Teatime for the Firefly is the debut book of Shona Patel and the story is set in Assam and its teagardens at the time of the Second World War. I liked the cover of the book and when I read the blurb of this book, I was transported back there, Having grown up among teagardens in Assam and West Bengal, I get nostalgic whenever I hear anything about tea gardens.
Layla Roy has defied the fates. Despite being born under an inauspicious horoscope, she is raised to be educated and independent by her eccentric grandfather, Dadamoshai. And, by cleverly manipulating the hand fortune has dealt her, she has even found love with Manik Deb—a man betrothed to another. All were minor miracles in India that spring of 1943, when young women’s lives were predetermined—if not by the stars, then by centuries of family tradition and social order.
Layla’s life as a newly married woman takes her away from home and into the jungles of Assam, where the world’s finest tea thrives on plantations run by native labor and British efficiency. Fascinated by this culture of whiskey-soaked expats who seem fazed by neither earthquakes nor man-eating leopards, she struggles to find her place among the prickly English wives with whom she is expected to socialize, and the peculiar servants she now finds under her charge.
But navigating the tea-garden set will hardly be her biggest challenge. Layla’s remote home is not safe from the powerful changes sweeping India on the heels of the Second World War. Their colonial society is at a tipping point, and Layla and Manik find themselves caught in a perilous racial divide that threatens their very lives.
Layla Roy, born under an “unlucky star”, where planet Mars is predominant in her Hindu horoscope, is astrologically doomed and fated never to marry. She is never invited to social function like weddings and birth. She loses her parents when she is very small and is brought up by initially by her great aunt and later by her grandfather, Dadamoshai, who gives her an education, and Chaya, their housekeeper. Layla is an obsessive fact finder, well read and intelligent.
Dadamoshai, Layla’s grandfather, also known as Rai Bahadur, an honorary title given to him by the British, is an advocate of English education. He was once the most powerful District Judge in the state of Assam and has now opened a girls’ school which would be inaugurated by Boris Ivanov. He lives in Silchar.
Chaya, their housekeeper, has a disfiguring burn scar as a result of an acid burn which was flung at her because she had fallen in love with a Muslim man. Compassionate Dadamoshai had taken her into his custody, fought a controversial court case and sent many people to jail.
Manik Deb, 23, is a Rhodes Scholar from Oxford, who has joined the civil service. He is already engaged to a rich girl who is Layla’s neighbor (they were engaged when he was only 16).
On April 7, 1943, the day of the inauguration, everything begins to change for her. She is seventeen, she meets Manik Deb, they become friends, have intelligent discussions and she falls in love with him. Then she comes to know that he has left the Civil Services to accept the job as an Assistant Manager in a tea estate, and his marriage is called off and his family disowns him. She starts training as an Assistant teacher in the girls’ school and also giving private tuitions. His mandatory three years of bachelorhood at the tea estate are over and he asks her grandfather for her hand in marriage, they get married and she moves to Aynakhal, where Manik is posted.
Her married life in the new house at a new place is full of challenges- she has a retinue of servants she has to manage, a decorum was expected of her and Manik in public, the young planters’ wives who she has to associate with and their gossips, the teagarden workers and the responsibility of the management towards them
The story is written in first person from Layla’s viewpoint and this makes it all the more real and interesting. The author has researched very well and this shows in the way she has described the tea gardens and its facilities, the hardships in the lives of the tea-planters, the process of tea production from plucking to packing, the tea garden management & the dress code of the tea planters.
The characters and the story are very well developed. Words like ‘jackal wedding days’, tea gardens, Rongali Bihu, cattle traps, Planters Club, lahe-lahe, the names of the various tea gardens, clubchits, Chung Bungalow, salted tea, coolie dances & the white painted bricks buried diagonally made me nostalgic. She has beautifully described the earthquake like a giant freight train; I have experienced a 6.8 and believe it feels just like that.
The book has emotions, romance, suspense, adventure, violence, politics, wild animals, and everything you could want in a book. Each chapter has beautifully drawn pattern at the beginning. I enjoyed the book a lot and being there all my life helped me picturise it more. If she could have illustrated with some pictures from her blog, it would have been all the more interesting.
Book Source: Bought
Publisher: Harlequin India