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REVIEW: Teatime for the Firefly by Shona Patel

Dear Shona Patel:

When this book appeared on Netgalley I was intrigued. I’m always looking for unusual historicals, and a book set in 1940s India certainly qualifies. Moreover, it is written by an author of Indian origin, telling the fictionalized story of her parents and larger family. That is more than enough to sell me on trying a book and I downloaded it immediately. I wish the book had worked for me, but it was a very problematic read.

teatime-for-the-fireflyThe story opens in a small town in eastern India, in the province of Assam in the last days of British colonial rule. Layla Roy, the narrator, has been living a relatively uneventful life with her grandfather, a retired District Judge, when she meets and falls immediately in love with a visitor, Manik Deb. Manik finds her appealing too, but there is a hitch: Manik is engaged to Kona Sen, the daughter of a local, very wealthy businessman. Layla and Manik get to know each other when he visits the Judge, but their friendship can’t progress. But then Manik quits his prestigious Civil Service post and accepts a position as an Assistant Manager in a British-owned tea plantation in a remote part of Assam. This causes the Sens to break the engagement because Manik’s contract forbids him to marry for three years. During those three years Manik and Layla correspond, and when the terms are fulfilled Manik proposes to Layla, who happily accepts and journeys to Assam to become a tea planter’s wife. Manik is the only Indian Assistant Manager at the plantation, and the only other Indians are the Assamese plantation workers, so Layla is the sole Indian wife.

Teatime for the Firefly is accurately categorized as historical fiction rather than genre romance, and while the relationship between Layla and Manik is important to the story, there is little conflict since they are married early in the book. It takes them a while to become intimate, and the scenes leading to that moment are sweetly depicted, but this is really a story of Layla’s and Manik’s life in the tea plantation, with the transition from colonialism providing a backdrop that comes and goes.

Layla is an engaging narrator, and the author does a very good job of evoking the sights and feel of the setting:

We drove into the open countryside on narrow bandh roads, built on embankments that sloped down to rice fields. We passed through a small Assamese village, a small huddle of green surrounded by the striped expanse of plowed rice fields. Each village had a cluster of sleepy mud houses with low-fringed thatched roofs hemmed in by lopsided fences. Pendulous gourds clung to the thatched roofs. Creepers and elephant-eared taro, banana and areca palms grew abundantly in handkerchief-size plots. Tiny ponds winked gold and emerald-green in the flitting sun where ducks wagged their bottoms among purple water hyacinths. Slim-waisted Assamese women dressed in the traditional three-piece mekhela-sador, with orchids in their hair, swayed down narrow paths with mud pitchers balanced on tilted hips.

But she is less sympathetic, and less insightful, when it comes to describing the people around her, especially other Indians. Kona’s father, the wealthy trader, is described as an unscrupulous businessman with oily hair and hands bedecked with rings. It’s not clear why he is described in such a pejorative and stereotypical way, since he plays a very small role in the book.

Even more problematic is the depiction of the local, non-Bengali populations in the province. Layla’s grandfather describes the Ahom people, Assamese who are rice farmers in the rich land of the Brahmaputra river delta:

“They are a simple, pastoral people,” said Dadamoshai, “of Sino-Burmese descent. All they want to do is chew their betel nut, drink rice wine and live life lahe-lahe.”

“What’s lahe-lahe?” Manik asked, tapping his unlit cigarette.

“Slowly-slowly,” said Dadamoshai. “This lazy mentality of the Assamese has kept them in the dark ages while the rest of India has marched on.”

If I hadn’t known who was speaking I would have attributed these ideas to British colonizers mired in the 19th century. In fact, Layla’s grandfather seems to see himself as having more in common with the British than with his fellow Indians. He wants to introduce English in school as the medium of instruction rather than Indians’ native languages and sees the independence movement activists as opposing his reason and common sense in favor of their personal ideological agendas. It’s not a view of Indian independence movement leaders that I’ve heard voiced by Indians very often, I admit.

I mentally shelved these opinions as not too unusual among the collaborating Indian class during colonialism and kept reading. But when Layla goes to Aynakhal, where the tea plantation is located, she exhibits much the same attitudes. The plantation workers, who are a mix of locals and immigrants, are described as childlike and happy to be told what to do by their masters when they are behaving, and as menials, riffraff and thieves when they are not. Layla shows almost no interest in the Indians around her, but she’s thrilled to be accepted by the British wives:

“Did you know all this before you became a tea planter’s wife? How did you even know what to do?” I was beginning to feel a little panicked.

