TEATIME FOR THE FIREFLY
shona patelCopyright©2013 by Shona Patel. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A
“Early in the day it was whispered that
we should set sail in a boat, only thou and I,
and never a soul in the world would know of this our
pilgrimage to no country and to no end.”
Rabindranath Tagore (From Gitaljali)
My name is Layla and I was born under an unlucky star. The time and place of my birth makes me a Manglik. For a young girl growing up in India in the 1940’s, this is bad news. The planet Mars is predominant in my Hindu horoscope and this angry, red planet makes people rebellious and militant by nature. Everyone knows I am astrologically doomed and fated never to marry. Marriages in our society are arranged by astrology and nobody wants a warlike bride. Women are meant to be the needle that stitches families together, not the scissor that cuts.
But every thing began to change for me on April 7th, 1943.
Three things happened that day: Boris Ivanov, the famous Russian novelist, slipped on a tuberose at the grand opening ceremony of a new school, fell, and broke his leg; a baby crow fell out of its nest in the mango tree; and I, Layla Roy, aged fifteen years and three days, fell in love with Manik Deb.
The incidents may have remained unconnected, like three tiny droplets on a lily leaf. But the leaf tipped and the drops rolled into one. It was a tiny shift in the cosmos, I believe, that tipped us together—Boris Ivanov, the baby crow, Manik Deb, and me.
It was the inauguration day of the new school: a rainy-sunshine day, I remember well, delicate and ephemeral–the kind locals here in Assam call “jackal wedding days.” I am not sure where the saying comes from, or whether it means good luck or bad, or perhaps a little bit of both. It would seem as though the sky couldn’t decide whether to bless or bemoan the occasion—quite ironic, if you think about it, because that is exactly how some people felt about the new English girls’ school opening in our town.
The demonstrators, on the other hand, were pretty much set in their views. They gathered outside the school gates in their patriotic white clothes, carrying banners with misspelled English slogans like: “INDIA FOR INDANS” and “STOP ENGLIS EDUCATON NOW.”
Earlier that morning, my grandfather, Dadamoshai, the founder of the girls’ school, had chased the demonstrators down the road with his large, formidable umbrella. They had scattered like cockroaches and sought refuge behind the holy banyan tree.
“Retarded donkeys! Imbeciles!” Dadamoshai yelled, shaking his umbrella at the sky. “Learn to spell before you go around demonstrating your nitwit ideas.”
Dadamoshai was a strong advocate of English education and nothing irked him more than the massacre of the English language. The demonstrators knew better than to challenge him. They were just rabble-rousers anyway, stuffed with half-baked ideas by local politicians who knew what to rile against, but not what to fight for. Nobody wanted to butt heads with Dadamoshai. He had once been the most formidable District Judge in the state of Assam. With his mane of flowing hair, his long, sure stride, and deep oratorical voice, he was an imposing figure in our town and people respectfully stepped aside when they saw him coming. To most people he was known simply as the Rai Bahadur, an honorary title bestowed on him by the British for his service to the crown. There was even a road named after him: the Rai Bahadur Road. It’s a very famous road in our town road and anybody can direct you there, yet it appears unnamed on municipal maps because it does not lead to any place and dead ends in a river over which there is no bridge. The Rai Bahadur Road is just that: a beginning and an end unto itself.
* * *
When I arrived at the school that morning the demonstrators were a sorry lot. It had rained some more and the cheap ink from their banners had run, staining their white clothes. What was even sadder was that somebody had tried to hand-correct the spellings with a blue fountain pen. Somewhere down the line, they had simply lost heart. They sat listlessly on their haunches and smoked cigarettes while their limp banners leaned sadly against the wall.
One of them nudged the other when he saw me coming. I heard him say, “It’s her, look—the Rai Bahadur’s granddaughter!”
I must have rekindled their patriotism because they grabbed their banners and blocked my entrance to the school. “No English! India for Indians! No English!” they shouted.
I was wondering how to get past them when I remembered something Dadamoshai told me. Use your mind, Layla, it is the most powerful weapon you have. I continued to walk towards them and pointed my mind like a sword. It worked: they parted to let me through. The gate shut behind me and I walked down the graveled driveway to the new school building. It was an L-shaped structure, freshly whitewashed, with a large unpaved playground and three tamarind trees. Piles of construction debris lay pushed to one side.
The voices of young girls chirruped on the verandah. Students aged nine or ten sat cross-legged on the floor, stringing together garlands of marigold and tuberose to decorate the stage for the inauguration ceremony.
“Layla!” Miss Rose called out from a classroom as I walked past. I peeked through the door. Rose Cabral was sitting at the teacher’s desk, sorting through a pile of printed programs. There was a large world map tacked to the back wall and the room smelled overwhelmingly of varnish. Miss Rose, as she was called, was a young Anglo-Indian teacher with chestnut brown hair and pink cat-eyed glasses with diamond accents. The small fry of the school swooned with adoration for her and wanted to lick her like a lollipop.
Miss Rose was about to say something when she sneezed daintily. “Oh dear,” she said, wiping her nose on a pink handkerchief edged with tatting lace. “I don’t know if it’s the varnish or this fickle weather. Layla, my! How you have grown! What a lovely young woman you are. Are you still being privately tutored by Miss. Johnson, dear?”
