by Shona Patel, author of Teatime for the Firefly
The dense rainforests of Assam where I was born and raised is firefly country; hence, fireflies were a big part of my childhood. My sister and I liked to trap fireflies and drop them inside the pipe-like stems of the papaya plant, where they glowed an eerie green. We pretended these luminescent glow sticks were our magic wands, and we cast all kinds of spells with them.
One of the fondest memories of my tea garden childhood is of high tea served around dusk on an open veranda surrounded by fireflies. I wanted to capture this ambience in Teatime for the Firefly. The title of the book itself welled up from the story. The gentle romance between Layla and Manik blossoms on firefly evenings, unfolding on a jasmine-covered veranda in Layla’s grandfather’s house.
Fireflies are symbolic on many levels in this novel. The main theme is centered on prejudice and segregation. On their first evening together in the tea gardens, Manik contemplates netting up the open veranda to keep out the bugs during summer. This would also mean shutting out the fireflies, he adds, because “when you shut yourself in, you sometimes shut out the good with the bad.”
My female protagonist, Layla, is the “firefly,” metaphorically speaking, in the novel. She is a reclusive Indian girl who comes out of her shell tosparkle as the first Indian memsahib (lady of the manor) in the tea gardens. This culminates in her shining courage during the dark times of the riots. Throughout the novel, Layla has a recurring dream of fireflies. They fall out of the sky to land on the pages of an open book, or spin in dizzying circles on the waters of a lily pond. In the story, fireflies connect dreams to reality, the past to the future.
Jonaki (firefly in Bengali) is the name Manik gives his newborn daughter. Born during a very dark and troubled time in her parents’ life, she represents a tiny spark of hope for their future. Historically speaking, Jonaki’s birth mirrors the bloodbath of India’s independence and the country’s final emergence as a sovereign nation.
About the Book
Layla Roy has defied the fates.
Despite being born under an inauspicious horoscope, she is raised to be educated and independent by her eccentric grandfather, Dadamoshai. And, by cleverly manipulating the hand fortune has dealt her, she has even found love with Manik Deb—a man betrothed to another. All were minor miracles in India that spring of 1943, when young women’s lives were predetermined—if not by the stars, then by centuries of family tradition and social order.
Layla’s life as a newly married woman takes her away from home and into the jungles of Assam, where the world’s finest tea thrives on plantations run by native labor and British efficiency. Fascinated by this culture of whiskey-soaked expats who seem fazed by neither earthquakes nor man-eating leopards, she struggles to find her place among the prickly English wives with whom she is expected to socialize, and the peculiar servants she now finds under her charge.
But navigating the tea-garden set will hardly be her biggest challenge. Layla’s remote home is not safe from the powerful changes sweeping India on the heels of the Second World War. Their colonial society is at a tipping point, and Layla and Manik find themselves caught in a perilous racial divide that threatens their very lives.