I found The Ayah’s Tale, by Sujata Massey to be entirely captivating. After what has been a dry patch of slightly disappointing books, here at last was another five star read.
The Ayah of the title actually relates two different tales. The frame is set in 1950s Malaya, where Menakshi is an adult with children of her own. Inside that we are transported to pre-independence India of the 1920s, where she is Ayah (guardian/governess) to the young children of a high ranking British family.
Part of my motivation to read this book was a desire to encounter India through fiction as well as through daily contact with team members at work. The Indian voices in the book – Menakshi herself, as an intelligent and emotionally perceptive young woman, her friend and supporter Ram, and others – were immediately familiar to me. In 1920s India these people were trapped within the constraints of a social system which denied them opportunities to reach anything like their potential. A few Indians were starting to cross the social divide in terms of wealth and access to resources, but the vast majority could not move out of the circumstances of their birth.
The British voices are diverse, blending the unthinking arrogance of some with the kindness and compassion of others. For the children Menakshi cares for in the household, there is a gradual dawning of awareness of the realities of their family life. Some passages make for very uncomfortable reading for a Brit, along with a sense of relief that the underlying attitudes of assumed superiority have been considerably eroded since those days. It is, after all, nearly a century since the experiences of Menakshi’s youth.
The tone and vocabulary of the book make this accessible to young people as well as adults. However, it would take a certain level of maturity to be interested in the story line, and sensitive to the inter-personal dynamics. For those many of us who have no personal memory of the period of British Empire, it is a useful and timely reminder of what our nation took away from other countries as well as gave to them. But the focus of the book is not really on the dark side of British rule, but rather on the Indian potential for growth, and the ability to face challenges and rise above them.
The final chapter, closing the 1950s frame, is a beautifully crafted piece which both tidies up the plot line and also leads you to rethink what has gone before. Sujata has given us a fine example of how to use this particular structural device to conclude a story. All in all, a great book which I have thoroughly enjoyed reading. In case there was any doubt… five stars from me.