December 7, 2021, 9:08

Sunjeev Sahota’s Novels of Arrival and Departure

Sunjeev Sahota’s Novels of Arrival and Departure

Is it hyperbolic to suggest that the 747 has been more world-changing than the Internet—that the supercharged mobility of people, rather than of bits, has mattered most? Consider immigration in the decades after the Second World War, and the rich literature it produced. A world in which it was practically impossible to return to the country one had left resulted in a kind of immigration close to the idea of exile. The journey from birthplace to adopted country—the journey that V. S. Naipaul called, in “The Enigma of Arrival,” the “great movement of peoples that was to take place in the second half of the twentieth century”—took on an arrowlike terminality. Life in the old country receded into vivid memory, while the immigrant’s daily focus had to shift to the sometimes bitter novelties of life in the new country. It is hard to live in two places at once: with a few notable exceptions, émigré fiction and the fiction of early post-colonial immigration tended to be set either in the old country or in the new one, but not, during the same period, in both.

In the past three decades or so, with the advent of cheaper air travel and a further “great movement of peoples,” a new literature of displacement has arisen, whose structure is often characterized by a freer and continuous movement back and forth between the country of origin and the country of destination. I’m thinking of writers as diverse as W. G. Sebald, Amit Chaudhuri, Taiye Selasi, Aleksandar Hemon, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Francisco Goldman, and Yaa Gyasi. It’s not unusual to find their books structured around several narratives set in different countries, and to find the author as the narrating self who binds together these disparate journeys. Mental travel—the work of memory—is replaced, to some extent, by actual travel. I don’t know if this is World Literature, but it’s certainly a worldly literature: the enigma of arrivals and departures. The anguish of irreversibility—of journeys that can never be redone—is replaced by the more expansive unease of liminality, of journeys that are constantly being redone.

This simple point has complex consequences. Significantly, an identity that was somewhat complacently called hybrid or hyphenated (“British-Indian,” “Bosnian-American,” and so on) is now producing stories whose very form is structurally hyphenated. The picture of immigration, in turn, shifts a little. The literature of immigration edges closer to a literature of migration. The heavy modernity of travel may have introduced a new type of liquid modernity.

Sunjeev Sahota’s new novel, “China Room” (Viking), is a fine example of this emerging form—a split narrative, alternating between India and Britain, controlled by the self-conscious presence of the author, who appears as himself in different guises. One strand, set in India in the late nineteen-twenties, tells the story of Mehar Kaur, an illiterate girl who is married off at fifteen to a wealthier, somewhat older man named Jeet, and is kept like chattel on Jeet’s family farm, which he shares with his tyrannical mother, Mai, and his two married brothers. The novel’s title refers to the dark room where Mehar and her two sisters-in-law spend much of their circumscribed lives: Jeet’s mother keeps a set of china plates there, originally part of her wedding dowry.

Forty pages into this engrossingly bleak tale, we shift to the summer of 2019, somewhere in the English Midlands. Sahota, who was born in Derby in 1981, and is here apparently writing as himself, or as a near alter ego, tells of his father’s knee surgery, and of returning to the “house and shop where I grew up,” in order to help out. He brings some books with him, but finds it hard to read or write. Memories swarm. As he sits at the family dining table, his attention is drawn to a framed photograph of his great-grandmother, who came all the way to England to meet him when he was born. “China Room” reproduces this same photograph, in which a white-haired lady, “her chunni sliding off her head,” smiles down forgivingly at the yelling baby on her lap. We will learn that the woman is Mehar, whose story we have just begun. The photograph reminds our writer of a visit he made to a farm in India when he was eighteen and recovering from heroin addiction. The account of this convalescent visit now alternates with Mehar’s tale from the early twentieth century.

