by Sarita Mandanna
Sarita Mandanna is from Coorg, the stunning setting of Tiger Hills. She has an MBA from the Wharton School of Business, a PGDM from the Indian Institute of Management, and was most recently a private equity professional in New York City. Tiger Hills is her debut novel.
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Question: You wrote Tiger Hills while working in the high-pressure world of investment banking. How did this affect the writing process?
Sarita Mandanna: Tiger Hills was five years in the making and some might say it’s still ongoing. I wrote it while living and working in New York City. It wasn’t an easy time—while deeply satisfying in the aggregate, there were also days when I seriously questioned my sanity for taking this project on. Extracting you from the immediate world, the physicality of it, and substituting it for one of the imagination takes a bit of transitioning, and it was all the more challenging in the case of Tiger Hills because I was working full time as well. There were many hours spent staring at my laptop without writing a word as I made the mental leap from bright lights, big city New York to early 1900s Coorg! Still, it wasn’t so much an act of discipline as a labor of love. Much as I chafed being tied to my laptop, there was little else I could do—I was obsessed with Tiger Hills as soon as I began it.
Q: This is truly an epic story. What were the challenges in writing a saga with so many characters throughout many years?
SM: The biggest challenge was to make each character as three dimensional as possible, to imbue each of them with the personality quirks and traits that go into making each of us human. For instance, Reverend Gundert is a keen amateur botanist. He is meticulous and organized, and control is a big part of his inner make up. Machu develops a tic in his cheek when he is angry; Devanna has a way of pushing back his hair. It took some doing, to visualize each character in living, breathing form and then transcribe as much of that as possible into the story.
Q:What do you think about the comparisons of Tiger Hills to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds?
SM: People have compared Tiger Hills to Gone with the Wind as well as The Thorn Birds. Given how enduringly popular both novels have been, I take the comparisons as a compliment! In all seriousness though, the stories are all so different. I believe what people are responding to are the period settings; a strong connection to the land felt, in varying degrees, by all three central female protagonists, and an “epic” or “saga” form of narrative that spans decades and is multi-generational.
Q: Tiger Hills begins in 1878 and spans the next 70-odd years, mostly while India was under British rule. Why did you choose this time and place?
SM: I wanted to write a story that was almost classical in structure, some- thing with a large narrative arc. Tiger Hills spans almost the entire life- time of the central protagonist, Devi, beginning with the day of her birth and following her through maturity and into her dotage. To cover that length of time necessarily meant that the novel had to start decades in the past.
That apart, the span of time covered in Tiger Hills was a particularly interesting period and proved to be a rich vein of history to mine. Coffee planting had become widespread in Coorg in the 20th century, having been introduced by English and European planters who had settled here under the British Raj. As a result, there was a significant influx of wealth into the region, and with it, education and exposure to Western culture. Where their grandparents had deemed it a blessing to have never set foot outside of Coorg in all their lives, now there was a new generation of Coorgs, familiar with the old ways, but simultaneously very Westernized. They went to London and the US to study; they vacationed in Europe; back home in Coorg, they knew all the latest dances and how to throw fabulous soirees. That intermingling of cultures, of East and West, was especially intriguing and something worth exploring in the course of the novel.
Q: The book covers several generations and, even as the modern world encroached, tradition and ritual behavior still seemed a central part of the local culture. Is this still the case today?
SM: It wasn’t so much a clash as a fusion between the old and the new that still exists in Coorg. Attire is one example. While you would find most of us in t-shirts and jeans ordinarily, come the occasion of a Coorg wedding, the women all wear saris worn in the distinctive Coorg fashion, with the ends gathered over the right shoulder. The men, meanwhile, wear traditional black tunics with a silver ornamented dagger tucked into brocade cummerbunds and gold trimmed turbans upon their heads.
