Shona Patel’s Teatime for the Firefly (Harlequin/MIRA; October 2013) skilfully explores the danger and romance of life in 1940s India, while adding rich layers of British flavour. She paints a vivid picture of what it was to be a young, naive bride thrown into the jungles of Assam. Julia Dutta interviews her
TEATIME FOR the Firefly takes place during a transitional time in Indian society for women. How is this reflected in the female characters? Layla, Kona, Jamina and Moon all end up with extremely different lives.
Indian society was going through big changes during the 1940s. The country was on the verge of her independence after 200 years of British rule. Old traditions and superstitions were being challenged by new ideas and several social reforms were under way. Many of these reforms concerned the education and emancipation of women. The female characters and their stories in Teatime for the Firefly reflect the different aspects of this changing society.
Layla and Moon were educated, empowered women, far ahead of their time. Layla, despite being born under an unlucky star, is raised by her enlightened grandfather to believe she can shape her own destiny. Moon is free to marry the man the man of her choice. This was very uncommon for women of their time.
On the other hand, Kona and Jamina are victims of social circumstances and puppets in the hands of their families. Kona is forced into an arranged marriage by her domineering father and has no say in the matter. She is tragically widowed after a few years and her in-laws abandon her at a widow’s ashram where she has to beg for a living. Only when she takes charge of her own life does she find fulfillment and meaning.
Jamina is sold into sexual slavery at a very young age by her impoverished family. She, too, is powerless to resist, but, thanks to a stroke of luck, she is rescued by Alasdair Caruthers and her life undergoes a reversal of fortune. The stories of the four women also touch upon a key theme in the novel: fate and fatality, and the power of the human will to shape destiny.
Manik Deb takes extreme actions to marry Layla, which results in his being disowned by his entire family and changes the course of his professional life. Were drastic measures like this necessary or common at the time, or are they a reflection/symbolic of Manik’s character?
Back in those days, a traditional arranged marriage in Indian society was a formal arrangement between two families. Horoscopes were matched for compatibility and the personal preferences of the bride and groom rarely taken into consideration. Often (as in the case of Manik and Kona) the match was negotiated years in advance. Couples typically married within their own caste and community. The family’s lineage, reputation and status in society were of prime consideration. Simply being the “son or daughter of so-and-so” was a yardstick of eligibility. The family reputations had to be preserved at all cost. Any scandals, such as sexual misconduct, hereditary diseases, mental illness and other dysfunctions were closely guarded secrets, as they would adversely affect the eligibility of unmarried members of the family. Given this scenario, it was impossible for Manik to break his engagement to Kona without causing a big scandal and ruining the reputation of both families. The only way for him to extricate himself from the marriage was to take a drastic course of action.
The area of India in which Teatime for the Firefly takes place is very much a character in the story. What drew you to Assam as the setting? Why not Nilgiri, Darjeeling or another tea region?
The first large-scale tea industry to be developed in India was in the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam. Assam is the only region in the world where the indigenous tea plant (Camellia assamica) is cultivated in its native habitat. Other tea-growing areas such as Darjeeling and Nilgiri were developed later and the tea cultivated here is a transplanted variety. A key thing to understand is that tea, much like wine, owes it taste and flavor to the region where it is grown. In other words, the plant’s location imparts a unique quality to the beverage that can’t easily be replicated by growing it elsewhere. Also like wine, Indian teas are named after the place where they are grown, with each tea carrying the unique aroma of its region. Assam tea, known for its rich, strong brew and distinct, malty taste was in big demand by tea lovers all over Europe, and the British had to overcome insurmountable odds to set up an organized tea industry in Assam. It was less of a challenge to grow tea in Darjeeling or the Nilgiris, which are more manageable regions with a terraced style of tea plantation that closely follows the Chinese model. Assam, on the other hand, is one of most uninhabitable areas of the world. The environment is incredibly harsh and hostile and there is a constant threat from wild animals and head-hunting tribes. To grow tea in such an uncivilized part of the world, the land had to be “tamed,” and it took all the might of the British colonial power to implement the infrastructure, logistics and manpower needed to create a tea industry in Assam. Creating an artificial industry in the middle of nowhere would have major repercussions: it disrupted the environment and displaced societies that would affect generations to come. Teatime for the Firefly is the story of adaptation and survival of an odd medley of people in an artificially created environment.
