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China Room Reader’s Guide

By Sunjeev Sahota

China Room by Sunjeev Sahota

READERS GUIDE

Introduction

An introduction to CHINA ROOM by Sunjeev Sahota
 
1929. Mehar, a young bride in rural Punjab, is trying to discover the identity of her new husband. Married to three brothers in a single ceremony, she and her sisters-in-law 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 headstrong, Mehar can’t help but try to piece together what Mai doesn’t want her to know. From beneath her veil, she studies the sounds of the men’s voices and the calluses on their fingers as she serves them tea. After she glimpses something that seems to confirm which of the brothers is hers, a series of events is set in motion that will put more than one life at risk.
 
Meanwhile, India at large is undergoing its own transformation. The anti-colonial independence movement—with its nationalists who preach armed revolution to purge the British and finally achieve liberation and self-rule—hasn’t arrived at Mai’s doorstep yet, but it won’t remain possible for the family to ignore for long. Mai’s eldest son, Jeet, takes an interest in the movement, quietly assessing the ways it might advantage him if a member of his family were to be recruited to the resistance effort.

1999. A young man arrives at his uncle’s house in Punjab for the summer, hoping to shake an addiction that has held him in its grip for more than two years. Growing up in a small town in England, the son of an immigrant shopkeeper, his experiences of racist ostracism and violence led him to seek a dangerous form of escape. Never quite at home in either country, he receives a mixed welcome from his relatives and, after he is exiled to his family’s now-abandoned farmstead to cope with his withdrawal symptoms, from his neighbors, some of whom treat him with suspicion.
 
In the days and weeks that follow, he explores the dilapidated structure—including a small room that’s mysteriously locked and barred—and finds himself unexpectedly drawn to a local doctor, Radhika, an independent young woman dogged by village gossip who takes an interest in his recovery. With Radhika’s help, he goes to work restoring the farmstead—knitting himself back together and gathering strength to return to his life abroad in the process.
 
Partly inspired by the author’s own family history, China Room explores love, trauma, redemption, and the struggle for freedom and self-determination across time. It is a sweeping, intimate, and deeply moving novel from a contemporary master.
 
Sunjeev Sahota is the author of Ours Are the Streets and The Year of the Runaways, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Dylan Thomas Prize and was awarded a European Union Prize for Literature. In 2013, he was named one of Granta‘s 20 Best of Young British Novelists of the decade. He lives in Sheffield, UK, with his family.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Discuss Mehar’s character and the situation she finds herself in at the beginning of the novel. In a society where women are veiled and locked into marriages arranged by their families—in a world, as the novel notes, “where there is there is no word for privacy”—how might a woman exercise her free will? How do we see Mehar struggling against the bounds of her prescribed existence?

2. Discuss Mehar’s relationship with her two “sisters,” Harbans and Gurleen. Harbans is her dear friend, confidante, and closest ally, whereas Gurleen is pricklier and more resentful. Contrast Harbans with Gurleen and examine each of these women’s reactions and approaches to navigating their circumstances. How do they influence each other? Would you describe their friendships as nurturing, protective, competitive, fraught—or none or all of the above?

3. Discuss the relationship and power dynamics between Jeet and Suraj. Cultural customs dictate that Jeet, as the eldest, “commands all”, and that Suraj’s desires are thus neglected. But sometimes Suraj suspects that Jeet “hates him on some level, hates him for not having to be the eldest male in the house and for all that comes with it”. How do you think this hierarchy has shaped each of their personalities and their core motivations?

4. Discuss the character of Mai, the ruthless and fearsome family matriarch. Does she remind you of any other darkly powerful female characters you’ve encountered in literature? Did you sympathize with or admire her on any level?

5. Imagining “a life beyond the walls of the china room,” Mehar wonders, “how much of her love for [Suraj] is bound up with [the] promise of freedom.” How would you answer that question? Is there a difference between love for its own sake and love that is inseparable from other incentives, such as the promise of liberation or personal transformation?

6. India is itself a kind of character in the novel. How are the characters’ personal struggles for freedom and the contemporary narrator’s sense that he is “seen as fundamentally illegitimate” as an immigrant living in England in the late twentieth century related to the British occupation of India and the Indian independence movement?

7. How do you think the prejudice and discrimination suffered by the contemporary narrator and his family contributed to his substance abuse issues? Discuss the recovery process. What elements make recovery more likely to be sustained and successful? What enables someone to seek recovery in the first place? 

8. For the contemporary narrator, the very concept of “home” is fraught—though he has never felt entirely accepted or at ease in England, the locals in his family’s village in India refer to him as a “lucky foreign boy” and, although he receives a warm welcome from Jai, he is dogged by the sense that he might be perceived as “the cringeworthy British relative” . What does it mean to go home when you’ve grown up between cultures? How would you define the concept of home, and what does it mean to feel one has arrived there?

9. Tanbir tells the narrator that “people are beginning to whisper” about “an out-of-stater on this lonely farm with a young boy half her age,” and warns him that “if [the villagers] take against someone, they’ll eat her alive, slowly, from the inside.” Contrast the expectations and restrictions placed on Radhika and Mehar across time. To what extent have women’s lives changed between 1929 and 1999 in this village, and in what ways are they still confined?

10. Which character ultimately deviated the most from your initial impression of them? Who do you think changes the most over the course of the novel? How would you describe that transformation, and what caused it to happen?

11. What do you think the narrator means when he says, of coping with past traumas, that “the underlying hurt does not go away and can only be paid attention to” ? Does this resonate with your experience of processing grief, oppression, and hardship?

12. Mehar and the contemporary narrator’s lives are separated by more than half a century, but they are united in their search for freedom and in their desire to realize their full selves. How does the theme of seeking freedom reverberate throughout the novel? How do each of these characters attempt to claim power and agency? When do each of these characters feel the most empowered and free?

 
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