Love of the land
Sarita Mandanna’s Tiger Hills was born with a silver spoon in its mouth. Not only was it championed by David Davidar, until recently a big wheel at Penguin, it also won the attention of David Godwin, a top literary agent. UK rights were quickly picked up by Kirsty Dunseath of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, who compared Tiger Hills to Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. (Early reviewers said its heroine Devi recalled Gone with the Wind’s immortal Scarlett O’Hara.) And in April 2009 Penguin paid a huge sum to acquire India rights to this debut novel. Trade rumour says the sum was around Rs 35 lakh.
What’s more, Mandanna is a young Manhattanite who works in private equity. She comes from a landed family with thousand-year-old roots in Coorg (now Kodagu). The chief characters in her novel are also privileged, from aristocratic families with coffee estates and paddy acres — all of which boosts the story’s “lushness”.
Unusual advantages like these impose a burden of expectation. This burden would weigh on even a very good book; a mediocre one might never get off the ground. Tiger Hills is not a very good book. But it’s not a bad one either, so it manages to tug the reader along.
The story is easily summarised. In late 19th-century Coorg, a girl is born to a landowning family. Devi grows up a rare beauty, indulged and carefree. While she is still a child, a motherless boy joins the household. Devanna is a Kambeymada, from a much richer clan. The two become best friends. Eventually Devanna falls in love with Devi; but Devi is in love with Machaiah, an older Kambeymada famous for having singlehandedly killed a tiger.
Devanna is more cerebral. He loves plants. He studies with the local missionary, Hermann Gundert, and then goes to medical school in Bangalore (in the 1890s?). There he is ragged and tortured unrelentingly (it all sounds very modern), but does not complain. Effortfully the author sets things up so a brutalised and disappointed Devanna can be brought to perform the violent act upon which the story turns. He and Devi are married — but Machaiah isn’t out of the picture. The ugly love triangle continues to poison lives, into the next generation.
If you are a patient reader with a taste for romantic tragedy and lush prose, then this book is for you. A sample: “The river was luminescent. Its waters rippling, reflecting the molten roil of the skies overhead, until she was bathing in fiery, liquid ore. The mist too alchemized, varnished by this new sun, sparkling, shimmering all around her. Devi stood still, dazed by the beauty.”
Devi, you see, is about to meet Machaiah and win his heart. It’s pretty, yes, and the narrative moment genuinely memorable, but this is not quality writing. And here, as at every other important point in the heroine’s story, starting with her birth, the herons show up: “They gazed directly at her, the tracing of light over their breasts and wings like the finest gold filigree.” What this mystical heron motif actually means one never learns.
Like herons, much is made of a rare bamboo flower — Gundert wants it, Devanna looks for it, but Machaiah’s son Appu finds it. Appu, boy and man, is a spoilt brat. So the moment is a letdown. What does the flower stand for? It is possible there’s some inkling of meaning here, but to look for it is to credit that the writing has a depth that it just doesn’t.
However: Coorg. Halfway through the book, the main characters leave behind the traditional clan environment of their youth and move onto a coffee estate and into a planter lifestyle. Even so, the love of Coorgs for their land remains visible. It’s almost the only sensibly real thing on these pages.
The trouble is the research required to recreate colonial-era Coorg. Some of it, Mandanna has said in interviews (here and here), involved talking to elderly Coorgs and looking up folk songs. But for the nitty-gritty she turned to 19th-century memoirs and gazetteers — naming only one, a journal by a Sir Erskine Perry (misspelt Eskine in the book).
One of the unnamed sources is the Reverend G Richter’s Gazetteer of Coorg: Natural Features of the Country and the Social and Political Condition of Its Inhabitants of 1870 (a 1995 reprint is available). A well-read Coorg of my acquaintance pointed out instances where phrases and descriptive patterns in Tiger Hills echo those in Richter.
Now, any historical novelist needs primary sources for facts and background. Description and imagery, however, ought to be the author’s own. Compare the following instances, in which Mandanna’s words are not always the same as Richter’s, but her imagery and argument echo the older text.
Richter, pp 1-2: “The present shape of Coorg, as represented on a map, is not unlike a baby’s sock…”
Mandanna, p 4: “It was a tiny principality, shaped not unlike the knitted bootie of an infant…”
I wrote to her publisher to ask about this and other similarities. Mandanna responded that “To this day, were one to look at an image of Coorg, the image it brings to mind is a bootie or a small sock!” Possible, but…
Richter, p 117: “The Coorgs… are the principal tribe of the country, and from time immemorial the lords of the soil. For the last two centuries they are known as a compact body of mountaineers who resemble more a Scotch clan than a Hindu caste…”
And Mandanna, p 25: “They constitute a highland clan, free from the trammels of caste, with the manly bearing and independent spirit natural in those who have been, from time immemorial, true lords of the soil.”
Again, Richter, p 119: [On Coorg women] “They are remarkably fair, of goodly stature, well shaped and many are really handsome before the betel-chewing, which generally begins after their marriage, disfigures their regular features, and blackens their otherwise brilliant teeth.”
And Mandanna, p 26: “The women might be deemed attractive, were it not for the unfortunate habit of chewing betel, especially amongst the older matrons, which renders their teeth and lips a vivid shade of crimson.”
The anthropological tone, Mandanna explained, is because these passages are meant “to be the transcribed notes of Hermann Gundert [the missionary who taught Devanna]… [T]he language used here is deliberately formal and styled in the manner of the texts that the character would be reading during that period.”
These are some results of a comparison with one source. We stopped comparing at page 27 of Mandanna’s book. (Other reviewers have pointed out similarities between Tiger Hills and The Scent of Pepper, a 1996 novel by fellow Coorg author Kavery Nambisan.)
Penguin replied to my list: “There really is no problem in an author using old, out-of-copyright texts as primary sources for research… [It] is only natural that Mandanna should refer to historical texts specific to the time and the area, for ideas. She has not lifted directly from the texts, nor has she replicated actual passages.” But even if a source is out of copyright, it should be credited. Why not simply insert a “Note on Sources”, as historical novelists often do?
Mandanna added that “Wherever the novel quotes directly from a source, every attempt has been made to acknowledge that source.” She identified two: Erskine Perry, and Pattolé Palamé: Kodava Culture — Folksongs and Traditions, a recent book by her aunt and uncle. In general, she says, “I am thankful to have had access to these texts — without them, it would have been difficult to paint a picture of Coorg that tallied, in spirit, with the original of that time.”
Coorgs of a certain background even today are well-read and locally knowledgeable, so word has begun to circulate about these and other resemblances. I heard about the Richter echoes from two different sources, both Coorgs. Neither was willing to be quoted. “We Coorgs are like Asterix and the Gauls,” said one — they stick together.