Tulsi Badrinath on a personal tale that may have worked better as a memoir than fiction.
In 1925, when the British ruled India, James MacDonald, a Scottish plantation manager in Assam, enters into an arrangement with a young “native” girl. He builds her a home away from his own and visits her from time to time, only to find his life complicated when they have children. “I am nothing, a nobody, and my miserable children are merely an accident of one man’s waste,” laments Chinthimani, ruing her fate as “a white man’s harlot”.
Their two daughters must remain “secret children” hidden from both British and Indian society. Alison McQueen draws on her own family background to narrate the story of Serafina and Mary, who are provided for but grow up in the shadows, cut off from their uneducated mother who increasingly takes to drink and their loving but weak father who cannot publicly acknowledge them.
When World War II breaks out, James leaves India for Africa, and mother Chinthimani disappears. The sisters have no home to return to from boarding school and nobody else but each other to rely on. Elder sister Serafina quickly understands their predicament and moves to acquire a veneer that will help her pass in society. She becomes a nurse and sets her sights on Joseph Carlisle, hoping that marriage will bring her position and security.
Mary too becomes a nurse, but does not have the single-minded focus of her sister. After several ups and downs, both sisters get married and are integrated via their husbands into society. But their past remains thorny territory, something never to be spoken about.
Alison McQueen tells her story well enough, but is hampered by her lack of a certain kind of knowledge of India. This comes through tellingly in the register used when Indian characters speak, such as when Chinthimani and James talk to each other. “Entwined in Chinthimani’s arms, James whispered to her, gazing in awe at her nakedness, her smiling, moonlit face. ‘Aap khubsoorat hain.’ You are beautiful, he said. ‘Mujhe tumse bohat pyar hai.’ She softly returned that she loved him with all her heart.”
Details are important, especially when writing about class and language barriers in India, and the author does not marshal the right details to make her scenes with Indian characters ring true. Though the story is set in India, the country itself is evoked in blurred watercolours while the British characters Alison McQueen identifies with closely are rendered with stronger paints.
The author has woven a tale out of her own family’s story that does not work well as fiction. Had she written it as a memoir, perhaps it would have made a lasting impression.