“Yes,” I said. “I have my matriculation exams this year.”
“So you must be all ready to get married now, eh? Suitors must be lining up outside your door.”
“Oh no—no, I don’t plan to get married. I want to go to college, actually,” I said quickly. I did not tell her that marriage was not in my cards. It would be hard to explain to her why being born under a certain ill-fated star could negate your chances of finding a husband.
A tiny, round-shouldered girl with thick braids had arrived and was standing, pigeon-toed and fidgeting, in the doorway.
“Yes, what is it, Malika?” Miss Rose said.
“Miss…miss. . .”
“Speak up, child.”
“We have no more white flowers, Miss Rose.”
“Tuberose? I thought we had plenty. Alright, I am coming.” Miss Rose sighed, bunching up her papers. “I better go and see what’s going on. Oh, Layla, there’s a packet of rice powder for you lying on the secretary’s desk in the principal’s office. I suppose you know what it is for?”
“It’s for the alpana I am painting in the entryway,” I said. Miss Rose looked blank, so I explained. “You know, the white designs you see painted on the floor–” I made curlicue shapes in the air, “at Indian weddings and religious ceremonies?”
“Ah, yes. So intricate. Boris Ivanov will like that. He loves Indian art. I hope you have brought your brushes or whatever you need; we don’t have anything here, you know.”
“I don’t need brushes,” I said. “I just use my fingers and a cotton swab. I have that. Miss Rose, is my grandfather still here?”
“He left for the courthouse an hour ago. Said to tell you he will be home for lunch. Boris Ivanov’s train is running three hours late. Let me know if you need anything, Layla. I am here all afternoon. ”
It was close to lunchtime when I got the alpana done, so instead of going to the library as I had planned, I went home. Dadamoshai’s house was a fifteen-minute walk from the school. I went past the holy banyan tree and saw that the protestors had abandoned their banners behind it. The tree was over two hundred years old, massive and gnarled, with thick roots that hung down from the branches like the dreadlocks of demons. In its hollowed root base was a collection of faded gods surrounded by tired marigold garlands. I walked pass the stench of the fish market, the idling rickshaws at the bus stand, and the three crooked tea stalls that supported one another like drunken brothers, till I came to a four-way crossing, where I turned right on to the Rai Bahadur Road.
It was an impressive road, man-made and purposeful: not like the fickle pathways in town, that changed directions with the rain and got bullied by groundcover. The road to my grandfather’s house was wide and tree-lined, with Gulmohor Flame Trees planted at regular intervals: exactly thirty feet apart. Their leafy branches criss-crossed overhead to form a magnificent latticed archway. On summer days the road was flecked with gold, and spring breezes showered down a torrent of vermillion petals that swirled and trembled in the dust like wounded butterflies. Rice fields on either side intersected in quilted patches of green to fade into the shimmering haze of the bamboo grove. Up ahead, the river winked over the tall embankment where fishing nets lay drying on bamboo poles silhouetted against the noonday sun.
I adjusted my eyes. Was that a tall man standing under the mango tree by our front gate? It was indeed. Even at that distance, I could tell he was a foreigner, just by his stance. His legs planted wide, shoulders thrown back, he had that ease of body some foreigners have. I was curious. What was he doing? His hands were folded together and he was gazing up at the branches with what appeared to be deep piety. Oddly enough, it looked like the foreigner was praying to the mango tree!
The man heard me coming and glanced briefly in my direction. He must have expected me to walk on by, but when I stopped at our gate, he looked at me curiously. He was a disconcertingly attractive man in a poetic kind of way, with long, finger-raked hair and dark and steady eyes behind black-framed glasses. A slow smile wavered and tugged at the corners of his mouth.
When I saw what he was holding in his cupped hands, I realized I had misjudged his piety. It was a baby crow.
“You live in the Rai Bahadur’s house?” he asked pleasantly. He spoke impeccable Bengali, with no trace of a foreign accent. I figured he must be an Indian who probably lived abroad.
“Yes,” I said.
The man was obviously unschooled in the nuances of our society, because he stared at me candidly with none of the calculated deference and awkwardness of Indian men. I could feel my ears burning.
The crow chick struggled feebly in his hand. It stretched out a scrawny neck and opened its yellow-rimmed beak, exposing a pink, diamond-shaped mouth. It was bald except for a light grey fuzz over the top of its head. Its blue eyelids stretched gossamer thin over yet unopened eyes.
“We have a displaced youngster,” the man said, glancing at the chick. “Any idea what kind of bird this is?”
“It’s a baby crow,” I replied, marveling how gently he held the tiny creature. It had nodded off to sleep, resting its yellow beak against his thumb. He had nicely shaped fingernails, I noticed.
I pointed up at the branches. “There’s a nest up that mango tree.”
He was not looking at the tree, but at my hand. “What’s that?” he asked suddenly.
“Wh-where?” I jerked back my hand and saw I had traces of the white rice paste still ringed around my fingernails. “Oh,” I said, curling my fingers into a ball, “that’s. . . that’s just from the alpana decoration I was doing at the school.”
“Are you related to the Rai Bahadur?”
“He is my grandfather.”
“Is this the famous English girls’ school everybody is talking about? What’s going on?”
