Planter's clubs and high teas

History, romance and thrills mingle in this tale set in pre-World War II India. JULIA DUTTA

Set amid the world of tea plantations in Assam and against the backdrop of World War II and the movement for Indian Independence, Shona Patel’s debut novel tells the story of Layla Deb. Orphaned early in life a grown-up Layla helps her Dadamoshai, a London-returned barrister, run his village school for girls in Silchar. Layla is educated in the English style, with a governess Miss Thompson, who patiently tutors willing students in the Queen’s English.

Layla’s neighbour Konica, or Kona, is trying to brush up her English so that she is ready to marry the handsome Oxford-returned Manik Deb who is going to join British administrative services. However, Layla and Manik fall in love and, much to everyone’s surprise, Manik decides to work as an assistant manger in a tea garden. Manik and Layla communicate through letters while Manik finishes the mandatory three years without marital commitment. Kona’s father, distraught and angry, quickly gets his daughter married into an affluent Bengali family.

Finally Layla and Manik get married, but that’s not the end of the story. Interspersed with the tale of their marital life are vignettes of life on a tea estate, as Layla struggles to find her footing among the English women and Planter’s Clubs, evening high teas, needlework, knitting, gardening, baking, and dealing with bearers and ayahs.

Shona Patel’s writing style is fresh and clean. Unlike other Indian authors writing in English, she does not use Indian language in the text in any way. For example, there is the character of Jamina, a local woman married to an Englishman. Even her interactions with Layla are in English. The story moves in a smooth way without any jumps or breaks. In the final analysis, this one has a bit of everything: romance, history and thrills.

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