Flame Tree Road

Flame Tree Road

by Shona Patel


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780778316657
Publisher: MIRA Books
Publication date: 06/30/2015
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

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 and architectural designer. Teatime for the Firefly is her debut novel.

Read an Excerpt

Small villages cluster the waterways of East Bengal in India. Seen from above they must appear like berries along a stem, dense or sparse depending on the river traffic that flows through. Crescent-shaped fishing boats skim the waters with threadbare sails that catch the wind with the hollow flap of a heron's wing. Larger boats carry people or cargo: bamboo baskets, coconut and long sticks of sugarcane that curve on their weight down to the water's edge. There are landing ghats along the riverbank with bamboo jetties that stick out over the floating water hyacinth. Here the boats stop and people get on or off and take the meandering paths that lead through the rice fields and bamboo groves into the villages.

Once a week, the big world passes by in the form of a paddleboat steamer bound for important destinations: Narayanganj, Dhaka, Calcutta. It shows up on the horizon, first a tiny speck the size of a peppercorn, and grows to its full girth as it draws closer. The village boats scatter at the sound of its imperious hoot, and small boys in ragged shorts jump and wave at the lascar who moves easily along the deck with the swashbuckling sway of a true seafarer. His long black hair and white tunic whip in the river breeze as the steamer gushes by with a rhythmic swish of its side paddles, leaving the tiny boats bobbing like toothpicks in its wake.

Once a bridal party loaded with pots and garlands caught the powerful wake of the steamer as it passed. It bounced the boat and almost tossed the young bride into the river. The shy young husband instinctively grabbed his wife, drawing her into an awkward but intimate embrace. The veil slipped from the bride's head and he saw for the first time her bright young face and dark, mischievous eyes. He drew back, embarrassed. His male companions broke into wolf whistles and rousing cheers and his bride gave him a slant-eyed smile that made his emotions settle in unexpected places. During the remainder of the journey, their fingertips occasionally met and lingered under the long veil of her red and gold sari. chapter 1

Sylhet, Bengal, 1871

Shibani was the lighthearted one, with curly eyelashes and slightly crooked teeth, still girlish and carefree for a seventeen-year-old and hardly the demure and collected daughter-in-law of the Roy household she was expected to be. Having grown up with five brothers, she behaved like a tomboy despite her long hair, which she wore, braided and looped, on either side of her head twisted with jasmine and bright red ribbons.

Everything was so strict in her husband's house. The clothes had to be folded a certain way, the brinjal cut into perfect half-inch rounds, the potato slivered as thin as match-sticks. Then there were fasting Mondays, temple Tuesdays, vegetarian Thursdays. Mother-in-law was very particular about everything and she could be curt if things were not to her exacting standards. But Father-in-law was softhearted; Shibani was the daughter he had always wished for. She brought light into the house, especially after the older daughter-in-law, who walked around with her duck-footed gait and face gloomy as a cauldron's bottom. Perhaps being childless had made her so, but even as a young bride the older daughter-in-law had never smiled. What a contrast to young Shibani, whose veil hardly stayed up on her head, who ate chili tamarind, smacked her lips and broke into giggling fits that sometimes ended in a helpless snort.

During evening prayers Shibani puffed her cheeks and blew the conch horn with more gaiety than piety. She created dramatic sweeping arcs with the diya oil lamps, and her ululation was louder and more prolonged than necessary. Mother-in-law paused her chanting to give her a chastising look through half-closed eyes. Father-in-law smothered a smile while her husband, Shamol, looked sheepish, nervous and love struck all at the same time.

Every evening Shibani picked a handful of night jasmine to place in a brass bowl by her bedside so she and her husband could share the sweetness as they lay in the darkness together.

A year after they were married, the first son was born. They named him Biren: Lord of Warriors. Shamol carefully noted the significance of his birth date—29 February 1872—a leap year by the English calendar. Shamol worked for Victoria Jute Mills and owned one of the few English calendars in the village. Just to look at the dated squares made him feel as though he had moved ahead in the world, as the rest of the village followed the Bengali calendar, where the year was only 1279.

