A former investment banker and a first-time novelist, Sarita Mandanna is the author of Tiger Hills, a tale of two childhood friends who grow up together in southern India, until their lives are interrupted by an unexpected romance --- and an unforeseen tragedy --- that will affect their families for years to come. In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Usha Rao, Mandanna talks about what inspired her debut, elaborating on her own childhood experiences in Coorg and how a series of short stories eventually evolved into a nearly 500-page novel. Check back later this week for Part II!
Bookreporter.com: What inspired you to write Tiger Hills?
Sarita Mandanna: The inspiration for Tiger Hills stems from a deeply personal vein. Coorg is where I'm from --- my family traces its roots in these hills for centuries. I've always felt a deep connectedness with this part of the world. Perhaps inevitably then, when I began to write Tiger Hills six years ago, I knew that Coorg would be the setting, and none other. While Coorg forms the highly personalized canvas of TIGER HILLS, I wanted to write a story almost classical in structure --- a large narrative, with characters who struggle with universal themes. What do we do when we are thrust into circumstances that are not of our choosing? Tiger Hills explores the nexus between fortitude and acceptance, the choices we make, and the far-reaching impact they can carry.
The desire to write itself took me somewhat by surprise. I was always an avid reader, and while I did think that I would write, it was very much a "one day, some day" kind of aspiration. About seven years ago, after a particularly draining week, I came back home from work itching for a creative outlet and looking to do something completely removed from what I did during the day. I booted up my laptop and simply started to write. That initial output became a short story, which was followed by six more in rapid succession, and these formed the springboard for Tiger Hills.
BRC: Devi, the central character in the story, is not always a sympathetic protagonist; she goes from being impetuous in her youth to being embittered in middle age. In your eyes, is Devi a tragic figure? To quote from Tiger Hills: "Who was the true victim, who had truly been wronged, at what price redemption?"
SM: It's interesting how polarizing Devi is as a character --- readers either admire her strength, or find her adamantine. In the aftermath of the crime perpetrated upon her, Devi has a choice between strength, or resignation and submittal. She consciously opts for the former. She hardens herself, and becomes determined to build a life for herself within the parameters that have been decided for her.
Some of the choices that Devi makes later in her life are far from right, and that was intentional. Nobody in Tiger Hills is perfect --- like most of us, all of the characters, no matter however well intentioned, have their foibles. Devi makes her mistakes, realizes the impact of those decisions and then, with varying degrees of success, tries to undo the wrong.
BRC: Hundreds of herons appear at Devi's birth, and continue to appear at every important turn in her life. What do the herons signify to you?
SM: The imagery stems from the egrets you find everywhere in Coorg, flashes of white against bright green paddy. The herons represent that ubiquitous snapshot. They are a stylized rendering of the landscape that roots the story of Tiger Hills; a symbol of the connectedness between the central characters and their land.
BRC: Devi and Devanna have similar names, especially in light of the fact that Devanna could be translated as Devi's anna, or brother. Did you choose these names to suggest the relationship that they were destined to have?
SM: That's an interesting observation --- I had not thought of that! There is a rhythmic compatibility between both names that was pleasing to me --- the "two peas in a pod" relationship between Devi and Devanna extending to even their names. I like to think that Devanna especially, bookish as he is, would have secretly delighted in this resonance.
That being said, the "anna" was pure serendipity. Most male names in Coorg end in "anna," "ayya" or "appa." Devanna is not an actual name --- it is an obfuscation of the name "Devayya." Given all that Devanna undergoes in the novel, and the fact that I have both family and friends named Devayya, I changed the name to Devanna. It is not a name common in Coorg, and I figured that this way, I wouldn't end up inadvertently upsetting anybody.
BRC: Many of the central characters --- Devi, Devanna, Appu --- lose their mothers under tragic circumstances very early in their lives. Are there common threads in terms of how each of these characters is affected by the loss of a mother at a young age?
SM: Devanna loses his mother very young, and then he is virtually ignored by his own father. The gaps they leave in his life are perhaps never filled --- and fuel his need to compensate for them with other people: Tayi, the Reverend and, of course, Devi. When Devi loses her own mother a few years later, she has her grandmother Tayi, as well as the rest of the family, who have doted on her since she was a baby. That softens the blow somewhat, although in Devanna's eyes, it makes them evenly well-matched: two steadfast friends further united in the loss of their mothers. Appu is in some ways the mirrored doppelganger of Devanna. He loses his father, and then is literally abandoned by his mother, and he never recovers from the stigma he places upon himself as an orphan.
BRC: What role does fate play in the unfolding love triangle at the center of the story?
SM: It isn't fate as much as the things we perpetrate on those we hold dearest in the name of love. There are different forms of love explored in Tiger Hills --- obsessive, possessive and filial, as well as the ways we wield them to undo one another. The fates of the three central characters change in the aftermath of a single act of violence that, in turn, has its roots in continued acts of tyranny perpetrated upon the aggressor. Was that fate, and does that excuse that act of violence? I think not. One of the themes in Tiger Hills is the notion that no matter what happens to us, we typically retain a choice in terms of our reactions to happenstance and what we do in its aftermath.