“Today is the grand opening,” I said. “A Russian dignitary is coming to cut the ribbon.”
“Boris Ivanov?” he asked.
I stared at him. “How did you know?”
“Not many Russians floating around this tiny town in Assam, are there? I am well acquainted with Ivanov.”
I wanted to ask more, but refrained.
He tilted his head, squinting up at the branches, then pushed his sliding glasses back up his nose with his arm. The chick woke up with a sharp ‘cheep’ that startled us both. “Ah, I see the nest. Maybe I should try and put this little fellow back,” he said.
“You are going to climb the mango tree?” I asked a little incredulously. The man looked too civilized to climb trees. His shirt was too white and he wore city shoes.
“Looks easy enough.” He looked up and down the branches like he was calculating his foothold. He grinned suddenly, a deep crease softening the side of his face. “If I fall, you can laugh and tell all your friends.”
I had no friends, but I did not tell him that.
“There’s not much point, really,” I hesitated, wondering how I was going say this without sounding too heartless. “You see, this is very common. Baby crows get pushed out of that nest every year by. . .” I moved closer to the tree, shaded my eyes and looked up, then gestured him over. “See that other chick? Stand right where I am standing. Can you see it?”
We were standing so close his shirtsleeve brushed my arm. I could smell the starch mingled with faint sweat and a hint of tobacco. My head reeled slightly.
He tilted his head. “Ah yes, I see the sibling,” he said.
“That’s not a sibling, it’s a baby koel.”
His face drew a blank.
“The Indian cuckoo. Don’t you know anything about koels?”
“I am afraid not,” he said, looking bemused. “But I beg to be educated. Before that, I need to put our friend down someplace; I am getting rather tired of holding him.” He looked around, then walked over to the garden wall and set the baby crow down on the ground. It belly-waddled into a shady patch and stretched out its scrawny neck, cheeping plaintively.
I was about to speak when a cloud broke open and a sheet of golden rain shimmered down. We both hurried under the mango tree. There we were all huddled cozily together—the man, the chick, and me.
A cycle rickshaw clattered down the road. It was fat Mrs. Ghosh, squeezed in among baskets and bundles, on her way home from the fish market. She looked at us curiously, her eyes bulging slightly, perhaps wondering to herself: Am I seeing things? Is that the Rai Bahadur’s granddaughter with a young man under the mango tree? This was going to be big news, I could tell, because everybody in town knew that the Rai Bahadur’s granddaughter avoided the opposite sex like a Hindu avoids beef.
The cloud passed and the sun winked back, and I hurried out from under the tree. To cover up my embarrassment, I launched into an involved lecture on the nesting habits of koels and crows.
“The koel, or Indian cuckoo, is a brood parasite,” I said. “A bird that lays its egg in the nest of another. Like that crow’s nest up there.” I pointed upward with my right hand and then, remembering my crummy fingernails, switched to my left hand. “See how sturdy the nest is? Crows are really clever engineers. They pick the perfect intersections of branches and build the nest with strong twigs. They live in that same nest for years and years.”
“Are their marriages as stable as their nests?” the man winked, teasing me. “Do they last as long?”
“That. . .that I don’t know,” I said, twisting the end of my saree. I wished he would not look at me like that.
“I am only teasing; oh, please go on.”
I took a deep breath and tried to collect myself. “The koel is a genetically aggressive bird. When it hatches, it pushes the baby crows out from the nest, eats voraciously and becomes big and strong. Then it flies off singing into the trees. The poor crows are so baffled.”
The man smiled as he pushed around a pebble with the toe of his shoe. He wore nicely polished brown shoes of expensive leather with small, diamond-shaped, pinpricked patterns.
“And what do the koels do, having shamelessly foisted their offspring onto another?” he asked, quirking an eyebrow.
“Ah, koels are very romantic birds,” I said, “They sing and flirt in flowering branches all summer long, with not a care in the world.”
“Depends how you look at it,” I said, watching him carefully, because I was about to lay the symbolism on thick. “Koels sing and bring joy to the whole world. In some ways they serve a greater good, don’t you think? And getting the crows to raise their chicks is actually quite brilliant.”
“How is that?” he asked, looking at me curiously.
“Well, not all creatures are cut out for domesticity. Some make better parents than others. The chick grows up to be healthy and independent. In many ways, the koels are giving their offspring the best shot at life.”
“Interesting theory,” he said thoughtfully.
He sighed and turned his attention to the baby crow. It lay completely still, breathing laboriously, its flaccid belly distended to one side, beak slightly open. He squatted down and nudged it gently with his forefinger. The chick struggled feebly, opened its mouth and uttered a tiny cheep.
“Still alive,” he said dispassionately. “So what do we do? Just leave it here to die?” I shrugged. “It’s the cat’s lunch.”
He looked at me in a playful sort of way. “Please don’t say you are always so cruel,” he said softly.
I turned and looked out at the distant rice fields where a flock of white cranes was circling to land. “I used to try and save baby crows all the time when I was child,” I said. “But Dadamoshai said I was messing with nature. He thinks we need more songbirds and less scavengers.”
The man stood up and dusted his hands, and then smiled broadly. “I just realized we’ve had a long and involved discussion and I don’t even know your name!”