Historically speaking, was the trouble in Assam before the partition worse there than in other parts of the country? What influence did the tension have on the story?
On the contrary, Assam was the most isolated and inaccessible state of India, and remained cut off from mainstream politics for the longest time. While the Indian independence movement gained momentum and agitations and uprisings erupted all over the country, Assam, especially the insular world of the tea plantations (the tea industry, you must remember, was one of the last strongholds of the British empire) remained virtually unaffected. The political infiltration, when it happened, was slow and insidious. The political trouble and rioting in Assam, as described in Teatime for the Firefly, happened at the very tail end of the independence movement.
Manik Deb finds employment and a way to marry his love through the tea plantation. Despite not being friends, Mr. Sen stays for a cup of tea with the Rai Bahadur; Layla first gets Jamina to sit with her after offering her salted tea. What role does tea play in this story and in Indian culture in general?
Anyone who has been to an Indian home will tell you that one of the most endearing characteristics of the Indian culture is the warmth and hospitality of its people. Indian hospitality is legendary and has its roots in an ancient Sanskrit saying that, translated, means “your guest is your god.” Indians will go out of their way to make a guest feel welcome and tea is very much a part of the tradition. Tea is an icebreaker, a social equalizer. Every guest in an Indian home, rich or poor, popular or not, is always offered a cup of tea. Tea cements friendships and keeps differences at bay. There is no special time for tea: it is drunk copiously, any odd hour of night and day. Tea drinking in India starts at the crack of dawn and ends well past midnight. You can always enjoy a delicious cup of spiced chai (often served in a disposable clay cup) at a roadside tea shack, a truck stop (known as dhaba chai—it’s the best) and the railway station. Office workers in India would not survive a single workday without their tea break (and they take several during the day). A tea break is a welcome respite from work and time to sit back, take a pause and have chitchat. I don’t know where Indians would be without their tea and chitchat. Any Indian will tell you that life without tea is unbearable, it is essential to our being.
Talk about the character of Jamina.
Jamina’s plight is not uncommon to the Indian girl-child born into an impoverished family who cannot afford the dowry to get her married. Typically, prostitutes like Jamina were kept hidden from society, but a rare stroke of luck saw her rescued by Alasdair Caruthers, who accommodates her in his bungalow and treats her with consideration and respect. The English wives ostracize Jamina because she is Alasdair’s concubine—his kept woman—but on the other hand, they are secretly threatened because Jamina has secured Alasdair’s affection and loyalty. It used to be common for British men in colonial India to keep Indian concubines. It was a master-slave relationship; the women were disposable, and it spawned a whole generation of half-breed children who became social outcasts and were shunned by both British and Indian society. Many of these women and children were abandoned and became destitute when the British men returned to their homeland after Indian independence.
How did your childhood growing up in India influence the stories you tell in Teatime for the Firefly? Are they culled from actual instances in your life, stories told by friends and family, or just an active imagination?
It was my unique tea garden upbringing that created a fertile ground for stories in my head. Take for example the untamed jungles of Assam; the old creaky bungalow; throw in a few dangerous wild animals and head-hunting tribes; add the ghosts, folklore, fables and superstitions; and drizzle it all with seeping rain and river mist—and voilà! you have all the rich ingredients for story. The threads of my stories are drawn from real life, but they are manipulated and embellished to take on a life of their own. I often piece together information in creative ways. Say, for example, when I am creating a character, I take the physical characteristic of one person and add biographical information and character traits of others. In my plots, too, I often take the incidents of one place and put them in a different setting and make them happen to someone unrelated to the original story. There is a wonderful tradition of storytelling in my family. Both my parents were very funny people and told great stories. My mother in particular was a master storyteller and is remembered for her minute observations of life and quirky sense of humor. She had a knack of adding sticky details to her stories that made them quite unforgettable. Both my sister and I seem to have inherited her offbeat sense of humor and we exchange stories all the time.
