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Tiger Hills is a story of familiar themes set in extraordinary settings. Spanning over 60 years in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries in colonial south India, the novel rests heavily on the splendor of the Coorg hills in Karnataka. If Kerala is God’s own country, then Coorg would be God’s own heaven, for such is the imagery that Sarita Mandanna paints in her well-intentioned and mostly well-crafted narrative. Verdant, lush and rich, the Coorg in Mandanna’s Tiger Hills could very well be considered the main character.
The story follows Devi, Devanna and Machu, three Coorgis drawn together through the ties of kith and kin. Devanna, a studious young boy, grows up adoring Devi, and Devi falls for Machu after a chance meeting at a party to celebrate Machu’s slaying of a tiger—an event that had not been accomplished in three decades. Devi and Devanna grow up together and when Devanna loses his mother to tragic events, he clings to Devi “like a bedraggled puppy.” The two of them become staple fixtures in town, “the pale-skinned firebrand and her scrawny worshipper.” But, Devi soon meets Machu and is immediately smitten. Love triangles are rarely without complications, and neither is this one. The protagonists grow up, marry and begin families, even as they are thrust closer together and forced apart by circumstances beyond their control. Set in colonial times, social changes offer a supportive backdrop to the human drama. The author deftly weaves in modernization, technology and the independence movement into the broader story arc.
The novel is strongest in the character development of Devanna. Notwithstanding his many faults and misjudgments, the reader may find herself drawn to Devanna primarily because the novel traces his story more thoroughly than others. Equally compelling is Mandanna’s portrayal of Gundert, the head of the local Christian Mission and the head master of the school that Devanna attends. The Coorgs, according to Hermann Gundert, the tall and stoic German priest, “were stubborn, toddy-loving sybarites, too attached to their pagan ways to change.” But, in Devanna, Gundbert finds a lost son and nurtures his brilliant mind by educating him in the secrets of the lush, botanic world around them. The skill that he inculcates in Devanna would prove to be a game-changer for Devi and Devanna much later, at another turning point in the story.
Sixty years is a long time, especially in a place of much socio-cultural dynamism as pre-independent India. The larger context suffers from perfunctory treatment and consequently, the novel seems to lose focus towards the end. The denouement is not quite fitting for the grandiosity of the beginning, with the story straying tangentially between Hitler’s Germany and the Afghan frontier wars.
Mandanna’s prose, while mostly stylish and descriptive, is weighed down in some parts by writing more suited for a harlequin romance: “Why did he make her feel like a recalcitrant child?” Devi asks herself, and in doing so, echoing millions of other heroines spurned in their attempts to snare the dashing, tall, dark and handsome hero, or in this instance, Machu.
The chemistry between Devi and Machu is very reminiscent of Scarlett and Rhett from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. The similarities between Mitchell’s epic and Tiger Hills are equally evident in Devi’s eventual station in life as the owner of Nari Malai (Tiger Hills), a coffee estate and plantation.
Nevertheless, Tiger Hills is a brave attempt by a first time novelist to render a familiar trope in a hitherto unfamiliar yet magical setting. The reader hopes that the author’s future works will showcase her ease with prose as evidenced in Tiger Hills with a more cohesive and restrained storytelling that is not merely carried by the novelty of a setting but by also the depth of the characters.
Girija Sankar lives in Atlanta and works in international development. Her writings can be found in a variety of online and print publications.