Teatime for the Firefly
Publication Date: September 24, 2013
India has certainly captured the West’s pop culture imagination. From movies such as Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, to Mindy Kaling’s television characters on “The Office” and “The Mindy Kaling Show”, Hannah Simone’s model Cece on “New Girl”, or geek guy Raj (played by Kunal Nayyar) from “The Big Bang Theory”, to the other side of the spectrum with Katherine Boos’ wrenching yet exquisite non-fiction novel Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, knowledge of this land of over a billion people has moved beyond beatific images of Mahatma Ghandi and the kitsch of Bollywood towards its becoming a key player in the coming age, both culturally and economically.
How wonderful it is, then, to have novels such as Shona Patel‘s Teatime for the Firefly to expand our historical and cultural understanding of India. In 1943, Layla Roy was pragmatic about her future. At 17, she is of marriageable age but she was born under an unlucky star, “astronomically doomed and fated never to marry.” Furthermore, she is educated and is being raised to be independent by her honored and eccentric grandfather, Dadamoshai; something for which she is thankful yet does not exactly sit as an asset in her tradition-laden society. She has accepted productive spinsterhood as her path in life.
That is before a handsome stranger shows up at her grandfather’s house, looking for an audience with the elder statesman and his current guest, a famous Russian novelist. The stranger’s name is Manik Deb, and he is a Rhodes scholar from Oxford, the son of a wealthy Bengali landowner – and the fiancé of the daughter of the richest man in town (Layla’s neighbor, no less). With no expectations and no illusions of romance, young Layla falls shyly and anonymously in love with this poetically attractive stranger, with his “long, finger-raked hair and dark and steady eyes behind black-framed glasses.”
She sees Manik Deb often over the summer. He is a frequent visitor at Dadamoshai’s household, stopping there when he comes to town to visit with his future in-laws. The two men discuss topics such as the history of Assam tea and its importance to the local economy, the pros and cons of promoting English as the national language, and always, the independence movement sweeping colonial India. At first, Layla simply watches and listens from behind a slit in the curtain of her room, which overlooks the verandah where guests sip tea and smoke. But one night, Dadamoshai asks her to share her opinion on the role of women in modern India. She continues to be drawn into their discussions, and as time goes by, insulated by his arranged marriage, Layla and Manik develop an easy friendship due to her freedom to speak her mind and his delight in her doing so.
As the monsoon season arrives, Manik returns to Calcutta. Although never stepping beyond the boundaries of propriety, the two maintain a correspondence as he works towards a lucrative job in the civil service, as expected of the privileged class of young Indians educated abroad. Then one day a small parcel arrives for Layla: it is a beautifully bound volume of love poems by famed Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore. Manik has simply inscribed, “For you” inside its front cover, and the note he wrote accompanying it merely talks of having found the book and that it reminded him of her; he wanted her to have it “as a remembrance of our talks together”. Yet suddenly, a glimmer of hope opens in Layla’s carefully guarded heart, even as her head tells her that the next time she sees Manik, it will be on his arranged wedding day.
I could have brushed off Manik’s gesture, put the book on my shelf and gone on with my life. Yet I clung to it like my last, slim, red-and-gold hope on earth. I caressed the silk cover, kissed the long pen strokes of his inscription. I savored every poem and swelled with the cadence of the lines and felt irresistibly connected to the heart where it was coming from. I knew it was the poet and not Manik who wrote the words but wanted desperately to believe otherwise. Those were strangely melded days where I floated in limbo, an outsider to the world around me, a firefly baffled by daylight.
Yet when the rainy season departs, Layla overhears a conversation between her grandfather and their neighbor on the verandah, where the rich businessman berates his future son-in-law’s sudden decision to turn his back on the civil service and become a tea planter, instead! It does not matter that Assam tea is a treasured export or that the relationship between England and Indian tea dates back decades to the East India Company (leading to the era of colonization – and modernization – of India), or that Manik’s appointment as Assistant Manager of the Aynakhal Tea Estate is groundbreaking in that he is the first native Indian appointed to a management position with any of the tea companies operating in Assam or all of India. The only thing Manik’s future father-in-law can think of is the dishonor and shame that his foolishness has cast on the family. And to make it worse, when signing the contract, Manik also agreed to the company policy that does not allow marriage of its management personnel for at least three years. Three years! His daughter will be old by then! But arrangements are arrangements…
Manik’s correspondence with Layla reconvenes, with his letters full of candid and fluid accounts of his new experiences. He tells her about his life on the tea plantation, so very different from life anywhere else. Very isolated, strictly dictated by not only horticultural demands of producing the very best tea in the world from deep in the jungle, but also by the class and corporate structure of the staunchly European and colonial tea companies, life is both privileged and savage. Manik knows now why there is a three year moratorium on corporate employees getting married: the work at first is all consuming as one learns the ropes, and the deep isolation of the plantations is a huge culture shock to most who attempt it, especially for any women willing to leave the comforts of home for the heat and the closeness of the jungle. A new marriage with the new job would be a death knell to both.
Any guilt that Layla had over corresponding with another girl’s fiancé is assuaged a few months later when Manik’s engagement is broken and his former bride married off to someone more suitable to her family. Manik’s letters continue as if nothing had happened, but Layla begins again to harbor some hope that she might find a more intimate place in Manik’s life. Over time, the letters become more personal, more open; finally, after 2-1/2 years pass and the company contract is coming to an end, Manik sends her the letter she had been waiting for, the letter in which he asks her to be his wife.
And then Layla’s adventure truly begins.
Seriously, I have related only a fraction of the story in Teatime for the Firefly, and perhaps the most reserved aspect of this fast moving tale. Once Layla joins Manik at the Aynakhal Tea Estate, her life changes drastically, what with the liveried yet rustic servants, trusting peasants, rogue elephants, leaking roofs, heat, bugs and man eating leopards – and yet she remains at heart a fiercely independent yet staunchly traditional Indian woman. The isolation of the jungle, the demands of her rise in social strata, the culture shock of her wading into expatriate European society, all threaten to tear at the fabric of her marriage – and then the independence movement, conflict, turmoil and war threatens her very existence.
Shona Patel writes with absolute authority and personal experience. The author was born and raised on a remote tea plantation in Assam, India, and the tale of Layla and Manik is a fictionalized account of her own parents’ lives (in fact, many people assume that the story is biography, not fiction). Her father was indeed one of the first native Indian tea planters, and the events and settings of the book reflect their time together (including the letters her father wrote to her mother, lovingly preserved). Perhaps this is why the story rings so true and is so very engaging, straddling both tradition and modernity, naivety and knowledge; both Indian and European culture under a microscope. This is not some bucolic fairy tale; the jungle is dangerous, and the political winds that blow even more of a threat.
Anyone interested in Indian culture and history needs to read Teatime for the Firefly; there is a wealth of fascinating and engaging information that is related in a vivid and entertaining way. But even those who are not of a historical mind will enjoy this fast moving, captivating, and amazing love story, all the much more for the exotic locale and cinematic setting.
And you’ll appreciate your next cup of tea all the more for it.