Sunday, February 16, 2014

Book review: Time out with Teatime for the Firefly by Shona Patel

Shona Patel’s debut novel, Teatime with the Firefly, makes for an interesting read for die-hard fans of romance in 1940s, among elite, well educated, Oxford or Cambridge returned Bengalis.

Layla Deb, born under the unlucky star is orphaned early in life with the death of her parents. Her maternal aunt and uncle, Mima, takes Layla under her wing and Dadamoshai, who plays a pivotal role in the book, takes charge of Layla thereafter. Layla’s life finds wings as an able, educated girl, helping her, Dadamoshai, who is himself a London-returned, highly educated retired barrister, run, his village school, for girls in Silchar, a small town in the far northeast part of India.  In the meantime, Layla is has also received private tutorship from English teacher, Miss Thompson, who patiently tutors willing students, the Queen’s English, with all its emphasis on the where, when, what, why,  holding the palm, six inches away from the mouth. Needless to say, Layla has been a good student and even the English ladies she will meet in the tea gardens later on, are pleasantly surprised that Indians speak such good English!

Not so perfect, with her Ingliiish, Layla’s nieghbour, Konica, short name, Kona, is bigilee, tryiiinj, to brush up her English, in order to be ready to marry, the handsome, and of course, the Oxford returned Manik Deb who is going to join the upper crust Indian in British administrative services, after having been engaged to her, for six years.  That is of course, if cupid had not struck an arrow through two hearts – Laylas’ and Maniks’. Much to everyone’s surprise and the Kano family disgrace, our protagonist decides to join the tea garden working as assistant manager, instead of pursuing what he set out to do in the first place. A series of letters flow, between the two, lovers, Layla and Manik, over three years, a mandatory period to be observed without marital commitment, for all people, employed by British Tea Companies head quartered in Calcutta or England.

The letters get intimate even as, Kona’s father, distraught and angered and feeling betrayed, quickly manages to find her a good, affluent Bengali family to which he is happy to get his daughter married. Neither he, nor Dadamoshai are in the know as to why, a sane Manik Deb, Rhodes Scholar, Oxford, should take such an eccentric step as to go join a tea garden, Aynakhal T.E. The beautiful intellectual romance between the two, finally culminates into marriage and Layla joins her husband in the tea estate spending time among tea garden English ladies, Planter’s Club, evening high tea, needle work, knitting, gardening, baking, bearers, Ayahs and hoards of servants. She is happy to see her husband display his managerial qualities, but dreads the lust he has for her after marriage, fearing of course the first night! It takes a hornet’s bite between her breasts to initiate the sex between the couple. Thereafter, Layla joins her hungry husband to an assortment of surprising love-making in often unpredictable places, giving the romance a character of its own! Together with this, she however, has to cope with the world of bats, snakes, tigers, leopards, and all that comes with wildlife in the jungles of Assam. She lives and she learns.

In the background of all this, the slow growth of trade unionism, the oncoming Indian independence, the riots between Hindus and Muslims, Layla gives birth to their first child. Within days of her birth, Manik Deb nearly loses his life. It is at this moment, and as the book closes, that Layla, proves her love for her husband, over everything else.

The book fulfills another purpose for those with a leaning towards, anthropology. ‘Laahe – laahe,’ slowly, slowly, like a boat ferrying across the water of time, the reader is bound to love the experience of tea gardens in British India with time out with Teatime for the Firefly.

Publisher: Harlequin MIRA, 225, Duncan Mill Road, Don Mills, Ontario M3B 3K9, Canada
Title: Teatime for the Firefly
Author: Shona Patel
Pages: 427
Price: Rs 299

About the author: Shona Patel, 52, did her English Honours from Kolkata University and lives in Arizona, US, with her husband. She is a trained graphic designer and has won several awards for creative writing. Teatime with the Firefly is her debut novel. Presently, she is working on her second novel.

First published in The Hindu Literary Riview

Author interview in The Shillong Times

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