In truth, moving ahead in the world had been nipped in the bud for Shamol Roy. He was studying to be a schoolteacher and was halfway through his degree but had been forced to give up his education and work in a jute mill to support the family. This was after his older brother had been gored by a Brahman bull near the fish market a few years earlier. His brother recovered but made a show of acting incapacitated, as he had lost the will to work after he developed an opium habit—the drug he had used initially to manage the pain. Only Shamol knew about his addiction, but he was too softhearted to complain. He did not tell anyone, not even his own wife, Shibani. He considered himself the lucky one after all. Life had showered on him more than his share of blessings: he had a beautiful wife, a healthy baby boy and a job that allowed him to provide for the family. Every morning Shamol woke to a feeling of immense gratitude. The first thing he did was to stand by the holy basil in the courtyard and lift his folded hands to the rising sun to thank the benevolent universe for his good fortune. chapter 2

Mother-in-law was mixing chickpea batter for eggplant fritters when she looked out of the kitchen window and saw Shibani and Apu, her friend from next door, gossiping and eating chili tamarind in the sunny courtyard. Baby Biren lay sleeping like a rag doll on the hammock of Shibani's lap. She jiggled her knee and his head rolled all over the place.

"Shibani!" yelled the mother-in-law. "Have you no sense? Do you want your son to have a flat head like the village idiot? Why are you not using the mustard seed pillow I told you to use under the baby's head?"

"Eh maa! I forgot," said Shibani, round eyed with innocence, a smudge of chili powder on her chin. She scrambled about looking as if she was going to get up, but as soon as her mother-in-law's back was turned she settled back down again.

"The mustard seed pillow is currently being used to round the cat's head," she said to Apu, giggling as she tickled Biren's cheek. "The cat is going to have a rounder head than this one." Biren opened his mouth and she let him suck on her fingers.

"Aye, careful!" cried Apu. "You have chili powder on your fingers."

Biren's little face puckered and his big black eyes flew open.

"Eh maa, look what you did," chided Apu. "You woke the poor thing up!"

"Just look at him smiling," said Shibani. "He's even smacking his lips. Here, pass me the tamarind. Let's give him another lick."

"The things you feed him, really," said Apu reproachfully. She never knew whether to admire Shibani's audacious mothering or to worry about the baby. "Remember the time you made him lick a batasha? He was only four months old!"

Shibani laughed, her crooked teeth showing. "You were my coconspirator, don't forget."

The two of them had smuggled batasha sugar drops from the prayer room and watched in awe as the baby's tiny pink tongue licked one down to half its size. Of course, the sugar had kept him wide-eyed and kicking all night.

"This child will learn to eat everything and sleep anywhere," said Shibani. "I don't care if he has a flat head, but it will be full of brains and he will be magnificently prepared to conquer the world."

At six months Biren had a perfectly round head full of bobbing curls, the limpid eyes of a baby otter and a calm, solid disposition. He hated being carried and kicked his tiny feet till he was set down, after which he took off crawling with his little bottom wagging. He babbled and cooed constantly and a prolonged silence usually meant trouble. Shibani caught him opening and closing a brass betel nut cutter that could have easily chopped off his tiny toes. Another time he emerged from the ash dump covered with potato peels and eggshells.

"This one will crawl all the way to England if he can," marveled the grandfather. There was a certain sad irony to his words. An Oxford or Cambridge education was, after all, the ultimate dream of many Sylhetis and, being poor, they often did have to scrape and crawl their way to get there. Even with surplus brains and a full merit scholarship, many fell short of the thirty-five-pound second-class sea fare to get to England. Sometimes the whole village pitched in, scraping together rupees and coins to send their brightest and their best into the world, hoping perhaps he would return someday to help those left behind. But most of them never did. chapter 3

Shibani slipped around to the pumpkin patch near the woodshed behind the house. She cupped her hands over her mouth and called like a rooster across the pond. Soon, there was an answering rooster call back from Apu: a single crow, which meant, Wait, I am coming. Shibani smiled and waited.

The two friends no longer saw each other as much as they used to. Both of them had two-year-olds now. Apu's daughter, Ratna, was born three days after Shibani's second son, Nitin, who was four years younger than Biren.

Nitin turned out to be a colicky infant who grew into a fretful toddler. He clung to his mother's legs, stretched out his hands and wanted to be carried all the time. He ate and slept poorly and forced Shibani to reconsider the charms of motherhood.

Shibani shifted her feet. Now, where was that Apu? Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a small movement in the taro patch. Shibani gave a tired sigh. It was that nosy son of hers again. Biren had lately started eavesdropping on their conversations. Apu and Shibani often discussed private matters relating to their mothers-in-law, husbands and what went on in the bedroom. Six-year-old Biren had already picked up on the furtive nature of their conversation. How long this had been going on and how much he had overheard already, Shibani dreaded to know, but this time she was going to teach him a lesson.

