Cambridge author Shahida Rahman has just published her second novel – a work of historical fiction.
Ayah’s Choicepublished March 29 by Onwe, is a historical novel exploring themes of feminism, race, independence and coming of age against the backdrop of the suffragette movement in the early 20th century.
Beginning in a small Indian village in 1900, the novel tells the story of budding artist Jaya Devani, a young woman yearning for freedom. After beginning a relationship with her British colonial employer, William Edmundson, she embarks on the path to a new life as an ayah – a nanny – in London.
“It took a few years of preparation,” says Shahida, an author of historical fiction, non-fiction and children’s stories, who was born in Cambridge to Bangladeshi parents. “I wrote the first draft in 2014 and sat on it for a while and ended up doing other things, but I think the lockdown eventually pushed me to finish it, final edits, then I got an offer last year. So it worked very well for me. »
Expanding on the story, Shahida says: “Ayahs were Indian women who served as servants and they were nannies for British children in the 19th and 20th centuries. Basically it happened because in 2014 I attended the centenary of the East London Suffragette Festival, and there I met Helen Pankhurst who is the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst.
“She was a very notable figure in the early 1920s, and that kind of prompted me to find out about Indian women who were actually involved in the suffragette movement. I think those women were sort of hidden. They weren’t really recognized, and some of these women who came as ayahs were abandoned and turned away, so they had very, very difficult lives.
“It was then that they became involved in the suffragette movement, seeking independence and freedom. At that time, that was happening in India, so with the suffragette movement here, they were looking
a woman’s right to vote – and that’s where these women come in. They were silent in the background, but they were contributing to this movement.
And they would have had more votes here than in India? “Yeah, I think so,” Shahida says, “but there was still racism back then, and it was totally normal back then. But these women had a place to go – they were taken under the wing of the suffragette movement.
“We don’t hear too much about them. It’s not widely recognized, but through the research I’ve done over the years, I think people are slowly starting to know that there were Indian women involved in the movement.
Shahida, whose first book was published 10 years ago, notes that Ayah’s Choice is based on reality. “It’s a historical fiction novel,” she explains. I focused on an Indian ayah, she worked for a British family in India, then she traveled with them and settled in London.
“The story is that she wanted to seek her own freedom and she fell in love with her employer, William, who she worked for – and you’ve heard stories about that where those relationships happened. But then she realized she could do better than that; she wanted that independence and she wanted to chart her own course. So it was there that she left the family and became involved in the suffragette movement.
The novel has already received many accolades. Helen Pankhurst called it “a page turner”, American writer AJ Gnuse said it was “tender and exciting”, and bestselling author Kate Quinn hailed it as “a rare gem”.
“I got an official endorsement from Helen Pankhurst which is absolutely amazing,” says Shahida, who is extremely grateful for all the positive feedback. She adds, “I wouldn’t say it’s been an easy journey, like any book to be published…
“It was a long process; it’s very difficult even to get a publishing offer – it took me about seven months from the time I started approaching publishers. I didn’t want to give up. I thought I could do that second round.
Ayah’s Choice is available now. To learn more about Shahida, visit shahidarahman.co.uk.
Interview with Shahida Rahman: “My mother may have been the first Bengali woman in Cambridge”