Can you elaborate on Layla’s relationship with the working class?
One thing to understand is that the tea garden culture with its people and their peculiar customs is unknown to most Indians. The coolies and bungalow servants were a tribal people and transplanted from other states. Most Indians would never encounter the likes of them because they belonged to an untouchable caste who lived in isolated villages, married among themselves and never mixed with other people. The recruiters of tea companies went to these remote tribal villages and sometimes uprooted an entire village and moved them to the tea plantations to work as contracted laborers. Even in the tea plantations they remained as a subculture maintaining their tribal dress, colorful language and customs. Therefore it is hardly surprising for Layla, a naive, small-town Indian girl, to be taken aback by them. Layla takes a while to absorb and understand their ways and adapt to her new role as the memsahib of the bungalow. Thanks to her unconventional upbringing she is unprejudiced and open-minded. This was uncommon for Indians of her time, who judged other people based on their caste and religion. Layla, on the other hand, has the ability to evaluate and make educated judgments even in matters outside her comfort zone.
Can you talk about the presence of fireflies in the book? What do they symbolize to you?
Fireflies are symbolic on many levels in this novel. First, there is the setting: Assam is firefly country if there ever was one! There are dense jungles all around and dusk is always crowded with fireflies. High tea in the tea gardens is normally taken in the late evening on the open verandah and one is always surrounded by fireflies. Seeing the fireflies around teatime is one of the fondest memories of my tea garden childhood. Secondly, Layla (metaphorically speaking) is the “firefly” in the novel. She is a shy, reclusive girl who stays in the “dark” and shies away from society. Teatime for the Firefly is the story of her debut as a memsahib who sparkles in the British colonial world of the tea plantations. This culminates in her heroic exploits during the dark times of the riots. Jonaki (firefly in Bengali) is the name Manik gives his newborn daughter. Jonaki’s birth during a very dark and troubled time in her parents’ life, represented a new hope for the future.
The India you portray in Teatime for the Firefly is complex and contradictory. How does this mesh with your own experience growing up in India? How has the country changed since you were a child?
I grew up in a tea plantation during the 1960s and ’70s. My father was one of the first Indian tea planters and the General Manager of the Duklingia Tea Estate in the Mariani tea district of Assam. Most tea gardens were still owned by British companies and, even after two decades of Indian independence, the colonial lifestyle in the tea gardens remained. We lived in a massive bungalow with manicured gardens and liveried servants. I remember duck-hunting camps, horse races at the Gymkhana, elaborate Christmas parties complete with elephant rides and five-course dinners served on monogrammed china with sterling silverware. We were not rich, by any means. The fancy lifestyle simply came with the tea job and everything, right down to the last teaspoon, was owned by the Company. My sister and I were both sent to an English boarding school. When my father retired we lived a very ordinary life in the city. In many ways our tea garden upbringing kept us isolated from mainstream India. We spoke English most of the time and remained clueless about Indian traditions and customs, often to the disgust of our city relatives, who thought we were showing off. Our upbringing was rather unconventional. My parents were a free-spirited couple and never imposed any cultural or religious boundaries on us as children. This helped my sister and me to get along with all kinds of people.
India still is, and continues to be, a complex and contradictory country. This duality baffles and intrigues Westerners. India is land of contrasts: we have immense wealth and terrible poverty, great spiritual wisdom and crass materialism, all existing side by side. Even our gods are complicated: male-female, good-evil, creation-destruction are often embodied in the same deity. Nothing is black or white. India is constantly changing and evolving. With the last vestiges of the Raj finally shaken off, India has come into her own with a global identity that is uniquely and quintessentially Indian. Having lived in both worlds, it is fascinating for me to see this transformation.