Muswell Hill author remembers the abandoned Ayahs of Hackney in children’s novel
- Credit: Archant
When Secrets Set Sail is a children’s adventure exploring the local history of Hackney’s hostel for colonial childcare workers who were abandoned in a hostile country
The story of the Ayahs is one of colonialism and abandonment says Muswell Hill author Sita Brahmachari.
Originally nannies to thousands of Victorian children on the voyage home from India, the term came to be used for childcare workers across the British Empire.
“They were resourceful, experienced and often had good sea legs, travelling back and forth to England,” says Brahmachari.
“They would care for children on the sea voyage home hoping to get a passage back with another family.”
But many of these women were abandoned in a hostile country once their services were no longer required.
Brahmachari who is interested in “absent stories in history” first heard about the Ayahs while working in arts education on the RSC’s Midnight’s Children.
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Interviewing South Asian elders near The Barbican, who remembered partition, one kept repeating “don’t forget the Ayahs”.
“I thought ‘What about the Ayahs?’ Then realised it would make a great story.”
Her interest was further piqued when she discovered that, from the early 1800s to the late 1940s, destitute or ill-treated women from India, China, Java and Malaya had their own hostel.
In the late 1900s it was run by the London City Mission at 24, then 4, King Edward’s Road, Hackney, and local resident Farhanah Mamoojee is campaigning for it to be remembered with an English Heritage Blue Plaque.
Brahmachari’s new children’s book When Secrets Set Sail is set in the former home amid a background of gentrification in culturally-diverse Hackney.
The book imagines it as The Hearth, a home for refugees (based on Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants where she has worked) and follows Usha and her adoptive sister Imtiaz on a quest set off by the ghost of Usha’s grandmother Kali Ma.
There are also the Ayahs - including feisty Lucky/Lakshmi - who have appeared to generations of children in their dreams asking them to tell their stories.
A prayer book taken by a mission worker may hold the key to lost documents which can stave off threatened eviction from The Hearth.
“Pre-Victorian times onwards wherever there was colonial activity there were the Ayahs,” says Brahmachari, whose stories often deal with migration, identity and ghosts.
“They were often infantilised as in books like The Secret Garden, or seen as exotic and witchy. Passenger records listed them under the name of the family they were travelling with, so these working class women from all over the world who were entrusted with the children have no voice or name - off the page and off the stage. We need to see their history and untold stories come to the surface.”
Brahmachari explores how bonds between child and carer were often brutally sundered.
“What fascinated me were those disruptions that those children had in history. The Ayahs were often abandoned but abandonment goes both ways. Children so often disenfranchised in life, don’t have power and equally felt it as abandonment, which makes it a universal story.”
Telling the tale as a children’s adventure - a visit to a retired librarian and sifting through old photographs sets them on their journey - was her way of exploring these issues without “banging a drum”.
But through adoptee Imtiaz, found as a baby in London Fields by a Windrush-era social worker who brings her up, she introduces more contemporary abandonments and betrayals, including threatened deportation for not having the right papers.
Colonial history “takes you to a place of denial” says Brahmachari, who dedicates the book to her English mother and doctor father, who came to Britain by ship in 1959.
“He let people call him Dr B. I would say ‘make them say your name’ but our parents generation had this quiet, dignified grace, there was so much that wasn’t said.
“Different generations have dealt with the inequality of being a migrant in a new country where there is a colonial legacy.”
Told in the voice of “multiple feisty women” including a white working-class cleaner, Brahmachari was also keen that the story was neither saccharine nor reinforced negative narratives of victimhood.
“Rather than ‘look at this terrible history’ it looks at the complexity of migration and immigration past and present, to where the connections lie. To find nuance of our colonial history. It’s a story that I hope will seed rivers of love and a love of oral history.”
When Secrets Set Sail is published by Hachette £7.99.