“Lay-la,” he repeated softly, stretching it out. “I’m Manik Deb. Big admirer of the Rai Bahadur. Actually, I just dropped by the house and left him a note on the coffee table. Will you please see he gets it?”
“I will do that.”
“Goodbye, Layla,” Manik said. “Thanks for the lesson on ornithology. It was most enlightening.”
With that, he turned and walked off down the road toward the river. A thin sheet of golden rain followed Manik Deb, but he did not turn around to see it chasing behind him.
* * *
On the verandah coffee table there was a crushed cigarette stub and a used matchstick in the turtle-shaped brass ashtray. Tucked under the ashtray was a note folded in half, written on the bottom portion of a letterhead that Manik Deb had borrowed from Dadamoshai’s desk. The note was addressed to my grandfather, penned in an elegant, slanted hand:
7th April 1943
Dear Rai Bahadur,
I took a chance and dropped by. I am trying to contact Boris Ivanov and I understand that he is staying with you. Could you please tell him that I would like to meet with him? He knows where to get in touch with me.
I took the folded note and placed it on my grandfather’s desk on top of his daily mail. That way he would see it first thing when he got home.
Later that day, at lunch, I watched my grandfather carefully as he sat across from me. Had he read the note? Who was Manik Deb?
Dadamoshai took his mealtimes very seriously. He always sat very prim and straight at the dining table, like he was a distinguished guest at the Queen’s formal banquet. Most days he and I ate alone. We sat across from each other at the long, mahogany dining table designed for twelve. All the formal dining chairs were gone except four. The others lay scattered about in the verandah, marked with tea stains, their rich brocade fading in the sun. My grandfather had a constant stream of visitors whom he received mostly in the verandah, and it was often that we ran out of chairs.
Dadamoshai had just bathed and smelled of bittersweet neem soap. His usual flyaway hair was neatly combed back from his tall forehead, the comb marks visible like a rake pulled through snow. He was dressed in his home clothes: a crisp white kurta and checkered lungi, a pair of rustic clogs on his feet. His Gandhi-style glasses lay folded neatly by his plate. His bushy brows were furrowed as he deboned a piece of hilsa fish on his plate with the concentration of a micro surgeon. Unlike Indians who ate rice with their fingers, Dadamoshai always used a fork and spoon, a habit he had picked up from his England days. The dexterity with which he removed minuscule bones from Bengali curried fish without ever using his fingers was a feat worth watching.
“A man came by to see you this morning, Dadamoshai,” I said nonchalantly, but I was overdoing it, I could tell. I helped myself to the rice and clattered noisily with the serving spoon.
Dadamoshai did not reply. I wondered if he had heard me.
“Ah, yes,” he said finally, “Manik Deb. Rhodes scholar from Oxford and…” he paused to tap a hair-thin fish bone with his fork to the rim of his plate, “Bimal Sen’s future son-in-law.”
“Kona’s…fiancé?” I was incredulous with shock.
“Yes,” said Dadamoshai, banging the saltshaker on the dining table. The salt had clumped with the humidity. He shook his head. “That Bimal Sen should think of educating his daughter instead of palming her off onto a husband. With money, you can buy an educated son-in-law, even a brilliant one like Manik Deb; but the fact remains, your daughter’s head is going to remain empty as a green coconut.”
I was feeling very disconcerted. Bimal Sen was the richest man in town. The family lived four houses down from us, in an ostentatious strawberry pink mansion rumored to have three kitchens, four verandahs with curving balustrades, and a walled-in courtyard with half a dozen peacocks strutting in the yard. The Sens were a business family, very traditional and conservative. Kona was rarely seen alone in public. Her mother, Mrs. Sen, was built like a river barge and towed her daughter around like a tiny dinghy. I remembered Kona vaguely as a moonfaced girl with downcast eyes. I knew she had been engaged to be married since she was a child. It was an arranged match between the two families, but I had not expected her to marry the likes of Manik Deb. It was like pairing a stallion with a cow.
“Is he Bengali?” I finally asked. Had I known Manik Deb was Kona’s fiancé, I would have avoided talking to him, let alone engaging in silly banter about koels and crows. My ears burned at the memory.
“Oh, yes. He is a Sylheti like us,” Dadamoshai said. “The Debs are a well-known family of Borishol. Landowners. I knew Manik’s father from my Cambridge days. We passed our bar at the Lincoln Inn together.”
Borishol was Dadamoshai’s ancestral village in Sylhet, East Bengal, across the big Padma River. The Sylhetis were evicted from their homeland by Muslim invaders in 1917. Once displaced, they became river people. Like the water hyacinth, their roots never touched the ground, but grew instead towards one another. Wherever they settled, they were a close-knit community. You could tell they were river people just by the way they called out to one another. It could be just across the fence in someone’s backyard, but their voices carried that lonely sound that spanned vast waters. It was the voice of displacement and loss, the voice that sought to connect with a brother from a lost homeland—and the voice that led Dadamoshai to connect with Manik Deb’s father in England.
“A most extraordinary young man, this Manik Deb,” Dadamoshai was saying, helping himself to some rice.
“How so?” I asked. My appetite was gone, but my stomach gnawed with questions.
“Well, what makes Manik Deb—like you say—so extraordinary?” I tried to feign non-interest, but my voice squeaked with curiosity. I absent-mindedly shaped a hole in the mound of rice on my plate.
