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The setting: a rambling colonial mansion in small town in Northeastern India and later a rambling mansion in a tea estate; the characters: a young woman whose stars are misaligned, or so they told her and a dashing young man educated in Britain; the times: pre-independence India; the result: a gripping, if at times predictable and formulaic, romance novel set to beautiful, deliberate prose and strewn with juicy nuggets of history, and juicier nuggets of romance.
Layla Roy is born under an unlucky star. Orphaned at an early age, she is raised by her Dadamoshai, or grandfather, a retired district judge, in a small town in Assam. Under Dadamoshai’s upbringing, Layla grew to be independent, free spirited and literate. But, Layla walks around with a heavy heart, knowing that she would never marry. Being born under the unlucky star, Layla is reconciled to a life of books and letters. Until she meets Manik Deb. Tall, well mannered, good looking Manik is betrothed to another girl but manages to bowl over Layla at a chance meeting. What follows afterwards is a maelstrom of events that soon enough lead to Manik marrying Layla instead.
Layla begins her married life at a tea estate in Aynakhal where Manik has a job in management. Life in the tea estate is one of unexpected encounters, with snakes, rogue elephants, man-eating leopards, eccentric house servants, idiosyncratic Englishmen and mysterious tribal village folk. Life in the tea estate is also a study of the class and racial lines that divide the expat managers and tribal workers. And, the author, a daughter of an Assam tea planter is at her best here, with the story displaying her depth of knowledge of life on the tea estate in all its vicissitudes and vagaries.
The events in the world outside the tea estate soon seep in to despoil its seeming tranquility and remoteness. Communist fervor engulfs the tea estates in Assam and rioting mobs tear through each tea estate, unionizing the native workers. The denouement of the novel is fairly formulaic at this point, with journeys undertaken in the dead of night and danger lurking in the shadows of moving trains.
Teatime for the Firefly is a romance novel and has all the ingredients to make it a success at that. Layla’s character development is strong and believable, but falters just a little when Manik enters her life. How cerebral and bookworm Layla turns into lovelorn Layla in the mere turning of a page might at first baffle the reader. But, it is a romance novel and as such romance heroines are wont to do that. It comes with the territory.
Layla, soon after marriage learns a sordid detail about Manik’s past that the single, sworn-to-be spinster Malini would not have brushed aside.
The author’s own prejudices seem to surface from time to time, especially in her treatment of the British:
“Zealots seem to forget that the British had done plenty of good for India. They built roads, railways and set up a solid administrative and judicial system. They exemplified discipline and accountability. But with the ‘Quit India’ movement in full force and patriotic sentiments running high, anything and everything British was being rejected.”
In this and other subtle ways, the author seems to express a certain tolerance for the British ways, which to readers, who are more invested in a nuanced understanding of the “plenty of good” that colonialism did for India, might seem provocative.
Novels set in pre-independence or colonial India often bear the heavy burden of history, almost as if it would be sacrilegious to not include a discourse on the great Indian freedom struggle. It works to great effect in some novels—A Passage to India would be a fine example-but not always.
When I picked up Teatime for the Firefly, I braced myself for another heavy treatment of the independence movement, but was pleasantly surprised to not be subjected to one. The Indian independence struggle serves as a dimly lit backdrop in Layla’s story and plays a small cameo at the very end. Readers expecting a deeper treatment of the story’s setting may not find in the firefly an apt teatime companion, but for the rest of us, teatime should prove entertaining.
Girija Sankar lives in Atlanta and works in international development. Her writings can be found here: www.girijasankar.com