As a British-Asian fiction writer, Sunjeev Sahota says his imperative is to delineate his characters’ yearning for home, their struggle to break free from oppression, pain and trauma. In his earlier novels—Ours Are the Streets (2011) and the Booker-shortlisted The Year Of The Runaways (2015), both set in Sheffield, where he lives—Sahota limns the lives of British Asians, offering an empathetic view on radicalisation and illegal immigration.
“When I work on characters, I look at their driving force.... I am always interested in exploring what is the particular pain that a character is living with. Once I find that out, characters come to life,” says Sahota in a video call as his third novel, China Room, hits stores.
In Ours Are The Streets, Sahota dwells on the fissures of race and class, ideas of home and belonging, contradictions of identity and economic disparity. Imtiaz Raina, the son of a Pakistani cab driver in Sheffield, opens up, “wound on wound”, in a monologue, detailing the impulses behind his decision to become a suicide bomber. The Year Of The Runaways dissects the misery of the immigrant experience through the daily suffering of a clutch of Indian migrant labourers in Sheffield. Both novels trace the genealogies of their characters to locate them in a particular socio-economic milieu. Sahota draws on his own lack of a sense of rootedness as a second-generation migrant in England.
In China Room, he returns to his family history, the “legend” of his great-grandmother, who was one of four young women married to four brothers. Since the women had to keep themselves veiled all the time, none of them knew which of the brothers she was married to until, so the story goes, a year later, when they saw which man held which baby. “That’s when they were able to establish who their husband was. I don’t know how much of this is true and how much has been embellished through the decades,” says Sahota, who would visit the family farm at Kala Sanghian, near Amritsar in Punjab, once every two years before the pandemic.
In the novel, Mehr Kaur, a 15-year-old bride, is married into a family of three brothers, all of whom tie the knot in a single ceremony, in rural Punjab in 1929. She lives in an outhouse with her two sisters-in-law, none of whom knows who their husband is, and a tyrannical matriarch. The men come to them for copulation in the darkness of the night. As the three new brides, veiled and distant from the men in the light of day, go about their daily chores, Mehr tries to know who among the three—Jeet, Mohan and Suraj—is her husband. When Mehr mistakenly comes to think of Suraj, the youngest of the brothers, as her husband, it triggers a tale of passion with a heartbreaking denouement, throwing into sharp relief notions of misogyny, honour and shame.
Mehr’s third-person point of view alternates with the first-person narrative of her unnamed great-grandson, who travels from England to his family farm in the Punjab of 1999 in an attempt to leave behind the torments of his adolescence—his descent into addiction, traumatic experience of racism and estrangement from his native culture. “Not only are these stories connected, they are also about connection: Both Mehr and her great-grandson are seeking connections in their own ways,” says Sahota. “When I thought of putting these stories together and weaving them around each other, the form and content came together in the novel for me.”
In China Room, Mehr and the young narrator seek to forge links with ideas of home. For the young man, addiction becomes home—that’s where he feels he can make sense of his trauma. In contrast, Mehr seeks a place where she is allowed to have a voice, something she was deprived of at her father’s place. Like Mehr and the narrator, the character of “Mother”, too, is not a simple cardboard villain. She internalises her experience of misogyny, pain, and unleashes it upon her sons and daughters-in-law. “The point I am making is that trauma lives on for generations; it doesn’t disappear. The novel shows that the past is not in the past; it’s always with us, around us,” Sahota says.
Mehr’s story, written in the present tense, points to her trials but it also looks forward to the trauma-to-come for her great-grandson. Sahota sees the structure of the story like a spiral; the switch between the two strands of the novel gets more delicate as the story progresses, until the book closes with a photograph from the author’s family album—of his great-grandmother, cradling a young Sahota in her lap.
Sahota’s acuteness of observation, the pièce de résistance of his novels, comes from “watching people” in real life, he says—and trying to work out why they behave the way they do. “Psychology is really important to how I think about literature,” he adds. “In my novels, I try to tell what it feels to be like me; I don’t see any other bigger manifesto as a writer,” says Sahota, who was drawn to writing after he read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children when he was 18.
“It felt like a ‘dam-bursting moment’,” he remembers. When he began writing at the age of 25, he was fascinated with Henry James and Edith Wharton. Their books, he says, are saturated with the idea of triangles: things happen in threes. The idea seems to have stayed in his subconscious because there are lots of triangles in his own novels too.
A fan of Portuguese writer José Saramago, Sahota remains particularly in awe of his novel The Double (2004), which argues that we are the sum of our experiences and that our exact physical doubles exist somewhere in the world. When he was working on China Room, the idea of the doppelganger played on Sahota’s mind. “It changed into a version of me in the novel; I became the doppelganger,” he says.
Nawaid Anjum is a Delhi-based culture journalist.