“I married Ian when he was a Junior Assistant, and his man- ager’s wife, Mrs. Barter, was a very kind and lovely lady. She took me under her wing and taught me everything. She was like my surrogate mother, really. I was very lucky to have her.”

“Will you…? Can you please teach me the things I need to know?” I asked hesitatingly.

“Of course, duckie,” Mrs. McIntyre said, giving my hand a little squeeze. “I will show you everything. You will make a fine memsahib for your man.”

None of these exchanges are presented in a critical or self-reflective way. The reader is expected to sympathize with Layla in her quest to be the perfect memsahib (housewife) for Manik and to happily accept her belief that Manik is mai-baap (literally mother-father) to the childlike, trusting workers.

The evocation of the tea plantation and the countryside is effective and makes you feel as if you’re there. But you’re also, as a reader, transported to a time and place where pejorative, ignorant stereotypes are widespread and a class of Indians has a strong stake in continuing colonial rule. There is a happy ending: Layla and Manik survive the violence of the transition to independence and Manik is promoted to General Manager of the tea plantation. India, presumably, survives and thrives as an independent nation, but you won’t learn that from this book.

If you want to read a historical novel where colonized upper-caste women learn how to make jam and deplore the changes brought by the end of colonialism, or you just want to immerse yourself in the daily life of a bygone era, this book might work for you. But if you want to read about what life was like in India for Indians who were not advancing their lives and careers by partnering with their colonial overlords while remaining ignorant about the needs and desires of their fellow citizens, give it a pass. Grade: C-

~ Sunita

 

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Sunita has been reading romances since she ran out of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Chalet School books and graduated to Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. Other old favorites include Mary Burchell, Betty Neels, Elsie Lee, and Edith Layton. Among current writers, she reads and rereads Anne Stuart, Tamara Allen, Jordan Castillo Price, Sarah Morgan, Marion Lennox, Josh Lanyon, and Susanna Kearsley.

16 Comments

  1. Elizabeth
    Dec 30, 2013 @ 08:59:19

    It seems to me that your review acknowledges that this novel reflects the views and attitudes of one segment of Indian society — but it isn’t the segment that you are interested in. Aren’t your interests and sympathies, like Layla’s, shaped by your time? Is this historical novel accurate and just somewhat personally repugnant (like, say, Gone With the Wind is to modern sensibilities), or is it poor storytelling? I can’t tell from your review.

    It sounds, too, as though this novel might (again, I can’t really tell from the review) might be written in the long tradition of English country house wife’s very domestic novels, such as D. E. Stevenson’s Mrs. Tim books or those by E.M. Delafield — which would add another layer of interest, complexity, and potentially frustration to the text, since it would apply a genre of the colonizers to the colonized.

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  2. Suleikha Snyder
    Dec 30, 2013 @ 09:20:39

    “Learning how to make jam.” ROTFL. That sort of sums up this type of book for me…where, regardless of era, there’s an aura of “eat, pray, love” to it. Viewing a culture through a privileged lens. Even if that culture happens to be your own.

    I didn’t get very far into this book. I just remember feeling distant from it when I expected to immediately connect, what with the characters being Bengali and all. It was disappointing, but I had to move on and read something that engaged me more.

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  3. Sunita
    Dec 30, 2013 @ 17:56:11

    @Elizabeth: To the contrary, I’m quite interested in this segment of the population, and I think a book that focuses in a self-aware way on what it was like to be caught between a colonial world that was personally rewarding and a post-colonial one with all its uncertainties and changes would be fascinating to read. I hoped that was what I was getting when I picked this book up. I’ve read numerous novels set in this period and one of the best, Staying On, is about an older British couple who don’t leave after independence.

    My problem with this book, as I tried to illustrated with the excerpts, is that it reproduces intra-community bigotry and ethnocentrism of its own time without telling me why the characters were thinking and behaving this way. There were plenty of Indians in the 1940s who did not treat the less educated and fortunate among them as children in need of a benevolent authoritarian leader. More generally, if you’re going to write a story in the 21stC that infantilizes people, you have an obligation to show why you’re choosing to do that. In my opinion.

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  4. Sunita
    Dec 30, 2013 @ 18:00:07

    @Suleikha Snyder: LOL! As Elizabeth says above, there is a village-life tradition of novel writing that can be very enjoyable and insightful to read. But the best of these are self-reflective, and those that are set in the interwar and war years they capture a sense of a passing era.

