Notes on books: The Ayah’s Tale by Sujata Massey

I’ve always said that I don’t choose the books that I read, they choose me. And it is all the more true when it comes to this book. I’ve had ‘The Ayah’s Tale’ with me for some time now (Thank you Sujata!) but something or the other kept interfering with my reading. It is only in the past two days that I have devoured it.

Disclaimer: Spoilers ahead.
Disclosure: As you will find from my other reviews on Goodreads, I am a big fan of Sujata Massey and she was kind enough to give me this one herself.

‘The Ayah’s Tale’ is a frame narrative of one English child and his Bengali ayah during the time of the British Raj. Sometime in the second decade of the past century, an English family hires a Bengali ayah or maid to look after their three oldest children. The middle child, sensitive Julian, is the one most affected by her. While rumours of the Indian freedom struggle swirl about in the humid air of Midnapore Menakshi Dutt, an English speaking Bengali Christian 17-year-old girl, steps into the Millings household. In doing so, she also steps into Julian’s heart. Menakshi to turn breadwinner to support her family since her father’s death. The ups and downs of such an arrangement is explored in the story.

As all good stories, it does not start at the beginning or the end, it starts somewhere in between with the now 40-year-old Menakshi walking in rain-soaked Penang to a library to get a book to read to Mrs. Abbot, a ninety-year-old British woman who had helped her when she first came to Malaysia. She discovers a book of short stories ‘The Ayah’s Tale’ by one J. Winslett, a former RAF pilot who now lives with his wife and 4 children in Dorset. J. Winslett turns out to be one of her charges who has now written a book about his ayah. As with all stories, it is only from one perspective. While Menakshi reads out the stories to Mrs.Abbot, she fills in the gaps with her own perspective, chapter by chapter. It is these interspersed narratives that we read as Massey’s novel.

One of the themes is the serious disconnection between the British and the local people. The children and later men and women had no idea how locals live. Julian says early in the story, ‘I knew all about native life was like from Mr. Kipling’s stories.’ (Kindle Location 182). He needs Kipling to tell him about local life because of the insularity of his own upbringing and in spite of being surround by them.

Another theme is the extravagance of English life – Dutch tulips adorn the Millings home:

…a long cobbled drive leading up to it lined with pots of foreign flowers called tulips. The tulips could only survive in the cool seasons of autumn and winter—and to my amazement they were replaced every few weeks by new bulbs that grew as tall and red as the ones before. The bulbs had been coming by sea-mail from Holland for many years, the cost absorbed without question by whoever lived in the house.

that contrasts with the poverty of affection. Long silences at the breakfast table between Mr and Mrs Millings signal to Menakshi that this couple is far from happy. It becomes her job therefore to protect the children from their parents. Mrs Millings finds her solace in drink and affairs while stoic Mr Millings buries himself in work. Menakshi becomes a sort of surrogate mother to Julian whose own mother is preoccupied by a thousand concerns none of which include her children. In addition, the threat of boarding school forever looms in the horizon. English children aged 6 or 7 were sent off to public schools (Think ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’) to one day return as ‘masters’ of the local people.

Names or their lack thereof play an important role in the story. Menakshi is called the Big Ayah, in contrast to Baby Ayah, thereby stripping her off her identity. We never get to know the real name of Baby Ayah. Menakshi herself confronts the strangeness of her name when she introduces herself to Ram Hollander. Ramsay Hollander has shortened his name to Ram. Julian, Julian Millings and J. Winslett are the same person. While J. Winslett retains his name in the book, he changes the names of his family. Julian’s father is the Commissioner Saheb of Burdwan but all we know is that he is called Tubby. We know in passing that Mrs. Commissioner is Marji. In other words, no one is known by their real name in the story.

Another theme that is explored is the idea of Home, home and homelessness. Menakshi is far away from home while the Millingses are far away from Home. Julian pities Menakshi at one point in the book because she has no Home to go to. He says, ‘She had no chance to go to Home one day, because she had no home except for ours. She would always stay at our house, working and watching the river flow by.’ (Kindle Location 184-185). When Menakshi asks for leave to visit her home, he is shocked that she has a life outside the Millings household. This attitude later changes as Julian runs away from home twice – once with his older brother Nigel and the second time by hiding in Ram Hollander’s tonga. Menakshi’s mother loses the house that Menakshi considers her home. Somewhere in between home and Home, the Millings children and Menakshi manage to make a home of their own. She tells them stories and shares a bed too. However, this is not to last.

While reading the novella, I found a few literary echoes such as the trip to a nearby town Ghoom.

It all started with a marvelous surprise. Mrs. Millings called me to speak with her by the fire one morning. As she sipped her rum tea, she said that she and Mrs. Berryman and some others would make a trip the next day to a neighboring mountain town. Ghoom was famous for its beautiful views and Buddhist monasteries. (Kindle Locations 455-458).

It reminded me of another Raj-era novel, E.M Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’ specifically when Dr. Aziz and the two English women take a trip to the caves.

Massey deftly plays with several strong threads in the story each of which gives in a certain heft to the story. She explores the relationship between parents and children, Indians and the British, upper and lower classes, home and homelessness, India and abroad, stories and reality. Read it to find out which one speaks to you the most.

 

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