Like a lot of historical fiction fans, I’m constantly on the lookout for new authors, and by the time I was halfway through Shona Patel’s Teatime for the Firefly, I realized I’d found a gem.
Teatime for the Firefly takes us to mid-century India, a time of civil unrest, violent religious dissention, and extreme sexual and social inequality. Written in first person, as seen through the eyes of a young Indian woman, she begins by saying,
My name is Layla and I was born under an unlucky star. The time and place of my birth makes me a Manglik. For a young girl growing up in India in the 1940’s this is bad news. The planet Mars is predominate in my Hindu horoscope and this angry red planet makes people rebellious and militant by nature. Everyone knows that I am astrologically doomed and fated never to marry. Marriages in our society are arranged by astrology and nobody wants a warlike bride. Women are meant to be the needle that stitches families together, not the scissors that cut.
Orphaned at an early age, Layla is raised by her unconventional grandfather, Dadamoshai, who sees to it that she is both well-educated and independent. And when she defies tradition by marrying Manik, a man who has ruined his opportunity for a lucrative civil-service career by taking a position managing a tea garden in the jungles of Assam, Dadamoshai gives his blessing.
To the western mind, tea garden likely seems a misnomer. Tea gardens were, and still are, vast tea plantations in the jungles of India. In the 1940’s, they were owned and managed primarily by the British, and worked by local Indian laborers called coolies. Teatime for the Firefly offers the reader a fascinating look at this culture.
Once Layla joins Manik in his company owned bungalow, their personalities blossom. This is where the Patel’s story really came to life for me. Manik’s dry wit and Layla’s refusal to adopt his casual acceptance of a houseful of servants who don’t work and a cook who can only prepare four different dishes, puts the newly weds in an entirely new light. As Teatime for the Firefly progresses, we not only share in their adventures and challenges, but we also experience the perils of living in the Aynakhal jungle—poisonous snakes, rogue elephants, rhinos and tigers—and finally, the greatest danger of all… civil war.
Teatime for the Firefly is an exquisitely crafted novel. I look forward to reading more from from Ms. Patel.