“He has an incisive, analytical mind, for one thing. Manik Deb has joined the Civil Service. His is the kind of brains we need for our new India.”
Chaya, our housekeeper, had just entered the dining room with a bowl of curds. She was a slim woman with soft brown eyes and a disfiguring burn scar that fused the skin on the right side of her face like smooth molten wax. It was an acid burn. When Chaya was sixteen, she had fallen in love with a Muslim man. The Hindu villagers killed her lover, and then flung acid on her face to mark her as a social outcast. Dadamoshai had rescued Chaya from a violent mob and taken her into his custody. What followed was a lengthy and controversial court case. Several people went to jail.
Dadamoshai turned to address her. “Chaya, Boris sahib will be having dinner with us tonight. Please remember to serve the good rice and prepare everything with less spice.”
With that, Dadamoshai launched on a long discussion of menu items suitable for Boris Ivanov’s meal, and Manik Deb was left floating, a bright pennant in the distant field of my memory.
TEATIME FOR THE FIREFLY is Shona Patel’s debut novel to be published by MIRA BOOKS in October 2013. Shona Patel is represented by April Eberhardt Literary.
Very interesting account, I have to say, for many Indians closely or romantically involved with the idea of tea gardens of Assam, Darjeeling or the Doars. Also very interesting to read about the Sylhetis of the then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, when whence my maternal grandfather too migrated to Shillong, in 1936 to teach at St Edmund’s College and also take on the role of Headmaster of Jail Road Boys High School. The mathematician, Srish Chandra Gupta hailed from Birathi, in Sylhet district.
This book will take many of us back to fond memories, of places, things and deeds, we only heard about as children born in independent India, with roots in Bangladesh.
Much scholarly work is being done on Sylhet and Sylhetis, in New Delhi, india.
Fascinating Ms Shona Patel, my dearest boarding school friend! Best of luck to you, always.
Dear Ms Patel,
I would watch out for this book surely because of the romance angle. I am a little surprised though, that a fifteen year old girl, in 1943 could stand and speak to a gentleman for quite a long time. Were those days not like Victorian England, where neither the man or the lady, even looked at each other’s eyes too long, and men passed comments of shy women, by saying – I wish I was a pen, just because she was seen with a pen tucked on her blouse, when she at a young age wore only a sari?
I wish to bring to your kind notice, these lines which are a formatting problem only –
L-shaped structure, freshly whitewashed, with a large unpaved playground and three tamarind trees. Piles of construction debris lay pushed to one side.”
The space must be deleted between “an and L-shaped etcetera…
Waiting to be able to read the rest of the book.
Layla’s character comes to light as the novel unwinds. She is an early feminist of her day because she was hand reared by her grandfather who saw her as a poster child for the womens’ emancipation movement he was a part of. Layla is a rebel and a recluse. She vowed never to marry until of course she met Manik Deb…
Thanks for pointing the formatting error.
Very Impressive Shona….this is one of your many hidden talents! Let me know when I can buy a copy!
Love & hugs!
Many thanks, will keep you in the loop. 🙂
You weave the intriguing tapestry of your story with the precise warp and woof of lovely prose. I’m eager to read the rest! Char Bishop, Arizona Novel Writers Workshop.
Many thanks for your kind comments, Char. I will keep you posted. Good luck with your writing.
Very interesting!!! Keep me in your loop to when it is ready for the signing…I willthere along with my friends…very well done Shona.. Joan-Ponie…
Shona, this is so rich and full. Such a natural storyteller, you have quite the pair of eyes…and the 3rd one is something, too 🙂 Your love for this place and for this time comes surging through like a river, so easy, so right, so sure. Humour, infectious characters, the silly and the serious…Your words fly by. What’s more, there is music in your language, and beautiful imagery, too.
Fantastic. Glad i found you and your blog.
That is very generous of you, Kathryn. Many thanks. I am glad I connected with you too. I have bookmarked your blog: looking forward to reading your posts.
Shona-love the first chapter-promise of things to come! So proud of you and now as a writer too!Wow!!
You are a natural storyteller, Shona and have a wonderful descriptive way with words. Layla’s character and personality are starting to shine through already in the first chapter leaving me thirsting for the rest of the book.
A natural raconteur. Shona, I am amazed and impressed with this literary talent of yours. You have an incredible way with words, that are so graphic and descriptive. As an erstwhile Tea Planter and having worked under your Papa’s tutelage, I look forward to reading the rest of the book as it promises to be a best seller one day. Congratulations.
Somehow reading the first chapter brought back flood of memories of my days in Assam, her lovely people, good natured, friendly and just so loveable.
This is the first time I could get an insight in the nature and behaviours of the ‘Sylhotis”. I remember an old saying that there are only two places to live on earth. One is ‘Bilayat and the other is ‘Silhayat”
“…there are only two places to live on earth. One is ‘Bilayat and the other is ‘Silhayat”
Vijai- indeed this is a hilarious saying back from the old days but known only to old-timers. It is even funnier when you say it in slyheti. The first time I heard this phrase I laughed like hell and I still smile every time I think of this because it sums up the attitude of shyhetis so well. Thanks very much for your comments.
