Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the novelist Sunjeev Sahota traveled on something like an annual basis to India, where he has extended family. Over the years, he caught fragments of an old rumor about his great-grandmother. As the story went, she lived on her husband’s family farm in Punjab with the wives of his three brothers—but the women couldn’t distinguish between the brothers and were never sure who was married to whom.
“Because there was no electricity, because women had to remain veiled at all times in front of other men, the women had no idea which brother was theirs,” Sahota says via Zoom from his home in Sheffield, England. “Until a year later, when they saw which man was holding which baby, and that’s when they started to piece it together—or so the story goes.”
That last qualification is crucial. Sahota says his forthcoming novel, China Room (Viking, July), which tells a version of this tale, is “very much alive to questions of authorship, and storytelling, and the rights and wrongs of who gets to tell the story. It’s quite ambivalent on this whole question.”
Originally, Sahota tried not to write a novel set in India. His goal for this, his third novel, was to write about life in the contemporary U.K. “But I kept on being pulled back,” he says. “I guess because my relationship with India is more vexed and contorted than it is perhaps for others. You have to go where that burning bush tells you to go.”
Sahota was born in the U.K. in 1981 to first-generation immigrants. He grew up mainly in Chesterfield, where his parents owned a shop and where, he told the Guardian, in an interview last month, he and his brother were “the only brown people in school.”
During a pre-college summer in India, in 1999, Sahota belatedly discovered literature. “I was just reading continuously,” he recalls. “It opened something in me. I’d been quite locked before.”
Sahota’s first two novels center on the difficulties faced by immigrants and their descendants. His debut, Ours Are the Streets, which earned him a spot on Granta’s decennial list of the best young British novelists, takes inspiration from the 2005 terrorist bombings in London, telling the story of a British-born Pakistani man who descends into radicalization. His second novel, The Year of the Runaways, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, offers a broader tapestry, following four young immigrants, including one born into India’s untouchable caste, as they struggle to gain a foothold in the U.K.
China Room, set mainly in India and further in the past, signals something of a departure for Sahota. But he nevertheless detects recurring themes: “If I look at my three novels, the thing that seems to connect them, to me—and this wasn’t obvious to me before—is ideas of freedom, ideas of connection, ideas of trying to find the place you call home.”
China Room tells two interwoven narratives. The first, set in 1929, follows Mehar, the stand-in for Sahota’s great-grandmother, as she adjusts to life on her new husband’s family’s farm. There, she lives with two other recent brides in a tiny room with a barred window. She cooks and cleans under the watchful eye of her mother-in-law and submits to conjugal visits from her husband, whose visage, true to Sahota’s family’s rumor, she can’t make out. She’s soon drawn into an affair with one of her brothers-in-law, at first believing he’s her husband, and their entanglement puts both of their lives at risk.
The second narrative, set in 1999, centers on Mehar’s college-bound great-grandson (referred to only as “S—”), who travels from his home in the U.K. to stay with his extended family in India in the hope of breaking his addiction to heroin. There, he takes up residence at the farm where Mehar once lived. As he works to refurbish the property’s dilapidated buildings, he thinks back to his childhood in Britain, when he was sometimes subjected to demoralizing xenophobia.
Sahota, who brings Mehar’s travails in early-20th-century rural India vividly to life, admits that the story grew almost entirely from his own imagination. “Maybe I’m just lazy,” he says, when asked whether he did any research for the book. Instead, he based the farm where Mehar lives on its real-life equivalent, which his family still owns and which he’s visited. He adds that rural India, in 1929, isn’t as hard to imagine as it might seem: “It’s often said that India lives in several centuries at the same time. Outside of the big metropolises, there’s a lot about India—about its attitude, about its practices, about the way they cook—that hasn’t particularly changed.”
More important to Sahota were questions about the ethics of storytelling. What right did he have, he asked himself, to tell his great-grandmother’s story? “Does anyone have a right to attribute opinions and behaviors to a real person, who did exist?” And what is the meaningful difference between a fictional retelling of this woman’s story and the gossip that has swirled around her for generations?
“You can say novels are just one big rumor mill,” Sahota says. “They’re stories, selections, degrees of emphasis.”
In the end, though, Sahota answered these questions with another: “Who else is going to give a voice to this young bride, who was put away and silenced? Who else, if not me? I stopped seeing it as me imposing a narrative on her and started seeing it more as an act of love, from me to this ancestor of mine, as a gift.”
Though Mehar and S— never meet in the novel, their braided narratives create a kind of intertextual conversation—a sense of shared imprisonment and struggle. Mehar is oppressed by social conventions; S— is oppressed by the racism he and his family experience in the U.K. Mehar seeks release in an extramarital affair; S— seeks release in drug addiction.
Part of Sahota’s aim is to illustrate that trauma persists through generations, despite the precarious freedoms that some family members find when social mores change, or when they migrate to new places. He embedded this idea in the structure of the book by writing Mehar’s sections in the present tense.
“That present tense, for me, points not just to her trauma but to the trauma to come, for her great-grandson,” Sahota says. “It doesn’t just exist in the moment it’s referring to. It exists beyond that as well.”
S— himself echoes this near the end of the book, when he informs the reader that his rehabilitation from addiction will not be entirely successful. “The underlying pain does not go away,” he says. It “can only be paid attention to.”
For Sahota, trauma, however dissipated across generations, can never be fully redeemed. “It’s not a popular opinion these days,” he says, “the idea that to get to a better world you might have to accept pain when you need to. That doesn’t mean that you judge that pain to be acceptable. It means you need to accommodate it somehow.”
Daniel Lefferts is a writer living in New York City.