Many old customs have altered with the times, but still retain a kernel of the original. It used to be customary, for instance, for a brass pot filled with water to be kept always by the entrance of a home. This was so that a guest, who had presumably walked many miles to visit, could wash the dust from his feet and refresh himself before entering. The advent of cars has rendered this practice obsolete. Still, most Coorg homes, mine included, continue to keep a wide mouthed, beautifully carved brass urn by the entrance, filled with water and fresh f lowers. Functional has morphed into ornamental, but it is a lovely way to keep the spirit of the old customs alive.
Food is another mirror into the way East and West are combined in Coorg. At my grandparents’ estates in Coorg, the breakfast table would be loaded every morning with homemade marmalade, dabs of country butter and fresh baked bread, along with bowls of steaming hot bamboo curries and rice breads. It didn’t strike us then as being the least bit unusual—that was just the way it was, a happy co-existence of East and West.
Cultural roots go a long way in grounding a person. Equally, however, we live in such a fluid, osmotic world, that it is important to adapt, rather than remain rooted in some fixed notion of cultural identity. What works best is a mid-point along the continuum—where one recognizes the gift of community and origin; but equally, one has the desire and willingness to strike out in new directions, to explore new cultures, and create an expanded sense of self through the mixing of different worlds. Tiger Hills explores that amalgamation of East and West and the way in which it shapes the characters.
Q: Coorg plays an important role in the story and is obviously dear to your heart. How much do you think land shapes character?
SM: Yes, the inspiration for Tiger Hills stems from a deeply personal vein. Coorg is where I’m from—my family traces its roots for centuries in these hills. I’ve always felt a deep connectedness with this part of the world. Perhaps inevitably, when I began to write Tiger Hills six years ago, I knew that Coorg would be the setting and none other.
Many of us live such fragmented, urbanized lives today that I wanted to explore a time when the equations were perhaps simpler, where there was a tacit relationship between the earth and the tiller of the soil. There was a certain stoicism, a strength and determination that marked previous generations. One tilled and ploughed and planted, then crossed one’s fingers and hoped for a bountiful harvest. If things went wrong, the tiller shrugged in resignation, tightened his belt, and then looked ahead to the next harvest. It could be a hard life, but that single- minded tending to and dependence on the earth served to create a strong sense of place. There was a core sense of belonging and of the notion that no matter the tilt of the axis, there would always be this slice of sky, this patch of dark earth with your roots sunken deep. That no matter what you did, no matter where you went, there would always be this foundation at the core, this particular conjunction of latitude and longitude, this place called home.
Q: You dedicate the book to your grandparents and make familial duty a central theme in the story. How did your ideas about family influence the story? Did your ideas change through the course of writing?
SM: It’s interesting how many people have asked me about the dedication. My paternal grandfather had a deep and abiding respect for the written word. My maternal grandfather was a soft spoken man, gentle and given to conjuring wonderful stories about castles made of salt and sparrows with jeweled wings. I thought of both of them often as I was writing and how proud they would have been to see Tiger Hills birthed. I loved my grandmothers dearly, too, and it felt right to dedicate this first book to all of them, in memoriam, not so much out of a sense of familial duty as from love.
I come from a close-knit family. The sort where differences and arguments notwithstanding, every one of us takes it for granted that if one of us is ever in need, the rest will gather around and close ranks at once. That notion of family permeated Tiger Hills as well, the notion of bonds between people, not always of blood, but nonetheless of deep loyalty and fealty. The bond of friendship between Devi and Devanna, for instance, the way it warps and expands but never breaks throughout their lives, no matter the circumstances. The relationship between Devi and Tayi, her grandmother, the love that each has for the other, and the sense of duty that is the matting underneath. The promises that the old lady extracts, based on this underpinning, promises that Devi tries to keep at significant personal cost. These instances and more in Tiger Hills are based on the core belief that in the end all that matters is family. The families we are born into and those we lay claim to over the course of our years. Family and the ways we do right by them and as well as wrong. The promises that the old lady extracts, based on this underpinning, promises that Devi tries to keep at significant personal cost. These instances and more in Tiger Hills are based on the core belief that in the end all that matters is family. The families we are born into and those we lay claim to over the course of our years. Family and the ways we do right by them and as well as wrong.