Sahota is an enormously gifted writer. His last novel, “The Year of the Runaways,” which was short-listed for the 2015 Booker Prize, is a detailed epic of immigration, one of those works that renew realism’s charter by illuminating realities that had previously been shadowy, with a generous mimetic innocence that brings to mind the great realist chroniclers. It concerns the lives of three young Indian men and a British Indian woman, Narinder, who marries one of them. Tochi, Randeep, and Avtar are new immigrants to Britain, desperate for money, living together with other workers in the dilapidated former industrial powerhouse of Sheffield. They must take whatever jobs they can pick up—doing construction, working at a takeout shop. Sahota is a bold storyteller who seems to have learned as many tricks from TV as from Tolstoy, and has a jeweller’s unillusioned eye for the goods.

Detail after detail gleams in that novel: Tochi, standing in the office of the travel agent who will arrange his arduous passage from India to Europe, sees a map on the wall and asks him where France is. “Oh, no,” the agent replies. “France is in Europe. That is South India.” Randeep, arriving by train from London at Sheffield, is impressed by the softness of the countryside and the cleanliness of the railway station: “This Sheffield must be a good city. He wondered why he’d never heard of it.” Randeep tells a friend, who is meeting him at the station, that Sheffield seems beautiful. The friend looks surprised, and flatly replies, “Hold that thought.” They drive out of the city on roads that “wound through narrow, boarded-up, wretched-looking streets.” Avtar, who finds a job at a fried-chicken outlet, is warned by other employees to make himself scarce during the nightly “Drunk Rush,” when the pubs close and the racist white youths come out. When several of those youths spit at him, Randeep is gently consoled by a white colleague, who tells him how sorry she is. Sahota writes, “He nodded, though perhaps even worse than the spitting was the quietness in her voice, the sense of someone being embarrassed for him.”

“I always feel fat when we play in Los Angeles.”

Cartoon by Trevor Spaulding

“China Room” is smaller, trickier, and more artfully constructed than “The Year of the Runaways”; it lacks the hospitable grasp and ample onrush of that big work. But Sahota’s gifts as both storyteller and stylist are undiminished. Lovely phrases glitter. In India, “the asphalt of the road was giving off rags of steam.” A sunny day is described as “bright as parrots.” Also in India: “Around him the lane is greasy with sun.” And in contemporary England? The author remembers growing up there, the menace of racism all around him, and compacts it into this eloquent trace: “older kids, with their grey threatening noise.”

Sahota’s ability to shine a phrase is not bought for the usual steep formalist price, at the expense of simplicity, intimate feeling, and solid representation. He’s both camera and painter, in a literary world that often separates those novelistic tasks. In one of the opening scenes, for instance, the five-year-old Mehar is being appraised for marriage by Jeet’s horrible mother, Mai. Mai acts with the license of a woman who has the wealth of three marriageable sons. Mehar’s shy, nervous mother apologizes to Mai for her daughter’s unformed looks: “I think she has a nice face . . . and, god willing, I’m sure she’ll grow into her forehead. Rest assured, I apply downward pressure on it most mornings.” She smiles anxiously. “She’s adequate,” Mai brusquely replies. “In any case, an agreement was made.”

Mehar’s story has the brutal elegance of folklore. Three women, Mehar, Harbans, and Gurleen, strangers to one another, have been married off to Mai’s three sons, Jeet, Mohan, and Suraj. The brothers, who are Sikhs, spend their time out in the fields at work, or elsewhere, but the three women are largely confined to the china room, where they prepare food and where they sleep, lying next to one another on two parallel string beds. Mai controls every detail of the lives of her sons and daughters-in-law, and runs the household like the madam of a brothel, with a prurient interest in the sexual activity of the residents and a businesswoman’s stake in producing male heirs. Whenever one of the husbands wishes to sleep with his wife, the relevant woman is ordered by Mai to a windowless room at the back of the farm, a sort of dedicated sex chamber. Since the women are veiled, and cast their eyes down in the presence of their husbands, since they only ever make love in the dark, and since Mai chooses to ration all their knowledge, none can identify which brother is her husband. The women are curious, of course. But the brothers look alike: “The same narrow build, with unconvincing shoulders and grave eyes; serious faces that carry no slack, features that follow the same rules. The three are evenly bearded, the hair trimmed short and tight, and all day they wear loose turbans cut from the same saffron wrap.”

