Jodi Kessler talks to Shona Patel about TEATIME FOR THE FIREFLY
Jodi: I just read TEATIME. Loved it. How in the world did you ever conceive of the plot?
Shona: Oh gosh, that is a story in itself! I started out wanting to make a documentary film on the history of the Mariani Planters Club. This club was (actually still is) a watering hole for Assam tea planters– a mad, colorful bunch, they are! I raked up contacts and chatted with dozens of ex-planters from all over the world: Scotland, Australia, England and India all in their 70’s 80’s and 90’s. I drove them crazy with my questions and ended up with a pile of notebooks documenting their stories. Then I got an excellent cinematographer on board and pitched the project to a film company. The film company said it was a fascinating project but a tough sell. The US economy was in the doo-doos and all funding had evaporated. Also the subject was too exotic, too niche. The gal I was talking to must have sensed my disappointment because she said, you have rich material for a book so why don’t you write one? You are a good storyteller, I can tell by the way you talk. That’s how Teatime came about. Good material, bad economy and Shona moping around because nobody went gaga about her movie project
Jodi: Did you try for funding in India? I am sure tea companies would have been interested in sponsoring this documentary?
Shona: I was reluctant to do that. Commercial sponsors push their own agenda. It changes the nature of independent film making and takes the creative edge out of it. You lose purity of purpose. What is happening in the Assam tea industry today is not very flattering and I wanted to be truthful in what I depicted. Don’t worry, I have not given up on the film project. It’s just on the back burner for now.
Jodi: TEATIME is a love story set in Assam. You seem to have veered off the Mariani Club idea altogether. What made you choose fiction over non-fiction, given you had all this great research material?
Shona: I am not sure if I want to write non-fiction or even if I am capable. Creative non-fiction maybe. I have a crazy imagination and tend to add “masala” to stories and could get me into loads of trouble. Besides, I always wanted to tell the story of my parents and the setting and historical timeline was a nice fit. Mind you, the story of Layla and Manik is highly imagined. Some bits are true and many details have been taken from my father’s wonderful love letters to my mother during their courting days.
Jodi: Tell me more about your parents.
Shona: My dad was a well-known tea planter. He was one of the very first Indian planters in a very colonial world and a gritty kind of personality –very skinny, tough as nails, deceptively mild looking. Ravi Lai, who worked as a young assistant under him in the early 60’s told me “you dad was like an iron fist in a velvet glove.” He described my mom as a “knockout beauty”. Mom did have a fragile loveliness but also a mind of her own. Quite a pair, they were, my parents. They spent their early married life a remote tea plantation in Assam with the man-eating leopards, elephants, flood and earthquakes – so all that in TEATIME FOR THE FIREFLY is from real life. So are the riots and the political bloodbath and the very surreal train journey my mother (Layla) took on a ghost train to be with my wounded father. TEATIME falls short trying to capture their incredible life. I feel like an ant trying to scale the Himalayas. Overcrowding and pacing were the big challenges in this novel.
Jodi: Are your characters molded on real people? Like say the bossy aunt, the yoda-like grandfather and that crazy Jimmy Morrison. Your novel has great characters!
Shona: All characters are inspired by real people to some extent but I have taken quirks and details from here and there and “stitched” woven them all together. The story came together organically. Layla being a bad luck child, her mother drowning in the lily pond etc are all made up.
Jodi: Whew! Can we take a tea break? Let’s cover the rest in another session.
Shona: That’s a great idea. Let me put the kettle on.