Apu ran out of her kitchen, wiping her hands on the end of her sari. Shibani watched her nimble figure jump over backyard scrub and race around the emerald-green pond. She is still so lithe and supple, like a young sapling, Shibani thought fondly of her friend, who was a trained Bharatnatyam dancer.

Apu huffed up to the fence and mopped her face with the end of her sari. "I have only five minutes. Ratna will wake up any minute. Quickly, tell me, what?"

Shibani rolled her eyes in the direction of the taro patch and silently mouthed, Biren. He's listening. Then she said loudly, "Have you heard the latest news about the small boy in the Tamarind Tree Village? The one whose ears fell off?"

"No, tell me," said Apu, suppressing a smile.

"He had these big-big ears and was always listening to grown-up things. Now I hear his ears have come off. Can you imagine? One day he woke up and his ears were lying on his pillow like two withered rose petals. Now he has only big holes through which bees and ants can get in and make nests in his brain. So tragic, don't you think?"

Apu clicked her tongue. "Terrible, terrible. The poor fellow. What will happen to him, I wonder?" The shuffling in the taro patch grew agitated. Apu began to feel a little sorry for Biren. "Are you sure his ears fell off?" she asked. "I mean, fell right off? I heard they almost fell off. They had begun to come a little loose but thank God he stopped listening to grown-up things. He had a very narrow escape, I heard."

"I hope so, for his sake." Shibani sighed. "I would feel very sad if I was his mother. Imagine having a son with no ears and a head full of bees and ants."

The taro leaves waved madly to indicate an animal scurrying away.

"Oof!" exploded Shibani. "That fellow is impossible. He listens to everything. Now I hope he will leave us in peace. I can't wait for him to start going to school."

"He starts next week, doesn't he?"

"Yes," said Shibani. They had waited all this time because Shamol wanted him to go to the big school in the Tamarind Tree Village near the jute mill. It was a better school because the jute mill funded it privately. Most of the mill workers' children studied there. "Thank God Biren is a quick learner. He's already far ahead in reading and math because Shamol tutors him every night. That reminds me, did you talk to your mother-in-law about Ruby's tuition?"

Apu sighed. "I asked her. Twice. Both times it was a big no. It is so frustrating. Your suggestion made so much sense. Shamol can easily tutor Ruby along with Biren in the evenings. But Mother-in-law won't have it. She says if you educate a girl nobody will want to marry her."

"What nonsense!" cried Shibani. "We both had private tutors and we got married, didn't we? Thank God our parents were not so narrow-minded. Let me tell you, sister, Shamol especially picked me because I was educated. He said he wanted a wife he could talk to, not a timid mouse to follow him around with her head covered."

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Flame Tree Road 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
JBronder More than 1 year ago
Biren Roy is a young boy that grows up in rural India in the late 1800’s. There he learns of how sons are prized and daughters are dreaded. He also sees what happens to his mother when she becomes a widow. She is basically forced away from her family and treated as though she is dead. When he goes to school, Biren starts learning about British beliefs and he starts realizing the inequity women have in Indian culture. Biren then goes to Cambridge to further his education and become a lawyer to fight for women’s rights. He meets Estelle and sees how she fights the social norms but dressing in men’s clothing and attending classes disguised as a man. When Biren returns to India he learns that he is going to basically be a middle man between the Indian’s and British governments. This and his ideas of how women should be treated don’t win him any favors and he starts to lose hope of ever changing traditional beliefs. I have to say that I liked this story. It’s so heartbreaking and angering to know that just because a woman becomes a widow she is basically nothing to her family. But sadly women usually are looked down on throughout the years. I love how this fired Biren to stand up and create a change. He doesn’t always have a easy path and does lose his drive, but he does keep fighting. It was interesting learning about Indian custom and how much of a difference there was between Indiana and British governments. I liked Biren. You couldn’t help cheering him on and Estelle was such an inspiration. I have to say that the ending is sad and makes you wonder about what really happened. This is a good book and I recommend it for anyone. You will learn more about Indian culture and will encourage Biren to keep going. I received this book for free from MIRA in exchange for an honest review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I do'nt usually write reviews but I am compelled to do so after finishing this novel. It is really a masterpiece and I could'nt put it down. The characters are wonderful and I especially loved Biren Roy ( the main character). I felt his losses as well as his accomplishments. The social and political issues in this novel about India are still issues of concern today, especially the education and rights of women. I highly recommend this book and can not wait to read his previous book about this same family!