The premise becomes a plot when, with the inevitability of a fairy tale, Mehar identifies the wrong brother, Suraj, as her husband. Suraj is under no such illusion, but what begins, for him, as exploitative sex deepens into passion. The lovers meet in a nearby barn, in the fields, wherever they can escape Mai’s surveillance. These scenes are fraught with obvious danger; the threat of exposure and punishment is close by. Suraj knows that if the news ever emerges Mehar’s life will effectively end. But these are also moments of tender liberation. Sahota delicately brings alive the lovers’ awakening, especially Mehar’s, as she develops a steady erotic confidence, a language to express her desire for the man she thinks is her husband. Suraj imagines that the world is changing, that they might be able to flee the farm for a big city, like Lahore. A Sikh revolutionary is at large in the countryside, and talk of “self-rule” is in the air. Perhaps the political can become the personal.

It’s possible that Sahota inherited a version of this story as family lore, and was drawn to the extraordinary gap between the misogynist purdah of his great-grandmother’s experience in 1929 and the photographic evidence of an old woman free to travel from an independent India to visit her descendants in the former seat of colonial power. The distance might be fifty years or five hundred; the story of switched lovers and the threat of retribution clearly belongs to ancient literature. This must be part of the reason that Sahota decided to disrupt the old tale with modern interventions—measuring progress made and not made. The narrator, at the age of eighteen, arrives in the village of Kala Sanghian, in Punjab, which is “at least a twelve-hour drive from the nearest city anyone would have heard of.” He is staying with his uncle and aunt, who are trapped in an unhappy arranged marriage. The teen-ager from England is on the lip of change—feverish from heroin withdrawal, sent away for the summer to recover, he is awaiting the start of his first university term in London. Much hangs on his healing. Eventually, as part of his convalescence, he decides to spend some time alone at a nearby family farm, now derelict. It is, of course, the farm where Mehar was confined, and, indeed, the young man finds the china room, bolted shut and with iron bars over the window. He spends about two months here, his isolation sporadically interrupted by visits from a brilliant and alluring physician, Radhika Chaturvedi, who has divined what “illness” he is really recovering from. The teen-ager falls promptly and fruitlessly in love with her. In time, he also hears a garbled account of his great-grandmother’s story. “She strayed with a brother,” a local tells him. “He went away and left her behind.”

The two story lines are neatly, perhaps too neatly, counterposed: a modern arranged marriage is paired with the older one; the young man’s voluntary purdah on the farm glances off the earlier imposed version. Sahota’s novelistic intention here, it would seem, is ultimately curative: the recovering descendant must open the dread room where Mehar was once kept, and “recover” the past by admitting a cleansing contemporary illumination. The alternation between Mehar’s tale and the narrator’s, we see, is one between a religious and a secular dispensation. On one side, there is confinement, prohibition, and antique punishment; on the other, there is mobility, license, and contemporary forgiveness. The old tale is written in a locked-up third person, the contemporary one, with its nice timbre of autofiction, in a free first person. And a third presence hovers, the present-day narrator, who, one assumes, got beyond his teen-age problems and flourished into the author of this novel. Contrasting versions of belonging, of being in the world, face each other as well. Had the young Mehar been able to immigrate to England, her narrative would likely have gone in one irreversible direction, scored with a tragic note of exile and homelessness: maybe a liberation of sorts, but one with its own aspects of imprisonment.

That is precisely the shape of the immigrant lives represented in “The Year of the Runaways”: the novel pictures their impoverished Indian existence as before, and their bleak English existence as after. But the narrator of “China Room,” for all his experience of gray, racist little Englanders, doesn’t inhabit a before and after in quite the same way. Born in England, the relatively fortunate child of immigrants who have already made their difficult journey, and have done so, in part, for him, he has no personal knowledge of before and after. He inhabits something closer to a kind of secular homelessness, shorn of the religious echo of exile. For him, belonging has become complex and continuous—a state of movement, an identity always being worked out and worked at. In this way, Sahota’s implied presence in his own text seems necessary and also perhaps hopeful: a difficult recovery and healing beyond the dimension of a single summer. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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