Shona, I love it. More, more, more!! I am completely sucked in to that world. I love Layla and I can’t wait to see what she will do. Manik Deb is captivating. The place unfolds, lush and real and all the characters are alive and authentic. I am impressed and excited!! Thanks so much for sharing this with me – I am posting to my fb!!
Many thanks Kelly!
Look forward to reading a book which is not only written by someone who’s not only familiar with Assam , but also about Sylhetis. I’m not ; but since my mother is a native of Cachar, she grew up with Sylheti friends & family friends ( me too) and am familiar with Sylheti humour & down-to-earthness. My father graduated from M.C. College in Sylhet, but unlike my mother, he was not fluent in Sylheti lingo. As an infant, I was mostly cradled in the arms of a Sylheti nanny whom my siblings & I called ” Shefali Maashi “. The affection continued till her deathbed and even in her last paralytic days ( during my teenage) she called me mostly by endearing names which she did ever since I started lisping and not so much by my home name.
The Sylheti word brought back memories of familiar faces & sounds from my memories of Silchar, Haflong , Guwahati , Calcutta. Oh yes, I remember a Univ. student in New Delhi of Sylheti origin, who said that ” Sylheti is an apt language “. Do you agree ? I would say some words are certainly apt !
Look forward to reading your book in it’s entirety. With best wishes.
Many thanks Namrata. I very much appreciate your feedback as an “insider” to the Slyheti culture.
Shona. I can already tell thats its a book well written as you have a keen eye for detail. I am surely getting a copy. The fact that the setting is in Assam’s tea estate during the days of the british adds to the charm. You must have surely relived your days at Duklangia while writing the book ! I am sure I will have my moments while reading the book. To the cup that cheers !!
Many thanks for your kind words,Rick,
This book is more historical/research based – set in my parents era. The second book (which I am working on) deals more with my days in Ducklingia. I will keep you updated and cheers back to you!
I read the first chapter this morning while still in bed in California. Loved it and can’t wait for the book. When is it likely to be released? Also do you know how I might obtain a copy in the US?
I was born and raised in Bengal in a little town that still had remnants of the British Raj. Studied in Darjeeling in the late 70s. Your book resonates well with me and refreshes many fond memories.
I loved your little humorous nuances – “ Mrs. Sen, was built like a river barge and towed her daughter around like a tiny dinghy”. Such an apt description that made me chuckle.
Many thanks for your comment, Anita,
My agent is currently exploring the best way to roll out the release of “Teatime for the Firefly”. There are many readers eager to read it. I can see how you would relate to the setting and the story. I will update the status on this blog. If you follow it, you will be in the loop.
First the bungalow photos and their well selected captions, then the overall content and appearance of your blog, especially a very well-worded resume of yourself, then the alluring Title, and finally, the captivating and very well written first chapter – your flowing prose and understated sense of humour have left me in wonder and admiration.
I greatly look forward to reading “Tea Time For The Firefly” as well as the next novel you are already creating.
With Kind Regards & Best Wishes,
Arun Lall : Kolkata : 24th. March, 2012
Arun, many thanks for your kind an generous comments. It means a lot. I must say you have a very unusual name: Arundharee. I have heard of ArunDHATI!
Thank you for your most welcome reply, Shona. yes, my name is a bit unsusal. We originally hail from Bhagalpur, Bihar, though we’ve been settled in Kolkata for more than 50 years. All Males in our family have ‘dharee’ appended to their first names. it means ‘holder’. Going back 4 Generations, there was Girdharee, then Tilakdharee, then Kamaldharee, then my Father, Rajdharee, and eventually me : Arundharee. One meaning of Arun is ‘The Sun’, so metaphorically, my rather long first name is meant to mean “Holder of The Sun” ! For the sake of brevity and to my close friends, I just say : Arun.
Am now on the hunt for the wonderful book you have written, and am going to thoroughly enjoy reading it. Will certainly let you know once I have !
All the very best –
Thank you the the excellent explanation of your name. My book is not out yet. I will keep you updated on its release.
Thank you again, Shona. I’m glad my long-winded name is now enjoyably explained ! I greatly look forward to the release of your book, and like I said, i will treasure reading every bit of it !
With my very best wishes & warm regards,
I was very frustrated when I finished reading the first chapter…
…because I could not continue on with the rest of the book!
Looking forward to the final product. (^_^)
[Also, FWIW, I definitely prefer the dark cover to the lighter one. The yellow stain(?) evokes something unpleasant to me, which would lead me not to pick up the book in a store…]
Thank you for your feedback on the cover. I am still working on it. These are just for placement! I will keep you updated on the release of the book. Many readers are feeling your impatience and the pressure is on to get it out.
I look forward to reading your book. Is it published yet? I am the son of a tea planter and also born and raised in Assam. I can relate to the image you weave in your first chapter. The rice fields, the verandas, the gulmohor tree near the end of our lawn, rickshaws all bring alive again a very happy time in my life. I love this sneak peak and will definitely read your novel.
Incidentally, I was born at Doloo T.E. where my dad was a manager. When I was very young my family moved to Aynakhal T.E. All my memories are of living in Assam are at the bungalow at Aynakhal. I saw the old photo of a Tea estate bungalow and the caption mentioned Aynakhal. I’m curious about the coincidence. Did/Do you know anyone there? I’d love to connect via email or phone and chat.
