Teatime for the Firefly
I fell in love with the novels of M. M. Kaye during my teen years. I have never forgotten her vivid descriptions of India and the wonders she depicted on the pages of books such as The Far Pavilions and Shadow of the Moon. This novel picks up the tradition of writing about British Colonialism with that same romanticism mixed with realism that made her books so riveting.
Layla Roy was born under an unlucky star. The planet Mars is predominant in her Hindu horoscope, which means that she is seen as having a rebellious and militant nature. Since marriages in Hindu society are arranged by astrology and nobody wants a difficult bride this makes Layla unmarriageable. But if she is unlucky in love she is very lucky in family. Her forward thinking grandfather called Dadamoshai sees to it that she is raised to be educated and independent so that she may stand on her own, not ever needing a husband. This makes Layla a true rarity in her small community in 1940s India.
It is a time of great change for the country. Not only is WWII being fought – and indeed the Japanese have involved all Asia in the conflict – but within India a growing demand for freedom from the British Raj is a steadily burning flame. Layla and her grandfather embrace much of what Europe has brought to India – things such as education for girls, roads, an impartial judicial system and a universal language. But they are also strong supporters of a self-ruled India and work towards seeing a peaceful transition from colonial rule to an independent nation. Her grandfather’s house is a sort of salon for all those with open minds and an interest in critical thinking. Men like Manik Deb, Indian but educated in England, find themselves drawn to the lively discussions to be had on the veranda of Dadamoshai’s house.
Manik is the subject of Layla’s lovelorn fantasies. While he is engaged to another woman (via a typical arranged marriage contract signed by his family) he spends little time with his intended who lives down the street. Instead, he spends evenings on the veranda speaking with Dadamoshai and his guests. And Layla, for she too often takes part in these intellectual evenings. When Manik Deb leaves for his civil service job in Calcutta Layla is in some ways relieved to have the object of her illicit affections removed from her path.
She is therefore greatly surprised to receive a package from Manik, a volume of love poetry bound in red and gold, the colors of a wedding sari. She knows she shouldn’t accept a gift from another woman’s intended but the slim volume is placed under her pillow, where it colors her dreams with fantasies of love and hope.
When Manik leaves his civil service position to become a tea planter there is a great uproar in Layla’s small neighborhood. Work as a tea planter means signing a three year contract not to marry. Within days a friend of Manik’s brings a letter to Layla. It doesn’t speak of love but Layla responds and a lively correspondence begins. While this is happening Manik’s intended finds a new groom and calls off their engagement. The letters still don’t speak of love but Layla holds a slim hope in her heart that someday they will. And one day, when almost three years have passed, they do: a proposal comes via mail. A quick wedding – which is all that Manik’s schedule allows for – takes place and Layla heads to the jungles of Assam, where the world’s finest tea grows hidden away on isolated plantations.
Here Layla is made a part of the final corner of India where the last light that was the sun of the British Empire still glows brightly. The planters are a culture on to themselves, dressing for dinner and then rising early in the morning to battles leopards, elephants or whatever else threatens their precious plants. The senior wives are cool but welcoming to Layla, realizing her and Manik’s importance as a bridge between the old guard of the British Raj and the coming rule of independent India. The young wives are threatened by Layla’s beauty and the coming changes in regime her arrival heralds. As she learns to work within this peculiar insulated world she has found herself in she hears rumors of turmoil from her friends back home. And then those whispers alight into a fire that might very well burn Assam and all its precious tea plants – and all the people who work the exotic, spice filled fields of that strange but beautiful place.
India is the star of this novel. With its diverse cultures, fascinating horticulture, exotic and dangerous wild life, and blend of colonialism and patriotism it features front and center on every page. In many ways this book is like reading a beautifully written travel brochure which captures a place, a time and a people with poignancy and clarity rarely seen in any document. After a while you may forget the characters here but you will never forget this lush, living location.
Layla and Manik are the perfect people to tell this part of India’s story. Not only are they intelligent, kind, and considerate but they really do perfectly bridge the old world and the new. They love their country and take pride that all they see around them is theirs. They also appreciate all the British have done for India and all the things that embracing modernization will bring to India. They combine old fashioned elements of their culture with modern, world view thinking to form something brilliant and new.
Layla has some insecurity thanks to her unlucky stars but her unwillingness to let that rule her life makes her a strong, independent person. We are told often that the tea planters wives typically can’t stand the lifestyle and eventually leave but Layla is fascinated by, not frightened of her wild jungle existence and is quickly an exemplary planter’s wife. She also has genuine compassion for the people of that culture and becomes a heroine in the community as she uses her old connections to Indian culture to help her new ones.
Manik is a brave and tender man who personifies the new India. Wishing to forge his own way rather than rely on hundreds of years of tradition he makes great sacrifices so that he may choose his own bride. He also shows tenderness by manipulating that situation so that his arranged bride doesn’t look rejected but instead appears to have a lucky opportunity to fix a mistake. Manik uses this tenderness to his advantage in his own romance. Layla is a very shy and virginal bride. Manik does not push but instead spends a chaste wedding night as he slowly woos his wife. When the two do consummate the relationship it is true love making and not just sex. While it is far from explicit it is still the best love scene I have read in a long time. It exemplifies less as more and love deeply mixed with passion.
I should add that Manik has a small ding in his shining silver armor – or at least based on past experience a hot button issue for many readers. While he spends his three years unmarried on the isolated plantation he avails himself of company prostitutes. At the time they were not engaged, just friends, but I know that for some readers once the hero has set eyes on the heroine he is “unavailable” for any other kind of liaison so I wanted to give a heads up to anyone for whom this would be a potential problem. The scene was less than a few lines long and didn’t detract from the story at all for me.
I loved the main characters and the secondary characters impressed me as well. Layla’s forward thinking family serves as a very gentle contrast to the traditions and superstitions of the culture. Mima, the aunt who runs a boys school and marries an Englishman and cousin Moon, whose husband went on a hunger fast till she agreed to marry him, highlight the fact that not all Indian women fit easily into a pliant mold. They do this though without ever critiquing the women who do fit the mold and they are devoted to helping the women of India who need a hand, such as widows and the deformed.
The planters culture, which is a world onto itself, is filled with fascinating characters from the mad Jimmy to the shy, young Peewee, from the successful Memsahibs to the “cat club” that make up the younger brides, coolies, mistresses, pickers – all is captured here in its tarnished glory. The stories of the individuals are lovingly told and capture a bygone time and place beautifully.
The only quibble I had with this book is that on occasion the descriptions would go on a tad long, bogging us down a bit in the details. Not a real problem for me but for readers who prefer lots of action it could be a bit daunting.
That said, if you are looking for a lush, rich love story combined with history and culture that is very, very far from wall paper look no further. This gem of a novel is a perfect read for anyone looking for a deep, engrossing tale.