Saturday, August 14, 2010

Putting The Coo In Coorg

This appeared in today's The Indian Express

TIGER HILLS Sarita Mandanna

Rubies flash fire, chills run down spines, soothsayers predict losses, missionaries have eyes the colour of the afternoon sky, amulets attached to fraying cords bring good fortune, fireflies glitter in darkening courtyards and a strong-willed woman chooses between a dimple-flashing tiger hunter and a sensitive childhood playmate.

If such over-ripe romanticism is your cup of filter coffee, Sarita Mandanna’s Tiger Hills will have you enthralled. This is prose as luxuriant as the land it describes, charting the lives of characters whose fortunes undergo as many ups and downs as a playground see-saw.

Prepare, then, to meet Devi, pampered daughter of an established Coorg family; Devanna, a tragically orphaned boy who grows up with her; and Machu, who achieves early fame as a killer of tigers, but soon has to choose between duty and love.

The novel follows these three characters and then their offspring, beginning in the Coorg of 1878 and moving on to the glimmerings of Indian independence, with a detour to Jazz Age Berlin. We also enter into The Far Pavilions territory when Machu sets off to fight in an Anglo-Afghan Wars, an episode romanticized out of all proportion.

Along the way, Devanna spirals into despair and desperation following an unfortunate incident of ragging at a medical college; Devi becomes a headstrong Scarlett O’Hara-type managing a coffee plantation; and Machu continues to oscillate between the love of his life and his actual life. As most of novel is given over to the travails of these three, the later sections describing the fortunes of their children come across as an extended coda more than anything else, down to an unfortunately contrived ending.

Much of Mandanna’s writing demonstrates that she has immersed herself in the rhythm and ritual of the Karnataka hills. We learn of the food, customs, apparel and ways of life of a variety of people, from the indigent to the well-heeled who retire to their club every evening. Throughout, the descriptions of such lore are marked by extravagance.

Every so often, the dialogue begins to quiver: with rage, indignation, despair and, of course, passion. On one occasion Machu asks Devi: “What rice does your mother feed you that you are so wilful?” This is a man whose laughter is “a low, easy sound” that glides over Devi’s skin “like sun-warmed glass”. A little later, his voice sounds like “lush, full-bodied moss”. How alarming.

Such examples, however, pale in front of the occasion when Machu, musing on his relationship with Devi, suddenly has a Debbie Boone moment: “It cannot be wrong when it feels so right”. Whether Tiger Hills feels wrong or right depends on how much of a stomach you have for this sort of sentiment.

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