Q: What does it mean to you that “one must fight for happiness” (p. 175)?
SM: A key theme in Tiger Hills is that our stories don’t always play out like we wish. Nonetheless, it is important that we keep ourselves open to happiness: a happiness different in shape and form than what we had perhaps imagined, but if we look hard enough, there is happiness to be found even in roads previously discounted. It’s only a fortunate few who find happiness for the taking. For most of us, finding happiness requires a conscious, constant quarrying. There is grey in every character in Tiger Hills, and it tinges their stories too. Always the promise of rainbow pleasures, but sometimes deeply hidden; they each have to fight, in their own ways, for happiness.
Q: After going through so much heartache and regret with these characters, the epilogue provides a note of hope. Why did you choose to end the story this way?
SM: Tiger Hills is a bittersweet story and it was important to me to end it on a note of hope, to allow the characters a final chance at redemption, and to suggest, after all that had befallen them, the hope of a better tomorrow.
Q: What role does fate play in the unfolding of the story? Did any of the characters have any choice in the way their lives played out?
SM: The lives of the three central characters change in the aftermath of a single act of violence. That act of violence, in turn, has its roots in continued acts of tyranny perpetrated upon the aggressor. Does that excuse it, and does one mark it down to fate? 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. There are things out of our control, and those things might be branded “fate,” but it is what we do in its aftermath, the choices we make, that truly change the course of our lives. Choice is a powerful weapon, and it is wielded in different ways by the characters in Tiger Hills. Each is dealt difficult blows by life, and each makes certain choices in response. The story is an exploration of the consequence of those choices, the impact they have not only on that person, not only on the people around them, but on generations yet unborn.
© Copyright 2013 by Sarita Mandanna. Reprinted with permission by Pintail. All rights reserved.
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It was ancient custom in Coorg to bury the umbilical cord of a newborn. Past the jungle undergrowth, tucked among root and shale, deep into the earth. It served as a talisman, it was believed, a beacon showing the way home. So that no matter how far one went, no matter the distance nor the passage of time, ever this electric longitude, pointed towards home.
Perhaps inevitably then, when I began to write Tiger Hills six years ago, Coorg was the setting that naturally unfurled. My words, echoing my grandfather’s as he tells us stories around an oil lamp. The great-grandmother, widowed young, who walked her fields alone, a dagger tucked into her blouse. These stories and others, my roots, sunk for generations into these hills.
While Coorg forms the highly personalized canvas of Tiger Hills, I wanted to write a story almost classical in structure – a large narrative, whose characters struggle with universal themes. What do we do when thrust into circumstances not of our choosing? Tiger Hills explores the nexus between fortitude and acceptance, the choices we make in the aftermath of happenstance and the far-reaching impact they can carry. Determined not to be victimized, Devi fights for happiness the best she can. She isn’t always easy to like and makes some decisions that are far from right. And yet, who was truly the victim and who the aggressor?
As she forges a life for herself within the parameters decided for her, Devi hardens. To such an extent however, that she becomes wedded to a version of happiness too rooted in memory to ever become real. When is it best to let go, to seek happiness along new roads, even those previously discounted?
Devi’s story lies at the core of Tiger Hills, and it is the other stories, unvoiced, like a dried flower lying pressed within the pages of a book, that form its undercurrent. A missionary, searching for something he cannot express; an orphan, single minded in his devotion; a boy, marked by both the mother who leaves him to the care of another as well as the legend of a father barely remembered.
Different interpretations of love – obsessive, possessive, filial; the ways we wield them to undo one another, the suffering we invite upon those we hold dearest.
Finally, redemption. Tiger Hills is an exploration of our all too human need to come full circle, for reconciliation; and the idea that often, it lies well within our grasp.