Lush prose buoys up a tale of love for the land…
It is difficult to categorise this novel (if you like that sort of clarity). Not because it defies categorisation but because it could well fall into so many slots.
Exotic Indian novel peopled by proud clans and impossibly beautiful women, swift swords and sacred rivers; peppered with highly localised minutiae and strange names and words, often unpronounceable even for some Indians? Check.
Epic novel spanning generations and characters inextricably bound and battered by twists of destiny? Check.
The classic love story, underlain with bitter longing and tragic desperation? Check again.
And of course, there is the category of record-breaking book. If you didn't know, Sarita Mandanna was paid what is said to be the highest advance shelled out by Penguin India for a debut novel. Rs 35 lakh is the rumoured figure.
Does the book justify the hype? Yes and no. Okay, let's do this again: Is this a good book? Yes. Is this a great book? No. Even if Tiger Hills deals with a broadly universal theme and emotions, can touch you and sweep you up with its passion at times. Mandanna is a gifted, evocative writer who can tell a story stirringly well. But the promise of a sharper truth and a deeper insight is never fulfilled. Tiger Hills moves you but does not disturb you or haunt you.
And somewhere along its breathless way, this first novel collapses under the intensity of its passions, unable to sustain them or bring them to a dramatic conclusion. At 451 pages in hardback, it sometimes even seems like work to the reader. And sadly, the ending, which comes after some meandering, is too convenient a device, almost Bollywood-ish and a terrible letdown.
The disappointment is unfortunate, because for much of the book, Mandanna has us turning the pages quickly as she transports us to the lush, mist-covered landscapes of Coorg and its proud, martial people.
You have Devi, a translucent, impetuous beauty who has grown up with the orphaned Devanna. He's always been in love with her; she has decided early on that his kinsman Kambeymada Machaiah, single-handed slayer of a tiger, is the only one for her. But Machaiah has taken a 12-year-vow of celibacy and Devi is forced to marry Devanna before that deadline. Machaiah inevitably marries too and their lives intersect, sometimes serendipitously, sometimes tragically.
The simmering Devi-Machaiah romance sees Mandanna at her best; she creates a palpable sexual tension and volatile love that give the book its core.
“The full force of her feelings displayed beseechingly, eloquently in her eyes for all who cared to see. They stood there, the both of them, in plain view of the entire family, drinking one another in. And then Machu looked away, deliberately flicking his gaze away from hers. Devi flinched as if he had reached across and struck her.”
It is when the book moves to the next generation — Devi's and Machaiah's sons — that the pace begins to falter, our attention to stray. And like an ageing beauty, the book goes slowly grey and finally fades out.
Most of the tale is par for the epic romance course. What isn't is a surprise element of botanical detail, thanks to the Reverend Hermann Gundert, a German missionary who sees Devanna as the son he never had. Gundert (one of the most interesting characters in the book) passes on to Devanna his love and knowledge of the plants around him, from the “agnichatra tree” and “gunflower groves” to “delicately fronded narvisha”, and an elusive species of bamboo that he spends his life looking for. It is botany that holds Devanna together and is his salvation; it is a passion that Mandanna records and uses in a meticulously intriguing manner.
Indeed, an attention to detail suffuses (and sometimes, just sometimes, suffocates) Mandanna's storytelling, especially when it comes to her atavistic bond with Coorg, which turns out to be a key character itself. It is this love story — between the author and her homeland — that really endures.
“The air was so fresh it almost hurt to breathe, the breeze steeped in cardamom and rose. All about them the undulating hills, a tapestry of every shade of blue, green and in between, shot through with the brilliant silver of waterfalls.”
Elsewhere: “The river was luminescent. Its waters rippling, reflecting the molten roll 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. Details began to reveal themselves from the glow, branches, leaves, a scarlet rose slowly unfurling, and look, there upon the humpbacked rock, a pair of herons.”
Oh yes, the herons. The book begins with them: “Muthavva knew her seventh child was special, had known from the very day of her birth, the day of the herons.” The birds are a portent as much for the reader as Devi's mother; oh, it's going to be that kind of book, you think to yourself. In a rather laboured device the herons keep swooping into the narrative at regular intervals, right up the very end, to mark moments of, well, moment. By the time they make their final appearance in the last lines, you are not entirely unhappy to see them take wing and soar away.
Like Devi, you think of what might have been.
Tiger Hills; Sarita Mandanna; Penguin; Rs. 599