First-time novelist Shona Patel has entered that rarified world of writers who see their first book published. Her manuscript was snapped up by an agent at a California writer’s conference, and she was on her way. Her engaging historical novel of India’s class culture, racial divides and struggle for independence, laced with an adventurous romance, looked like gold. Set during a time of strife and historical significance in India, TEATIME FOR THE FIREFLY was inspired by her own unusual childhood.
Layla Roy’s fate was determined at birth when she was born under a bad star. Orphaned at age three, Layla is now 20 years old, well educated and beautiful, but still single. In 1943 India, where girls are given only a rudimentary education and are groomed for a promising marriage to bear many sons, this bad omen condemns Layla to spinsterhood as a teacher in the local girls' school. The cast of characters are caught in a time of radical change as India struggles to gain independence from the British Crown. Momentous events have already taken the lives of her parents, leaving her in her grandfather’s care. An austere but kindly respected judge, he raises her as he would a son by providing a broad education. Thus, she is doubly cursed; her horoscope and outspoken ways would scare off any suitable husband, and with no dowry to bestow for a prosperous marriage, her future is cast. She is in danger of becoming a “seed pumpkin,” left on the vine to ripen alone. Perhaps it is this bad star that causes a twist of fate that will lead to life in the jungles of Assam as the Memsahib of a British tea plantation.
"TEATIME FOR THE FIREFLY is a refreshing, fascinating debut novel by a woman who writes with humor and pathos that comes from experience."
Manik Deb is also on a predetermined path. His marriage to the daughter of a wealthy local merchant was arranged when they were young teens, and his Oxford education, wealthy family and social status promise a respectable civil service career in Calcutta. When he returns from university, he pays a courtesy visit to Layla’s grandfather, a schoolmate of his father’s. There he meets Layla, and they strike up a lively conversation that will change their lives forever.
Their casual encounters on future visits to his fiance’s family make him realize that he doesn't want to settle for a predetermined future. On an impulse, he lands a position as an Assistant Tea Plantation Manager in the jungles of Eastern India. Manik knows nothing about tea, or planting, or managing a native labor force. None of this is as daunting as being shackled to a desk job, married to an uneducated woman he barely knows. His contract will delay marriage by three years, and when his parents learn what he has done, he is disowned. His fiance’s father, dishonored, is outraged.
After a long courtship by hand-delivered letters, Manik and Layla are married, and she is whisked off to a crumbling planter’s bungalow in a remote rain forest inhabited by leopards, elephants, rhinos, venomous snakes and thieving monkeys. The wildlife is barely more formidable than the sisterhood of English planters’ wives who view her as a curiosity, despite her education and perfect English. She finds herself on a steep learning curve as she learns to run a household of local native houseboys and assumes a motherly role over the primitive tribal tea pickers.
Shona Patel was raised on an Assam tea plantation where her father was a planter for a major British tea company. While some elements of the novel reflect the stories she heard of jungle life in the 1940s, she stresses that it is by no means biographical. Patel, who comes from a long line of storytellers, weaves a captivating tale of discovery, adventure, challenge, romance and triumph over difficult conditions that rings with authenticity. Her narrative is delightfully spiced with a touch of Indian dialectic curry as she introduces us to engaging female characters from the many diverse cultures that portray the role of women in India.
The MIRA imprint from Harlequin is devoted to women’s literature, focusing on new authors. TEATIME FOR THE FIREFLY is a refreshing, fascinating debut novel by a woman who writes with humor and pathos that comes from experience.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on September 27, 2013
Teatime for the Firefly