I have always wanted to write a story set in the tea plantations of my childhood. My father was one of the first Indian managers of a British owned tea plantation in Assam, located in the remote, northeastern tip of India where the country borders Burma (now Myanmar.) Assam is dense rainforest country, with big rivers, green rice fields and tall areca nut palms that shoot like arrows up to the sky. But most importantly, Assam is the largest tea-growing belt in the world. Hundreds and hundreds of rolling tea plantations dot the silt-rich Bhramaputra valley, and the tea grown here is the finest black tea on earth, famous for its bright coppery color and distinct malty taste. Dense forested hills border the tea growing areas, and it’s not uncommon to have big game wander right into the plantations. Some winter nights we awoke to a loud commotion in the bungalow when a herd of wild elephants descended our malibari (large kitchen garden) to feast on the sugarcane and corn. We had to shut our ears to all the shrill trumpeting as the elephants got chased out by the servants, beating on tin cans and waving fiery torches as we watched the whole nail-biting chase from the top floor of the verandah, shivering in our pajamas. Man-eating leopards were a constant threat to human life and often had to be killed by experienced shikaris (game hunters).
In many ways tea garden life in Assam is a. Tea planters live by their guts and their guns. They drive muddy Jeeps and quickly become experts at driving in reverse at full throttle, which comes in handy when being chased by an angry rhino on narrow dirt roads, with no place to turn around.
On the finer side, tea culture was still very British colonial back in the 60’s and 70’s. I grew up with duck hunting camps, polo matches at the gymkhana club, and dainty tea parties under the magnolia tree served by attendants dressed in turbans and cummerbunds. I had a very rare and unusual childhood, and have tried to capture the forgotten world of the Assam tea plantations in Teatime for the Firefly.
About the contributor:
Shona Patel, the daughter of an Assam tea planter, drew upon her personal observations and experiences to create the vivid characters and setting for Teatime for the Firefly. An honors graduate in English literature from Calcutta University, Ms. Patel has won several awards for creative writing and is a trained graphic designed. Teatime for the Firefly is her debut novel.