Shona Patel grew up on a tea estate in Assam. As a planter’s daughter, all her early memories are of a childhood surrounded by tea gardens and of course, lots of Assam tea. Now living in the US, she brings in some vivid memories of Assam in her first novel, Teatime for the Firefly, a poignant love story set in a remote tea estate in Assam during colonial rule. The novel is an interesting introduction to life in a tea garden in a different era. It uses the backdrop of British plantation life, the change in ownership of the plantations around the area and labour tensions. The lush setting drawn from her own experience in estates and her strength as a storyteller make it a beautifully paced but unputdownable book. Her second novel, Flame Tree Road, a prequel to the first one is due for release. Shona is a strong proponent of Assam tea and here, she talks about tea, her childhood and what made her abandon a movie project to pen fiction instead.

How did Teatime for the Firefly come about? Was it a novel you had long wanted to write?

I spent two years gathering research for this project. Through my tea connections I was able to contact several retired British tea planters of Assam, now in their eighties and nineties who are scattered around the world. We would chat regularly on Skype and they very generously shared with me their photographs and stories. I also read as many books and articles I could find on the subject. Initially my plan was to make a documentary film but that turned out to be complicated and expensive, so I decided write a novel instead.

The Aynakhal tea plantation I write about in Teatime for the Firefly is fictional. I deliberately chose not to visit the real place as I wanted to preserve a certain dreamlike image I had conjured up in my mind.

Why did you pick fiction as a means of writing about life at a tea garden in Assam?

Writing fiction is very liberating and crafting a good story challenges my imagination and acumen as a writer. Besides, I dont think I have the diligence and patience to write non-fiction. You have to be very meticulous: every detail has to be verified and cross-checked for accuracy, the sources quoted etc. That itself would bore me to tears!

How do you write? And is a cup of tea a part of your process?

Writing is a very messy organic process for me. I tend to mull over a story idea for a long time and gather tons of research before I begin to write. This mulling period (which can vary between two to four months) is important. Once I get a clear idea for a story I hit the ground running and try to crank a rough draft without interruption. The first draft is usually awful but at least I have something concrete to build upon. After that its all editing and revision.

I try to write as much as I can during the morning hours and I probably wouldnt be able to crank out a single line without my trusty pot of Assam tea. I drink several cups of ultra-strong Assam (CTC) tea to keep me sparkling!

Your new novel, Flame Tree Road is a prequel to Teatime for the Firefly, why did you decide to do the prequel later?

It was not quite planned that way the prequel just happened. I had already written Teatime for the Firefly and was tossing around ideas for the second book when I began to receive several emails from readers saying how much they loved the character of the grandfather (Dadamoshai/Biren Roy) in Teatime and they wanted to know more about him. That is how Flame Tree Road came about. It is the grandfathers story.

You are a strong proponent of the Assam tea. But you book doesn’t try to sell it.

Teatime for the Firefly is a love story set in the tea plantations of Assam. As a writer of fiction I have to be mindful of how much information about tea to include in my story. The trick is to weave it artfully and seamlessly into the narrative without slowing down the plot. If I start dumping information (a mistake many writers make) on my reader I run the risk of losing their interest. The biggest challenge for a writer of historical fiction is to know how much research to keep in and how much to leave out. The best I can do is to whet my readers appetite to learn more. I must admit I have been very successful here. Teatime for the Firefly has generated an overwhelming interest and enthusiasm for Assam Tea. I was invited to over 50 book-related events in the past year and most of them hosted tea parties and insisted on serving the very same Assam Tea I drink. I have converted many Americans to Assam Tea and the demand for Assam Tea keeps growing!

What are the upsides of being a planter kid? And what are the downsides?

A tea garden childhood is as idyllic and carefree as they come. There are wide-open spaces to run around and play: jungles, fields, river, ponds. I was a tomboy: I fished, climbed trees, I even had my own mini zoo. The birthday parties were fantastic with elephant rides and magic shows, as were the river picnics and Christmas galas at the Planters Club. For a kid there is no better place to be, but life as a teenager can be dull in the tea gardens. My clothes were hopelessly out of fashion compared to city kids, my shoes were not pointy and my haircut looked silly. Adjustment in the real world was somewhat of a challenge but I managed quickly enough.

What do you miss most about your tea garden days?

The peace. The untamed beauty of nature: flowers, bird calls, forests, rivers, bamboo groves, fruit laden trees, our pet animals the smell of fresh tea wafting from the factory. High tea with fresh baked chocolate cake and coconut macaroons. I miss the uncomplicated life.

But one also reads about the elephant herds that walk through tea estates… Have you had any encounters with the wildlife?

Once on our way home from the club we encountered a dangerous rogue elephant standing in the middle of the jungle road. The rogue fanned out his ears and with an ear-piercing shriek made straight for our car and our driver had no option but to drive the Land Rover (in reverse gear) at breakneck speed over the rutted road. Luckily for us the elephant gave up chase. Another time a wild elephant almost nabbed me. I was seven years old and this elephant was in the process of being domesticated and had one leg chained to a tree. I wandered up too close when it reached out its trunk and grabbed my leg. People started shouting, the mahout came running and managed to yank me out of the elephants grip. That was very scary!

Do you visit tea estates in Assam anymore? What has changed from the colonial times you spent there?

I did go back a couple of times. Much has changed since my time. There is always some labor trouble or political agitation or the other brewing in Assam. The situation is very unstable. The wide verandahs of the tea garden bungalows are all grilled up and giant satellite TV dishes rear their ugly heads. The quality of tea too has declined considerably.

But you have remained one of Assam teas biggest fans.

Assam Tea is very unique. Full-bodied, rich and satisfying, this tea was the choice of aficionados the world over for centuries. Tea drinking in America has come full circle: the exotic infusions, decaf alternatives, the green tea and herbal tea fads are all on their way out. Consumers are now opting for uncomplicated and real. There is a big push for wholesome organic foods such as farm-fresh veggies, grass-fed beef, cage-free eggs and whole milk. Thanks to new medical research caffeine is back in favor (hurrah!) and Assam Tea fits right in. Through my talks and writing I have created a ripe market for Assam Tea in America. We did extensive sampling at various events and my readers can’t get enough of Assam Tea. Most of them would agree once you taste good strong Assam Tea all other teas become unpalatable. So heres to another cup. Cheers!

Shona Patels second novel Flame Tree Road is slated for release (North America) on 30th June, 2015 from Harlequin/Mira.

 

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