In the mid-1940s, an unconventional young Indian woman manages to defy the odds and her own inauspicious legacy to marry the man of her dreams, then must adjust to life in a remote tea garden amid the nationalistic, racial and religious discord of the times.
Raised by a secular, liberal-minded grandfather, Layla Roy seems destined for an academic life, but everything changes when she meets Manik Deb, the handsome, Oxford-educated young man who is betrothed through an arranged marriage to Layla’s conservative neighbor. When Manik suddenly gives up his distinguished civil service job to become a tea planter on one of the remote Assam plantations, it throws a wrench in his family’s plans for him and opens the door for a future with Layla. When they are finally able to wed, Manik takes Layla with him into the eccentric, isolated tea planter’s life, and the two must adjust to life together as well as to all of the idiosyncrasies of the British-dominated, colonial lifestyle of the planters. And if that’s not enough, tensions of Indian independence will soon jeopardize their happy union. Debut author Patel offers a stunning, panoramic view of a virtually unknown time and place—the colonial British tea plantations of Assam—while bringing them to life through a unique character’s perspective. Layla’s tragic early life is offset by her association with Dadamoshai, her unorthodox grandfather, which leads her to a huge set of opportunities not generally open to Indian women of her time. The odd courtship between Manik and Layla is sweet and touching, yet watching them spread their wings and plant roots together as a young married couple is fascinating, especially against the backdrop of the Indian fight for independence and the societal violence that was its byproduct. There is so much interesting history, worldbuilding and character development in this book that readers will forgive the occasional slow pacing and the subtle transition midbook as to the type of story being told.
A lyrical novel that touches on themes both huge and intimate and, like Layla, is so quietly bold that we might miss its strength if we fail to pay attention.