Teatime for the Firefly

Written by Shona Patel
Review by Judith Starkston

Teatime for the Firefly creates a vivid portrayal of the exotic world of the Assam tea plantations and Indian life during both WWII and the momentous upheavals immediately following the war. The tensions between British colonialism and Indian aspirations for a free nation are played out against the intensely personal story of Layla and Manik. From their chance and rather magical meeting through their unusual marriage, Patel has given us a sophisticated understanding of daily life in India through the eyes of one young woman.

Layla, born under an “unlucky star” and orphaned early on, has been given the great gift of choosing her destiny by her wise and progressive grandfather. With a good education and a strong will, she moves between challenging the assumptions of her world and conforming. The violence and bigotry of this period add excitement to a plot that is as much about place and richly developed character as it is about actions.

The reader will feel, smell and see this isolated, remarkable corner of India. Patel has wound into her story many themes and events imbued with Indian culture, and in the process has woven a rich tapestry for the reader: leopard attacks, rogue elephants, the paternalistic role of the tea companies, the childlike naiveté of the “coolie” workforce, children sold into prostitution, the racist attitude of the English toward all things Indian, the Hindu-Muslim riots, the need for education reform, the rejection of widows, and the vulnerability of women in Indian society. Patel incorporates so much without weighing down her humane tale. This book excites the palate with its depth and fullness.