Tag Archives: #ruralindia

Left to right: Book - China Room and Author - Sunjeev Sahota

Sunjeev Sahota’s China Room Reclaims Family Generations Later

After reading Sunjeev Sahota‘s new minimalistic book, China Room, visions of the story and his writing linger and invite revisiting. Not having read his two previous novels—including The Year of the Runaways, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize—I’m eager to compare them to this engulfing tale built of economical language filled with imagery, pain, and possibilities.

In 1929, while freedom fighters scour the country for new recruits, fifteen-year-old Mehar is married, one of three brides to three brothers. She, not her family, or the other brides know which of the brothers is whose husband. The girls, mostly sequestered, live and work in the “china room,” a small, suffocating place with their mother-in-law’s unused dowry on display. Mehar thinks she’ll be clever when her husband comes to her for sex in a different small, pitch-dark chamber. During their allowed times together as authorized by the groom’s mother, Mehar listens to the few but gentle words he speaks and maps the feel of his hands.

One day, after her husband tells her that pearls under her pillow will help her become pregnant, she fails to see when he gives the pearls to his youngest brother to present to their mother. She does see, from a distance, the youngest brother holding the pearls and believes him to be her husband. A dangerous scenario follows, and eventually, her curiosity and assumption lead to grave consequences.

Alternately, it’s 2019. A young man whose name we only know as S- reminisces about 20 years earlier when he seeks to escape the ever-present racism in his northern England town and the demons of his addiction. On his family’s near-crumbling farm in rural Punjab, he wonders about the barred windows on the property.

Living alone on the farm, he self-detoxes, the night stars acting as his silent witnesses. With various new acquaintances, he pours his waking energy into cleaning and painting the farm’s buildings and regains his self-esteem. He comes to learn about his great-grandmother, Mehar Kaur, and her fate through stories told by those who remembered her, knew of her, or had heard the legends about her.

I confess I felt contempt as I read, but not for the author whose writing was simple on its face and complex on a deeper level. Was it contempt for the mother-in-law who “hired” female children as nothing more than workhorses and broodmares? For the men who accepted such treatment of their young wives? The bullies who terrorized S-‘s family? In the end, it was angry grief I felt for Mehar, her sister-brides, and later, for S-.

Each of the characters in the story is imprisoned by someone or something. Sahota never promises a happy ending despite similes and metaphors so substantial you can touch them. Nevertheless, Mehar’s great-grandson returning 70 years after and telling his story 20 years later offers a spark of wonder that holds great promise for all that carefully remains untold.

Both Mehar and her great-grandson live and breathe the same small truths of their lives, tormented, and trapped until each decides to do something to foment change. How that change endures is unspoken. In some measure inspired by Sahota’s own family, China Room is a heartbreakingly quiet, sensitive, and beautifully written story of what one life means in the present and how it impacts other lives generations into the future.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in both Carolinas and is a long-time contributor to India Currents, a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association, and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee. 


Rural Tales of India With a Purpose

Award-winning independent publishing house, Karadi Tales, launched a new series of chapter books under its new chapter book imprint, Minmini Reads, that targets readers from ages 10 to 15, at the Delhi Book Fair on October 31st, 2020. This series is done in collaboration with People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI): an ambitious, acclaimed living archive of reporting about rural India, founded and led by Magsaysay Award-winner and veteran journalist P. Sainath.

The PARI series uses real stories of rural India, disenfranchised people and communities, and the unique challenges that they overcome every day. These are tales of courage, adversity, success, and hope.

They feature children who participate cheerfully in civic issues, athletes who power past their disabilities, citizens who demand their right to be heard. The series attempts to give these voices a platform, as well as address the serious dearth of children’s books that are set in non-urban locations.

All the books are based on articles written by top journalists, and originally published by PARI.  The set features five tales from different parts of rural India.

No Nonsense Nandhini by Aparna Karthikeyan is based on the life of Chandra Subramanian, a Sivagangai district farmer, retailer, and mother, who received a ‘homepreneur’ award.

No Ticket, Will Travel by Subuhi Jiwani is a series of short stories on migrant labourers who travel in search of work, determined to make a living although their lives are rife with uncertainty.

Coming Home by Priti David is about a group of children from Sittilingi Valley who, at one point, are forced to drop out of school and find work in far-flung factories and mills. Until one day, they decide to start their own school, and help create jobs in their own valley in the process.

A Big Splash by Nivedha Ganesh follows Dhivya, a young farmer and an ace swimmer who had previously only swum in the tank and lake in her village. From her cotton fields to the Paralympics, Dhivya manages to brave all odds.

House of Uncommons by Vishaka George takes a peek into the lives of the students at Snehagram, an institute for HIV positive children, and their struggles, triumphs, and achievements.

With 65% of India’s population living in rural areas, Karadi Tales brings these stories to the urban demographic who remain oblivious to the issues faced by their rural counterparts. Urban children grow up exposed to stories that mirror their own struggles and are unaware of the cultures, lifestyles, and problems of other children, who are of their own age group, living further away from them.

Sainath says, “[The series] is a very important addition, not only to the reading diet of children, which is completely bereft of knowledge about rural India , but adds to the spectrum of imagination of young children.”

These stories are based on true events and everyday people. Their struggles and success prove to be a source of inspiration for readers. They help children reconnect to their ancestral roots, to nature, and to understand the realities faced by many others in our vast country. Karadi Tales and PARI have taken up this mission to unearth the treasure trove of stories that rural India has to offer, while spreading awareness among the masses.

About the Authors

Aparna Karthikeyan is a storyteller, independent journalist, and volunteers for PARI. Her articles have been published in The Hindu, PARI, The Caravan, Wire, Scroll.in and other publications on culture, books, and livelihoods.

Subuhi Jiwani has worked as a journalist and editor in Mumbai, most recently with PARI. She has also edited Day’s End Stories: Life After Sundown in Small-Town India (Westland Books, 2014), an anthology of travel essays, and directed a short documentary on the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus titled Terminus: Stories of CST (Sahapedia, 2017).

Priti David is the Education Editor and a rural reporter at PARI. She interacts with school and college students to encourage them to explore, engage and write on rural issues. She has been a business journalist, a book editor, and a high school teacher.

Nivedha Ganesh graduated with a degree in English literature and has been dreaming up stories since she was nine. She likes writing about monsters, magic, and characters with hearts of gold.

Vishaka George is a journalist who reports on agrarian distress and labour exploitation for PARI. She is PARI’s social media editor, working with a team of journalists who make stories from rural India more accessible to audiences across the world. She is a part of a two-member team that teaches media ethics and rural journalism to school and college students.