In the last century, when Britain ruled India, there were some colonial overseers who found they preferred the local cultures to the Empire’s ones, even going so far as to take local wives and mistresses, much to the horror and disgust of their colonial peers. What becomes of the children of these mixed-heritage relationships is examined in The Secret Children, adapted from Alison McQueen‘s own family history. For at the centre of the novel are two sisters, Serafina and Mary, born to a breathtakingly beautiful Indian girl, little more than a child, who is the kept mistress of an English overseer on a tea plantation. The overseer tries to do what is right by his girls and their mother, but is hampered by the customs of the time and place that they find themselves.
The story is richly detailed and obviously draws on the author’s own recollections of tales her grandmother had told her. For Serafina and Mary, life in the tea plantation compounds is simple and free, surrounded by life and music and all the rich cultural heritage of their Indian mother. Soon however they are sent off to boarding school in the city and gradually they lose, or hide, their Indian-ness under a veneer of sophistication. But as pointed out quite clearly in the novel, society knows that they are of mixed blood and that is enough to make them unclean, tainted, despite all their advantages of beauty (in Serafina’s case) or learning (in Mary’s).
This novel is a detailed exploration of how the colonial culture and the Indian one could only mix in small scale, and how the unfortunate children of these relationships were constantly working against the prejudice of both their peoples. It is enlightening too, in that we are shown how both the Indian and English communities never really accept their two races mixing, which is a tragedy for the next generation. Alison McQueen has managed to turn her family story into an enthralling drama of humanity, that spans generations and miles, both literally and figuratively.
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