with addiction.
And familial abuses and constraints are passed down through generations. Mehar’s great-grandson is a reminder that freedom is hard-won, but fear and anxiety can get passed down like heirlooms. “Not all love is a prison,” he’s told. He has to work to believe it.