Love, Duty, Betrayal, and Society

Author: Sunjeev Sahota

It’s 1929 – Punjab, India. There is political unrest, but for Mehar, a young bride living with her husband’s family on a rural farm, all that is very far away. She is married into a family with three brothers. She lives with the other two wives, and during their hardworking days and stifling, hopeful nights, the women wonder which of the brothers is their husband, which of the men it is who occasionally comes for them in the dark. Mehar knows, though, and she has fallen in love with the man she thinks is her husband. But nothing is ever that simple, and as war moves from the city to the countryside, a daring scheme and a broken heart will define her future.

Fast forward to 1999, to Mehar’s grandson, who is staying at the old, abandoned house where she spent her nights waiting for her husband and where the final revelation and betrayal shaped her bleak future. This young man is fighting his own demons in the form of addiction and after a terrible accident is living alone at the abandoned house, slowly fixing it up, slowly opening his heart, and wondering about the tiny, cloistered room with the bars over the windows.

The two stories, although they run simultaneously, never really connect. The grandson, who wonders about his grandmother’s hidden past, her sorrows and defeats, the hint of remaining village gossip, never guesses the full scope of what happened so many years ago. Instead, he slowly makes friends, finds and loses love, and begins to understand how to live with trauma and disappointment.

It’s Mehar, however, and that sweaty summer of 1929 that engrosses us with its cruelty and magic, its love and familial dysfunction. It’s Mehar, with her dreams and ambitions, her simple trust and love, who captures our hearts, and it is these moments with her, back in time, that we keep turning pages to read. The China Room is a very short story, but one packed with nuance and grief, danger, and complicated relationships. I wanted more. I wanted the story of Mehar’s heartless mother-in-law, whose own briefly mentioned past hinted at a similar circumstance, a similar moment of defining hope and finalizing brutality. The way that the family, especially the brothers, move around one another, the moments of jealousy, guilt, happiness, and stolen ambitions are intricate and palpable. Even the villains of the piece are complicated, realistic, and hard to solely hate.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Merhar’s story is all too brief, and as with her grandson, we are left to wonder about what happened in that barred room after. There is a brief flash, a moment, but we lose our connection to Mehar after the revelation and subsequent repercussions. I didn’t want to be left to wander, to see the dusty folds of the curtain come down over this moment in history, to be cut off from such a vibrant young girl finding and losing her way. I wanted more. I wanted to go back into her head, to at least be with her through those moments of depression and acceptance, to see how that young girl became the quiet grandmother, the woman devoid of hope, that secret flame snuffed out.

All in all, I would have preferred to abandon the contemporary grandson with his own back story issues about racism and poverty and to instead focus on the incredible family history, on Mehar. For such a short story, it resonated powerfully and evoked so much beyond the page. I hope to see author Sunjeev Sahota take on something similar, and this time elongate it, letting us fully stay in that moment and see the consequences, embrace the complications of history and family, duty and love, and the brief flickering of an independent spirit before the weight of expectation, society, and life chokes its budding flame.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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