Sarita Mandanna's Tiger Hills, an ode to Coorg, derives inspiration from its strong women
When Sarita Mandanna sat down to write her first novel, she knew it would have to be in the mould of her favourite novels from childhood — the grand, sweeping sagas of Emily Bronte or Jane Austen.
The result is Tiger Hills, her debut novel with Penguin India and, well, a grand, sweeping saga set in the Coorg of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Recently in town for the launch of the book, the New York-based author explained why it had to be Coorg, as well.
“My father was in the Army, and I grew up all around the country, but we went to Coorg every year,” says the Coorg-born Mandanna. “I have this memory bank of summers spent there, of tables groaning with food, of running off into the coffee plantations by myself — it's such a core part of me, I knew it would be the backdrop of my first book.”
That love for the land comes across in her lyrical descriptions of its jungles, mountains, rivers and plantations; in fact, at the launch event at Landmark, she referred to Tiger Hills as “an ode or a love letter to Coorg.”
It's also an ode to its people, especially the strong Coorg women from whom she drew inspiration for her lead character, Devi. “I drew upon women such as my great-grandmother, for example, who was considered very spirited, bringing up her children all by herself,” she says. “There are all these stories of her roaming with fields with a dagger tucked into her blouse.”
It wasn't all just memories and nostalgia though; while in conversation with Mukund Padmanabhan, senior associate editor of The Hindu at the event, she also described the reams of research that went into getting the historical detail right.
“I owe a great deal to the New York Public Library system,” says Mandanna, a private equity professional with an MBA from Wharton. “I obsessively read a number of colonial accounts of people who'd lived in the South, and even dusty old agricultural gazettes. Something would jump out at me and I'd use it to layer the story.”
The story itself spans several decades, beginning in 1878 and stretching through the war-time years of the first half of the 20th Century.
“That was such an interesting period in Coorg, and it hasn't really been explored,” she says. “In the late 1800s, there was a lot of money flowing in, and the Coorgs were in the process of getting Westernised; then fast forward 10-15 years, and you had nationalistic fervour rising again.”
The book was “a work of passion, an act of obsession” for Mandanna, who worked on it for five years, writing late into the night and juggling it with her day job. “I feel privileged that I got to inhabit both worlds,” she says. “After a hard day of objective, zero-one driven work, I could retreat into my fictional world. And, after a lot of angst and frustration over getting the plot just right, I could shut off the imaginary and return to the real.”
She's already knee-deep in research over her next book, but this time, it isn't quite as obvious to her what it should be about: “I'm still trying to figure it out; it's very different, and still very new,” she says with a smile.