    I can’t speak to the authenticity of the Bengali family and cultural depictions, but I’m bummed to hear it didn’t resonate for you.

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  5. Jayne
    Dec 30, 2013 @ 18:08:47

    Bummer, Sunita. I was hoping this one would work for you as I count on you to be my touchstone for Indian set novels.

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  6. Sunita
    Dec 30, 2013 @ 18:36:45

    @Jayne: I wouldn’t say don’t read it, because aspects of it are really enjoyable and well written. But I can’t recommend it as a book that helps you understand the culture and era beyond a very narrow viewpoint.

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  7. Anu
    Dec 30, 2013 @ 20:36:39

    I was also struck by how flat and one-dimensional Patel portrayed all Indians who were not Anglophiles. Kona, Kona’s father, Janina–they were all described negatively in either they looks, personalities, beliefs, or customs. Non-anglophile Indians existed only as vehicles for the main characters rather than as fully realized in their own right.

    I wish Layla’s parents had received more attention. Her father was a freedom fighter and her mother became a communist, but Layla never wondered about the hows or whys of their beliefs. I understand why she didn’t want to think about them, but revolutionary politics didn’t have to be as removed from her, as Other, as she allowed it to be. The challenge to her prejudices and assumptions may have existed right in her own family.

    I was especially irritated that a white tea wife was the only person to point out the hypocrisy of plantation management – not Janina or any other Indian worker who actually bore the brunt of that hypocrisy. They were all too busy being thieving Orientals or mai-baaping their bosses, I guess.

    The writing generally grated on me. There were some nice parts, but they were largely overwhelmed by the huge amount of info-dumping and “As you know, Bob…” At times, I felt like I was reading a encyclopedia entry.

    Mildly interesting book but ultimately forgettable and rightly so.

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  8. Sunita
    Dec 30, 2013 @ 21:27:10

    @Anu: Oh, those are great points. I had forgotten about the parents because I was fixated on the grandfather, but you’re absolutely right. And the way Janina was portrayed annoyed me so much. I thought when she was introduced that we’d finally have a non-elite Indian character with a personality, but no such luck.

    They were all too busy being thieving Orientals or mai-baaping their bosses, I guess.

    Yes! My mouth fell open when I realized the mai-baaping was not ironic.

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  9. Anu
    Jan 01, 2014 @ 11:27:34

    @Sunita:

    And the way Janina was portrayed annoyed me so much. I thought when she was introduced that we’d finally have a non-elite Indian character with a personality, but no such luck.

    I think she was also the only active Muslim character. On so many levels, Janina could’ve been interesting as Layla’s counterpoint, but she only existed to be “didi-ed” by Layla. What a waste.

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  10. Elizabeth
    Jan 07, 2014 @ 20:44:25

    @Sunita: thank you for your response to my comments! I really appreciate the clarification of the reasons for your disappointment in the book, especially your explicit emphasis on the lack of self-awareness not only in Layla but, apparently, in the novel as a whole.

    Coincidentally, I have a copy of Staying On but I haven’t read it yet. I’ll move it up my list!

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  11. Sunita
    Jan 08, 2014 @ 21:51:07

    @Elizabeth: You’re welcome! It was a difficult review for me to write, so I didn’t communicate some of the points as well as I wanted to.

    I hope you enjoy Staying On. It’s different from the Raj Quartet, but it’s a lovely book.

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  12. Shona Patel
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 13:31:59

    Hello dear readers,
    I am the author of Teatime for the Firefly and normally I refrain from taking part in reader discussions but since this site is called “Dear Author” I feel your comments are addressed to me and perhaps you expect me to respond?
    First of all, thank you for reading my book and posting your insightful review. I am rather intrigued by your comments. Teatime for the Firefly is a work of fiction and it is told from a first person narrative and yes it is most definitely colored (whether you like it or not) through the lens of my main character. Now whether you approve of my (fictional) character’s jam making abilities, Anglophile leanings, myopic views et all is of course a matter of opinion but on the more serious allegation of demeaning and insulting a certain marginalized section of society in other words the child-like coolies with their mai-baaping, I have to defend myself. A wee bit of research on the history of tea plantation management and the labor recruitment would clarify everything. There is plenty written on the subject and I have listed some books in the acknowledgments section of Teatime for the Firefly. One book in particular I would especially recommend: “Tea: the drink that changed the world by John Griffiths” where there is a whole chapter actually titled “Ma-Bap” (no kidding) FYI it’s Chapter 8 page 166. Hopefully that will explain the tea labor management culture to your satisfaction and you will not think the coolie infantilizing is a figment of this author’s bigoted imagination.
    Once again, thanks for your review. My curry may not be your curry but thankfully there are plenty of good books in the world: that way we can each find something to savor and enjoy.
    Peace and cheers ☺ Shona

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  13. Ridley
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 13:50:32

    @Shona Patel:

    A wee bit of research on the history of tea plantation management and the labor recruitment would clarify everything.

