Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna
First time authors must love it when their novels get the kind of attention that Sarita Mandanna’s novel Tiger Hills has received. Tiger Hills received the largest advance ever from Penguin India for a debut novel, it was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, and the initial publicity was wildly enthusiastic.
I had to read it – and found myself lost in the scents of the lush landscape, and culture of life in India – in Coorag, with a cast of characters that live in what can only be described as a “soap opera” world. A soap opera I found myself thoroughly immersed in – anxiously awaiting the next calamity even as I moaned about what occurred in each succeeding chapter – each more dramatic than the last.
I have to say her writing is lovely, the scenes set in a rich tropical world of exotic flowers and coffee plantations in the last years of the British rule. Tiger Hills is a love story front and centre – love unrequited for almost everyone, and the result is great distress for all.
The novel begins in 1878, a world remote in time and geography. We meet Devi and Devanna, cousins raised as siblings in a large extended family. At the centre of the story always is that Devanna loves Devi, but she sees him only as her great and loyal friend. Devi is in love with Machu – the “tiger killer” - the kind of guy you can imagine as the lead in a Bollywood film. Circumstances force the two apart, and their love for each other, complicated by another tragic event that I won’t reveal, prevents Devi from ever experiencing any happiness in her life.
At some point Devi says “the past is past” but she never does put the past behind her, and it poisons not only her own life, but the lives of those around her. There are other, innocent, people who are damaged by the events of the past, and that for me was the real tragedy in this novel. The event that defined Devi’s life is one that I found myself struggling with – asking myself whether or not it is something that Devi, in reality, could be expected to put in the past – to forgive.
In order to do anything different than she did, Devi would have had to make decisions early on, that would have brought shame and anguish to others – so perhaps she can be forgiven for her inaction. I often felt like shaking this fictional woman and telling her to stop being a victim forever and find a way to make her life one worth living.
There is so much to this novel that makes it worth reading, there is the world of this large extended family, their weddings and funerals – there is the young German priest who opens a mission school and recognizes Devanna’s potential to become more educated than his community can provide – and the tragic results when Devanna is sent away to school. There is fascinating world of the Coorg coffee plantations between the wars, and the effect of affluence on this family as they move away from the traditional multi-family way of life and become part of the emerging upper classes. Money for cars and club memberships does not necessarily bring happiness.
Most reviews have said the same thing I will say – this is a well-written novel, and perhaps there are people who really do live a “soap opera” life – but I found it all a bit much. That said, I couldn’t put it down – right to the surprising end. I’ve no doubt it will be read cover to cover, by readers like myself who find themselves absorbed in the story – no matter what eye-rolling you’ll do along the way.