Two girls, born of two worlds, belonging to neither…
Assam, Northern India, 1925. In the emerald hills of a tea plantation, James MacDonald, a son of the Empire, has no interest in choosing an English bride. But when he takes a young Indian woman as his concubine, little can he imagine the legacy that will resonate for generations to come.
So begins the story of Mary and Serafina. Born of two worlds, accepted by neither. Growing up yet hidden away, their childhood is one of confusion and contradiction. It is only as the spectre of war descends and the turmoil of Indian independence heightens, that the girls must face the truth of their parentage and begin their search for somewhere to belong…
“A touching novel about the need to belong and find one’s place in the world, and a portrait of a country and a society during in a period of upheaval and change.” The Good Book Guide
“This is a wonderful novel. A page-turner that is gripping, sensitive and thought-provoking. Highly recommended.” Historical Novel Society
“A vivid tale inspired by the author’s own family history.” Easy Living
“One story from the immense historical background to these stories is told in Alison McQueen’s The Secret Children, set in Assam in 1925.” The Independent, ‘The Guest List’ An alternative to the Booker longlist (2012)
“A terrific read.” Tripfiction
A few reviews from Norway…
Assam, Northeast India, 1925…
‘Perhaps Sahib should take an orphan girl,’ advised the bone-dry widow who lived on the outskirts of the ramshackle village nearby, spinning marriages for anyone who could afford her services, acting as an unofficial go-between for those who did not have the required connections. Her age and position excused her from the usual proprieties that prevented open talk from a woman on such matters.
The old woman eyed the man sitting in front of her, cross-legged on the floor, the small stone slab between them providing a low table on which their cups were set. Of course, she realised exactly who he was. She knew everything that happened here, and the whereabouts of every man not yet married. She watched the steam rise from his tea, curling in front of her intriguing new customer’s face, and smiled a shrewd smile.
‘For an orphan girl will be most honoured by your master’s attentions and is bound to show her gratitude, and there can be no complications from her family if she has none. Yes,’ she nodded in firm agreement with herself, ‘I think this would be a good match indeed. Just leave it to me.’
Shiva was not to be fooled and sat calmly, his slender face set with the same expressionless pose he had seen his master adopt when dealing with an adversary. For the past three years and two months, Shiva had attended to James’s every daily need, from his morning tea to the turning-down of his bed at night. The Sahib had arrived from the new plantations in the north-west, bringing no wife with him. It was only natural that he should wish for companionship, and Shiva was determined to serve his master well. Shiva was comfortably settled, white cotton lungi tucked beneath him. This was a delicate transaction that would require great patience, and he had arrived at the matchmaker’s decrepit house well prepared for the long, tedious negotiations that would be an inevitable part of the deal. He had not liked the woman from the first moment he stepped over the threshold into her grubby home. She was ugly, both of face and of manner, and her house carried the foul smell of must and stale bread. He looked around at the crumbling walls, bare bricks of red earth baked into hard loaves by the sun. His voice, steady and melodious, betrayed nothing of his sentiments.
‘And see my master fobbed off with a filthy street urchin you picked up from the gutter for nothing? Would a wise man buy a cow without knowing the stock from which it had come, only to watch it die of disease and then wonder why?’ Shiva set his pale hazel eyes upon her. ‘You must think me no better than an idiot. Perhaps we should not do business today. I had heard that you were a reliable matchmaker. Now I see that you are just a sly old crone looking to take advantage of a man you must consider a fool.’
‘Of course not.’ She bowed to him. ‘I merely raise the suggestion so that your master may consider all the options. This is not an easy matter. It will take great skill to find the right girl. Then, of course, there will be the delicate issue of dealing with the family. They will expect to be properly compensated, and not everyone is in such a hurry to rid themselves of their daughters, you know.’ She took a noisy gulp from her tea and allowed him a little time to properly absorb the difficulties facing her. Shiva took no notice, knowing very well that this was just another one of her tricks to raise her price. ‘If your master can afford to be so choosy, then of course he will have to pay a little more. You are an educated man.’ He ignored the smile that crept across her face, her words lying somewhere between a compliment and a slight. ‘You must know that there are stories that travel among the people far out into the fields and villages. Even the poorest family may think twice before sending their daughter into the clutches of a white planter.’
‘I doubt that very much,’ said Shiva curtly, sniffing his disdain as the murky aroma of filth reached his nostrils again.
‘Then you do not know?’ The old woman’s eyes sparkled. ‘They are frightened to death of them! I will have to use all my powers of persuasion to tempt the girl away from the simple life that she knows.’ She drew a protracted breath and shook her head with amusement. ‘Ah, perhaps you are right. We should not do business today. I think that this will be far more effort to me than it is worth. I should not be worrying about such things at my age in life.’ She dropped her eyes from Shiva, as though having lost interest. ‘I will stick to my usual village customers, and you may take my compliments and apologies to your master.’
Shiva did not move from his place, refusing to rise to her mischief, knowing that it was merely a matter of money.
‘The Sahib is a good man,’ he reminded her, although he knew very well that this would be of no concern to her at all. ‘The girl will be well looked after and she will have nothing to fear from him. You will find a suitable choice, but not from the hill tribes. That will only cause trouble.’ The old woman nodded in small agreement. ‘And she must have a fine nose, not a great hook like a fish eagle, and her eyes must not be too slanted.’ Shiva imagined that he knew the Sahib well enough to gauge his preferences in matters of beauty. He had seen, on rare occasion, the type of face or figure that might catch his master’s attentions for a few fleeting moments. The Sahib did not even glance at any woman who held a hint of Tibetan appearance. Nor did he care for those with overly large features, or the field workers with their ripe hips and rough hands. ‘And my master will have to see and approve her before the transaction is completed.’