I now live in US but miss the golden and sometimes rainy days of Aenakhall (that is how it is spelled officially)
Wonderful to connect with you. Many thanks for your kind words. I am sending you a private email so we can catch up. You will be tickled to know that Aenakhal Tea Estate was the first tea garden my father worked in (back in the 1940’s) I love the name AENAKHAL (Mirror Lake – how pretty is that!) and it is the name of the tea planation in my novel “Teatime for the Firefly.” I am compiling a gallery of old tea garden bungalow (see under the drop down “Tea” label on the header menu) Please send me any photos of bungalows you would like to include here.
Never had I imagined that I will come across the mention of Aenakhall T.E in this manner. It is very exciting and definitely tickling to read your response to my brother Piyush’s comment. It brings back loads of good memories. This place is very dear to us for many many reasons – one of them being the many mirror lakes nestled deep within the estate.
Looking forward to reading the book.
It’s a small world isn’t it? A lot of the Aenakhal of the story is in my imagination. It was the first tea garden my father worked in. My parents were newly married and much in love, so from my father’s letters I can tell, it was very romantic. Please send me a photo of the bungalow to post. I imagine the verandah thad red floors- did it?
A small world indeed…. Yes, you are right about the verandah floor. It used to be red and I believe the dining room and the drawing room floors were green. However, they got changed sometime in the 80’s.
I do have a photo of the bungalow and will send it to you soon. In the meantime, please do take a look at the aerial pictures of the bungalow and the factory. Its breathtaking…
I m working in aenakhall tea estate
plz snd me ur email address
I’ll snd u Patel sir pics
I wouldn’t have left a comment but it would be so unfair to not say anything in return to the joy you’ve given me.
I don’t read much…romantic stuff even lesser…but this is simply wonderful madam ! Marvelously refreshing. The imagery, the symbolism…it seems like you’ve put all the thoughts, theories and questions about the small things around us that I’ve had in my mind over the years into words…only in a much better and captivating manner. And you’ve even thought and written about some things that I hadn’t quite “noticed”.
Alka Patel sent me this link…we’ve met each other very recently over the internet but we do seem to have a common history…same school, her younger sister being my class-mate a few decades ago, etc.etc. By the way, I’m from a village called Borkhola…about 5 km from Doloo Tea Estate near Silchar. My family has been living there for well over 350 years now. We speak Sylheti at home but we’ve been here for so long that probably calling ourselves “Cachari” will be more correct. We still have Durga Puja at my place every year when the entire family descends for a week of festivities from all over. My grand father was a well-known zamindar/freedom fighter/post-independence MLC but one of his cousins was a Rai Bahadur. Obviously, the different political ideologies meant that the two families didn’t quite see eye to eye :)) He did admire the British for a lot of their good habits though…nice to see bits of all those memories come back to me through your story.
My best regards…will wait for the rest…
Thank you for the fascinating glimpse into your family’s history. I am not surprised you could relate to my book in more ways than one. And here is a sneek peek just for your ears: Layla’s parents were both freedom fighters (in the communist vein), but her grandfather Dadamoshai had a different ideology being a Rai Bahadur– very much like your family! Yes, you are a true Cachari. I can’t wait to share my book with you. I will keep you updated.
Truly enjoyed reading the first chapter and would love to read the rest when the book gets published! My parents have a close association with Cachar when they arrived in 1957 and worked firstly at Longai, and then at Labac Central Hospital till around 1965. When Duncan Bros sold Devan T.E to Jayshree Group, he was there for a year till he went to Panitola Hospital near Tinsukia.
My earliest friends were Sylettis and we would play football in our huge lawn at our Bungalow…even went to the local pathsala! My brother and sister attended school at Haflong briefly, and i used to love the shikars of Dad’s friends…all nostalgia!
I would love to try and learn about this area so as to relive my memories.
That’s right, our bungalow lawns were big enough to play football in. Those were the days! Don’t you think we had the best childhood, ever? So carefree, so much of the open outdoors is in our blood. We tea kids have have carried that free spirit into the wider world. I think we are very unique bunch. Thanks for your sharing.
Your first paragraph captivated me! I was so disappointed when the chapter came to an end. What a tease! I wanted to continue reading and not have to wait for the book to be published. Looking forward to reading your book in its entirety sooner rather than later!
P.S. It was very nice meeting you the other day.
So glad you enjoyed the first chapter. I will keep you updated on the book’s release. It was nice meeting you too. Please keep in touch. Shona
Waiting to get my copy signed by the author!
I’m rereading this, so that the minute chapter 2 is written, I am ready for it! It’s fabulous!
Much appreciated, Anjana. You are quite the poet yourself! I will definitely keep you updated. Many thanks!
Yes, surely, I do have something to say! I like the way it moves between the image of the scene and the events of the scene. I would definitely like to read the rest of it.
Even though I have never been to a tea estate, despite multiple trips to Guwahati, your ability to describe the town is enough to paint the image of the town in my head.
As a writer, my job is to take the picture from my head and put it in yours. And you say I have succeeded. Many thanks for your kind words. The tea garden part of the story happens halfway into the book. Book 2: which I am working on now is set entirely in the tea gardens.
