Monday, July 20, 2015

Interview with Shona Patel - Flame Tree Road

Please welcome author Shona Patel back to the blog, last year she was here chatting about her debut, Teatime For Firefly. Today she's here about her second novel release, Flame Tree Road.

ISBN-13: 9780778316657
Publisher: MIRA
Release Date: 06/30/2015
Length: 416 pp
Buy It: B&N/Amazon/Kobo/IndyBound/Audible


From the acclaimed author of Teatime for the Firefly comes the story of a man with dreams of changing the world, who finds himself changed by love
1870s India. In a tiny village where society is ruled by a caste system and women are defined solely by marriage, young Biren Roy dreams of forging a new destiny. When his mother suffers the fate of widowhood—shunned by her loved ones and forced to live in solitary penance—Biren devotes his life to effecting change.
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."

Shona, welcome back to The Reading Frenzy.
Tell my readers a little about Flame Tree Road.
Flame Tree Road is the story of Biren Roy–the venerated grandfather (Dadamoshai) in Teatime for the Firefly. Taking place in 1870s India, the story traces the life of young Biren Roy growing up in a village of East Bengal that follows a caste system. After losing his father at a tender age, he witnesses the cruel treatment and shunning of his mother due to her status as a widow and makes a conscious decision to change the quality of women's lives in his country. Biren goes to England to study law and while there joins the womens suffrage movement. Eventually he returns to India with a goal to fight for womens rights starting with education but the hurdles seems insurmountable in a country governed by poverty, superstition, bigotry, and misogyny, all of which exact a severe toll on its people, especially the women. Just when his vision for the future begins to look hopeless, he meets Maya, the independent-minded daughter of a local educator, and his soul is reignited. It is in her love that Biren finally finds his home, and in her heart that he finds the hope for a new world.

Shona you received some rave reviews for Teatime For The Firefly.
Did you feel more pressure about how book two is perceived because of it?
I dont think so. Readers who have read both Flame Tree Road and Teatime for the Firefly tell me its hard to compare the two books because they are so very different. I try not to dwell too much on reviews. If I obsess over what people are saying, it would become impossible for me to write.  I can just learn from past mistakes and write the best book I can.

Shona, we discussed your upbringing in India a bit in the last interview and according to your bio, you were an imaginative child, and were sort of left to your own devices until at 10 your parents shipped you off to boarding school.
Was going to boarding school a normal thing to happen?
Sending off children to boarding school was very much a part of the tea garden lifestyle in my time. The remote tea plantations of Assam where we lived (as described in Teatime for the Firefly) are located in the heart of rainforest country. There are no schools for hundreds of miles. My father worked for a British tea company that paid for our exclusive English boarding school education. Both my sister and I were sent to a boarding school several hundred miles away and we came home only for three months during winter holidays.

How was that experience for you?
I loved it! My sister and I have very fond memories of our boarding school days. Besides receiving a top-notch English education, we were also taught etiquette and manners. I learned to be independent and make friends easily. Thanks to boarding school I get along with all kinds of people; I am happy to eat/drink anything and I can sleep just about anywhere! My boarding school friends are now scattered all over the world, but the lasting bonds we formed over the years cemented our friendship for life. Many of us are still connected today.

Shona were you like a lot of authors who wrote as a child and always knew you wanted to become an author, or is your story totally different?
Ive always been drawn to stories as far back as I can remember. I was a very inquisitive and talkative child. My mom said I would go up to complete strangers, tug them by the hand and say, Would you like to hear a story? My stories were either about ants or tigers eating up people.

Staying on the author subject, this is your second novel.
What if anything was different for round two?
I now have to deal with deadlines and time management has become critical. Teatime for the Firefly was written at a leisurely pace but with Flame Tree Road (and the third book I am working on) I have editing deadlines. Besides writing, I also have to deal with author events, fan mail, interviews, social media and a zillion other distractions and juggling it all is a challenge. Yet I managed to write the second book despite these distractions, so I know what its going to take and I am ready for it.

Your bio also says you’re a wannabe chef.
s the most successful creation you ever made?
What was the most disastrous?
Cooking for me is a creative outlet – no different from writing, really. For some reason, I am drawn to extremely difficult and challenging recipes. There was an authentic and complicated Boti Kebab recipe I attempted after discovering an amazing chef on Pakistani Food Network. I was so keen to learn this kebab, I even decoded the Urdu she was speaking (Urdu is similar to Hindi, so I was able to piece the words together). That Boti Kebab was unbelievable and it granted me Master Chef status among my friends.
As for disasters – there are more than I can count. Noteworthy among them was the Hibiscus Flower Chutney I made from a recipe concocted by guess who? After wasting hours and a boatload of sugar, I ended up with a giant mess and red stains all over the travertine tiles of my kitchen.  Hibiscus Flower Chutney. Bad, bad, idea.

Shona, we also chatted last time about you being a past member of The Sweet Adelines that you had to give up when you got a job.
Do you have any hope of rejoining at anytime?
I miss singing so much! I would love to rejoin the Sweet Adelines but I dont see that happening any time soon. Becoming a member of the Sweet Adelines means a serious time commitment. There are practice sessions each week, workshops and travel. You almost have to be semi-retired to do this.
Let me tell you, the Sweet Adelines added a lot of excitement recently to my Flame Tree Road book launch hosted by Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale. A big group of them planted themselves among the audience and belted out a song, flash mob style right in the middle of the Q&A!  You should have seen the jaws drop in the room! It was so awesome. The event was caught on livestream and you can see it on the Poisoned Pen website.

Thank you so much for answering these questions, good luck with the new novel!
Will you be touring with the release?
Thanks for having me on The Reading Frenzy, Debbie. Its always a pleasure talking to you. Ill  keep you updated on my tour plans. Cheers!

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MEET SHONA:Patel was born and raised in a remote tea plantation in Assam, India. The daughter of a tea planter, she drew upon her personal observations and experiences to create the vivid characters and setting for the story. Her second novel Flame Tree Road(Mira-Harper Collins, June 30, 2015) received a starred review on Booklist and is now available in bookstores nationwide. Check out more reviews onGoodreads and Amazon. Shona Patel is represented by April Eberhardt Literary.

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  1. I couldn't imagine going to boarding school but I do think it would be so much fun. I think the H.P. series put a new twist on boarding schools for a lot of people. I think it is great that she and her sister have such fond memories of going, I can imagine it could work either way with a boarding school. ;)

    Great interview!

  2. The idea of attending a boarding school and books set in them appeal to me..the idea of sending my children, just makes me cry..LOL I love the setting and period for this book. Lovely interview, I love when it allows me to learn new things