‘What? You ask too much!’ The old widow yanked the short woollen shawl around her shoulders in irritation. ‘Am I expected to search miles of jungle for this wretch, bargain with her family, feed her, clean her and bring her all the way back for nothing? And what am I to do with her if your master says no?’
‘Of course, you will have expenses.’ Shiva placed a cloth pouch tied with a reed on the table between them. She took it, peered inside, raised her eyebrows momentarily and settled with a small gesture of her hand. ‘But choose carefully, old woman. You are dealing with a man who will not accept anything less than perfection, so you can forget your usual notions of a quick sale and an easy meal. Be very particular, and you will be well rewarded.’ Shiva left the tea untouched. ‘And one final condition. This is a private transaction. Is that understood? You are not to go gossiping with the village hags, and no one is to see her. This is nobody else’s business.’
The old woman smiled slightly, hiding her few teeth behind a wrinkled hand, and slid the pouch into the front of her choli. ‘I think we understand one another very well,’ she said.
Shiva bade the old woman goodbye and felt grateful for the fresh air outside.
The old woman rose from her seat, her movements surprisingly nimble, and watched Shiva through the crack in the wooden door, waiting until he had disappeared along the rough track that ran through the thicket of trees before sliding into the shadows and taking the purse from her breast. She tipped its contents into her hand and smiled to herself, spreading the money over her palms. Returning one third of the coins to the pouch, she took the rest and buried them deep in the hard ground in the corner of her hovel, stabbing at the dirt with a kukri and covering the freshly dug grave with a grimy cooking pot. She would have no need for it now that she had enough money to buy her fill from the street traders for a very long time, and she congratulated herself for striking such a good bargain. Men were fools and made easy prey in matters of love. Had she been bargaining with a woman in need of a wife for her son, she would have been lucky to receive a tenth of the price. The old woman rewarded herself with a self-satisfied yawn, tucked the pouch back into her choli and settled herself on the floor to rest through the heat of the afternoon. After all, there was no need for her to rush. She already knew where the girl was to be found.
My Mother’s Mysterious Past, (The Guardian)
The story behind The Secret Children
Everyone wants to know who they are, but for me the question was never simple. My mother, Mary, was born in India in 1928. I was born in London in 1964. My father was raised in a Bernado’s home, so I could only turn to my mother for answers about my family. But my mother would never talk about her life. I used to ask about where she was born, to which she would say Assam, but nothing else. I knew I had a grandfather who lived on a farm in Africa and I had seen one lone photograph of him in an Indian army officer’s uniform. She never mentioned anything about her mother, ever, and I somehow I knew not to ask.
Very occasionally I was allowed to look through her old photo album and my mother told me a little of the people and places in them—Bangalore, Kashmir, the Himalayas. There was a picture of my Aunie Joan (who by then was living on an estate in White City) on the beach in Bombay, wearing a starlet’s bathing costume. In the photograph, she was utterly beautiful, as was my mother and my mother’s sister (my only real auntie, although we rarely saw her). I didn’t understand how these beautiful young women could have come from those achingly scenic landscapes to the grey skies of Britain.
My questions drove my mother half mad, but as I grew older, her answers just didn’t add up. There were too many holes in her story, and she’d get cross sometimes, seething her frustration when I asked her again and again. We fought about it quite a lot because I knew she was not telling me the truth and she was angry at having found herself in such a hideous situation. I had no idea at that point that she and her sister were the illegitimate daughters of a British tea planter to his Indian concubine. It was unthinkable and the shame of it had followed her like a shadow her whole life.
My mother missed India a great deal, and even now I find it hard to imagine what she must have gone through, losing both parents as a child without the closure of death, living in a country that thought nothing of insulting her in the street. Once, and not even that long ago in the grand scale of things (she was retired by then), a bus conductor made her stand on the pavement in the rain while everybody else got on before her. Even now, at 83, she is not completely comfortable here. Yet she is not completely comfortable in India either, knowing that she belongs to neither place entirely.
There are parts of The Secret Children that I wrote over a decade ago. It has been like a compulsion, to give those scattered fragments some kind of cohesion in my mind, to fill in the gaps that my mother had left, either because she wouldn’t tell me, or more often that she simply didn’t know.
There came a point when I knew I would have to tell my mother what I was writing. This was some years ago now, and I remember that she wasn’t happy about it at all, voicing her objection with an outright no. But then a strange thing happened over the following months. She began to talk, unburdening herself of every memory, good or bad. Together, we pored over maps, trawled through old pictures and keepsakes and trudged around India. She gave me a box of letters and photographs that I had never seen before. I don’t think anyone had, except her. She cried quite a lot too, which was hard.
My mother imparted her stories to me over many, many years. She told me things that she had never told to anyone else—not just her secrets, but those of her friends, my ‘aunties’. I came to know things that their own children didn’t know, and probably still don’t to this day. All my aunties are now dead, my mother the only survivor. My fear was always that I would forget her stories, because they were too important to be forgotten. Nobody talked about these things. They still don’t. I have finally come to know who my mother is and why things had to be the way they were. We talk for hours about anything and everything. Any sense of shame about the past has long since fallen away. She has learned to be proud of who she is and where she came from. The Secret Children was written with her blessing, and is dedicated to her with my love.
A note from the author…
Apart from the dedication in the front of the novel, there is no mention of acknowledgements in The Secret Children. This was a deliberate move on my part, as there were simply too many people to thank. They know who they are, with particular thanks due to: my agent, Gràinne Fox, for her unstinting faith and support over the years; my great friend, Rachel Zadok, a writer of outstanding talent and insight; my editor Genevieve Pegg, who makes anything regarding work utterly painless.