    *grabs popcorn* *settles in*

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  14. SonomaLass
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 14:25:35

    I don’t get the impression from this review that Sunita thinks “coolie infantilizing” is something the author thought up. Rather, that it was an attitude exhibited by SOME in the historical period in question, and the book chooses only to depict that attitude, not anything that might challenge it. So evidence that some plantation owners indeed thought of their workers this way does not really get at the point, which is that there were people in that time who knew better, and it would be easy for the book to show that, or at the least to show behavior on the part of the laborers that calls the stereotype into question. That the book doesn’t do that means, to me, that the book endorses that view, which is a different thing than character(s) doing so.

    To me, this sounds right up there with happy singing slaves on US plantations, as depicted in a number of novels, and the horrible Jewish moneylender in The Grand Sophy. Racist stereotyping is not, in my opinion, excused by historical context — while it makes absolute sense to have some (most, even) characters in the book exhibit the dominant prejudice of their time and place, the depictions of the characters being stereotyped does not need to reinforce the prejudice. That choice makes it a book I’m not interested in reading, and I appreciate the heads-up.

    I’ve had The Raj Quartet on my radar before, but I didn’t know about Staying On. Thanks!

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  15. MrsJoseph
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 14:34:32

    @Shona Patel: Or you may have tried to do a better job in making your point as the writer.

    If you need to direct people to OTHER books for your book to work…it’s a FAIL. If I wanted to do research on Tea Plantations, I would do so. I would not pick up your fictional book.

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  16. Sunita
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 15:16:08

    @Shona Patel: I have no objection to authors commenting on my reviews of their books, although it is generally the case that DA’s readers prefer the author not participate. But this review has been available for comment for some time, so I don’t think issues of feeling inhibited by the author’s presence are especially germane now.

    A wee bit of research on the history of tea plantation management and the labor recruitment would clarify everything. There is plenty written on the subject and I have listed some books in the acknowledgments section of Teatime for the Firefly.

    There certainly is. I perused the list in the back of your book when I finished reading the story. I’ll note for DA’s readers that Gee and Corbett were primarily naturalists (and very esteemed ones), Warren was a British officer, and Griffiths is a non-specialist who has written on a variety of subjects. His bibliography is, with a couple of exceptions, dated or dependent on commercial publications rather than current scholarship.

    Current scholarship, as available either through JSTOR or mainstream publications like Economic and Political Weekly, present quite a different picture of labor and social relationship on tea plantations. This is not surprising, because scholars and analysts of these issues tend to be attentive to both labor and capital’s interests and identity concerns.

    I wrote my first peer-reviewed scholarly article on ethnic conflict in Assam more years ago than I care to remember. I’m relatively familiar with Bengali-Assamese economic and social issues in that state, on and off tea plantations. I’m also quite familiar with maa-baap as a concept and practice, given my first language was Gujarati and I’ve written extensively on colonial history and politics in India. The term is not limited to tea plantations.

    you will not think the coolie infantilizing is a figment of this author’s bigoted imagination.

    As SonomaLass correctly observes above, I don’t think this is a figment of your imagination or the imagination of your sources. I don’t object to its appearance in the novel, since it was a common perception on the part of management about how labor relations worked. What I find problematic is the uncritical presentation of this attitude as portrayed by characters with whom the reader is supposed to sympathize, and the lack of any suggestion that this might not have been a view shared fully by laborers.

    My own research, on Assam and on poor and marginalized populations more generally, has found that superiors frequently misinterpret the attitudes and emotions of their subordinates. I felt it was important to draw attention to the lack of self-awareness that this might be the case, both in terms of the overall representation in the text and through Layla.

    I did not assume that Layla was a stand-in for the author and I have no idea what your own feelings about Assamese tea plantation workers and their families might be. I don’t know you. I read your book and I was careful in my review to limit my comments to the text. I discussed the effects of authorial choices as they arose in my reading, but I cannot know why you made those choices and I have no desire to speculate.

    Once again, thanks for your review.

    You’re welcome. As I said in the review, I found parts of it engaging and the depiction of the countryside frequently quite lovely.

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