So I began the new year, 2019 with Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna! This was a book I knew about a long time ago and only recently was I able to get my hands on it.
And what a perfectly divine choice! The novel whisks you back in time and takes you on a flavourful albeit bitter journey across Coorg in the Indian state of Karnataka!
Replete with rich symbolism such as herons, and once in a blue moon blooming bamboo flowers, Tiger Hills, begins in 1878, when Mutthava reminisces about the birth of her daughter, Devi, in Coorg.
Devi is the only daughter of Mutthava and Nachimanda Thimmaya. She is pampered by all, including her parents and her grandmother, Tayi. She becomes bold and feisty and soon her life is intertwined with the orphaned son, Devanna. They become the best of childhood friends. The story then turns to how Devanna is lauded for his intelligence by Reverend Gundert, who was in charge of the mission there. He develops a fondness for the boy and wants to cultivate in him a deep well of learning. Devanna grows to love this attention. The Reverend also slowly cultivates Devanna’s love for botany and education. Simultaneously, Devanna falls in love with Devi. But he aspires to become a doctor and then confess his love for her when he completes his studies. Devi, however, gets smitten by the famous tiger killer, Machu and has eyes only for him.
And alas, like all love stories, tragedy befalls on Devanna and due to that on Devi as well.
The novel, however, does not simply capture the love that Devanna has for Devi because it is so much more. Sarita Mandanna’s writing is quick yet descriptive and gives a sweeping view of so many aspects of the various events that were occurring alongside the main story. She richly etches out the beauty of Coorg of those days, takes in the historical events that intertwined with the main plot as well such as the British Afghan War and the two World Wars etc.
Tiger Hills is divided into three parts: all three named after the male characters of the novel: Devanna, Machu and Appu. Appu is Machu’s son who Devi adopts. Through all the three male narratives, Devi runs as the common thread that unites all of them. Thus, despite the narratives focusing on one male character within that part, Devi’s presence and growth is unmistakably present.
Learning early on that one has to fight for happiness, Devi’s boldness from her childhood continues to flourish, a trait that helps her bear her tragedy with her head held high (something that becomes a habit for her and becomes natural as time goes by) and she becomes a defiant woman constantly challenging the norms of the patriarchal society. Devi becomes a fighter in each and every stage: be it not getting her due share of the property or turning her land into a flourishing coffee estate. Devanna uses his botany knowledge to aid her slowly and surely from the background.
The only grouse I hold against the story is the coincidences that take place in a melodramatic manner through which the long buried secrets of their lives are revealed. At times, they may seem contrite, forced and a tad bit soap opera like, almost as if the author has had no time to finish it and has to resort to certain filmi styles to achieve a closure. Even the ending is rather Bollywoodish and seems like a feeble attempt to end the story on both a happy as well as ambiguous note.
If one overlooks that however, Tigers Hills is a fairly straightforward story, engaging and easy to read, chronologically constructed and almost like a bildungsroman for the two lovers as the reader sees their growth from childhood into adulthood and how they come to terms with the losses they have suffered along the way.
It is a beautiful book to steep yourself in and read with a cuppa of coffee while you travel back in time and wander amidst Devi’s aptly named coffee estate, Tiger Hills.