Very nicely done. I just read about you in the SFWC Newsletter. I’m not sure if we met during those hectic few days, or if we passed in the hall on the way to a session, but I wanted to congratulate you on the pay off of a lot of hard work. Good luck with a great book!
Many thanks Daniel. SFWC worked out well for me. It’s a great conference. Are you going next year? Hope your writing is going well. Good luck with everything.
Shona – so at long last your book has ‘hatched’ and the opening chapter shows it is going to be captivating – a big shabash.
Many thanks Ali. You may recognize some of your “research” inputs in the following chapters!
I don’t know how the tale will unfold but Layla reminds me so much of Gibran’s Selma Karamy.
Like Khalil Gibran you weave your words so well.
So much said in such few words.
So much left for the reader to feel.
For a moment you ported me back in time.
I saw Layla blush as she hides her alpana stained fingers from Manik.
As you describe Dadamoshai’s entry I was reminded of the sweet fragrance as I lay cuddled in my grandfathers lap.
I could go on endlessly.
To sum it up I can’t wait to get my eyes on the rest of the book
What a sweet and touching compliment! Compliments such as these, I keep close to my heart. At times it is hard to know if I am successfully transferring what is in my head (as a writer) to the head of my reader. Does my reader see it as I do? My goal is to transpose images and emotions as seamlessly as I can without interfering with a good story. You say, I have succeeded. Thank you so much!
You knew I would love it, Shona Patel. You can’t fool me. “Read the first chapter,” you say. “Tell me even if you hate it,” you say. It’s just like that first cup of real Indian tea you offered to slack-jawed, uninitiated me. “Try it and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to finish it.” Well, I tried it (and I read it) and it’s bloody brilliant. That day in your kitchen, I left wondering why I didn’t drink amazing things like Assam tea every day, now I’m left wondering why I don’t read fiction as good as Teatime for the Firefly all the time.
Let me know when I can pre-order the book on Amazon and let me know when you’re making tea, I need a reminder of how good things can get.
Now THAT certainly made my day Miss Carol M. Kabat. Hugs to you!!
I’m as smitten with those planters’ bungalows as you are – look forward to finding your album of old pix online! It’s a great idea to start a story among them…I’m looking forward to the whole novel, later this year. Cautiously, tho – would anyone have thought of East Pakistan as a geographical location in 1943?
Hi Jason, here is the link to my Pintrest Board of tea garden bungalows
Thanks for visiting my blog. I have just sent you a private email with a question. Cheers!
It’s been a while since we last talked. Hope all is well.
I was telling someone about your book and decided to re-read the first chapter. I loved it…….again!
Your writing is so unhurried and natural. There is a lingering sense of mystery that seems to slowly unfold. First Novels, especially first chapters, have a tendency to pack it all in; they are often overdone. I think you strike the right balance. Well done. Can’t wait to read the book.
We are getting ready for publication (North America/Canada) in October.! It’s all very exciting. I will keep you in the loop. Hope all is well with you and yours. Cheers
Thank you Shona. Very interesting reading – cannot wait to read the book when it is available.
Love a good romantic novel with large amount of interesting history especially with first hand knowledge experience from Tea Gardens in India. Best Wishes. Sheila Patel
I am very honored you took the time to read the first chapter Sheila. I look forward to sharing my book with you.
Dear Shona, you’re really sona (gold) in the field of literature! I like your view “Women are meant to be the needle that stitches families together, not the scissor that cuts.” It’s finer than the view-point ” Wife is not a knife to cut the life but a spoon to feed her spouse” Wish you all success in your maiden venture.
Director, Global Peace Palace,
Author of “In the year of devil and the next venture “We were also human beings.”
Hello Mr. Kumar, I am not sure I deserve being called the “sona in the field of literature” (!!) but I do appreciate your kind compliment. 🙂 Shona
Hi Shona ,
Your book promises to be lovely, can’t wait to read the rest of it.My dad was posted in Assam during the eighties so most of my early childhood memories are of Assam.I grew up in a small oil township – duliajan, and it was beautiful growing up there even if occasionally scarred by violence (ulfa).
Thank you for your kind words. I am very familiar with Duliajan. Where do you live now? The Pub date for “Teatime for the Firefly” is 24th September in the US. I think it should release at the same time in UK and India and other countries as well. Right now the book can be pre-ordered on Amazon and Barnes & Nobel here in the US as well. If you know anyone in NYC please invite them for my book signing at the BookExpo America (Javits Center) on 31st May. I will be at the Harlequin Booth # 1238 between 10am-11am signing books. Thanks! Shona
I currently live in Jakarta, Indonesia.But I plan to move to UK soon , so if you have any events lined up there – do let me know.
I will definitely let my friends in NY know .
All the best !!
Will do, many thanks!
A mutual friend of ours, Peg, gave me the title of your book this morning. I read the first chapter and can’t wait to read the rest. You have been blessed with great talents: singing, writing and cooking. I wish you the best in your endeavors.
Hi Shona! Gosh, i was transported into another world & just wanted to continue reading….. very beautifully written & am looking forward to the book. Lotsa love & best wishes!
Thanks Portia! Teatime will be out in India in November and available on Flipkart. You will find much that is familiar in this novel.Can’t wait to hear what you think about it! Cheers!