How often does it happen that you're hundreds of pages into a novel and you think you know what you're reading, when, with the turn of a page, it becomes something else?
With Sarita Mandanna's debut novel, "Tiger Hills," I thought I was reading a first-rate historical romance, a cut above most stories of its ilk. But ultimately, the author surprised me by deftly defying the conventions of romance. She illuminated not the wildly palpitating heart, but rather the disappointed, unforgiving heart, battle-scarred and broken.
Pintail/Penguin ($16 paperback).
In the end, "Tiger Hills" is about forgiveness, or rather, the failure to forgive. Who gets hurt by that failure to forgive, and how does that failure mark the generations that follow? Also, too, it's a study of choices. Time and again, the author paints a person at a crossroads, to where it comes to feel almost as if there are two stories: one that lives on the page but also a phantom story that exists off the page, where the reader carries an awareness of all that might have been had different choices been made.
The story begins in the late 1800s in Coorg, a small principality in India tucked into the mountains along the country's southern coast. Politically, it's an interesting time in India, which had come under British rule, with Englishmen and women coming over to make their homes and livelihoods on large coffee estates, bringing wealth and Western culture and mixing with the locals. The author, whose family has been in Coorg for centuries, brings to life the local customs and traditions, but shows us, too, the impact of that influx of new money and new ways, for better and for worse, that came from the West.
We meet our heroine, Devi, on the day she is born and follow her nearly the length of her days, watching her life play out on a lush, panoramic stage thick with humid, jungle-scented air. As a child, she comes to be raised alongside an academically gifted young boy named Devanna who her family takes in and loves as one of its own.
She is beautiful, he is brainy, and it doesn't give a whole lot away to say that he falls in love with her. She is 10 years old, however, when she meets the famed hunter, Machu, 10 years her senior, and declares to her mother, "Mark my words, Avvaiah. I will marry Machu."
Well, maybe, maybe not. Certainly, it strains credibility when, nine years later, she's still saying she will marry Machu, declining one marriage proposal after another in her quest for the still-unmarried hunter whom she hasn't talked to once in all those years.
But it's a choice that you make as a reader, that choice to buy in, that willful suspension of disbelief for which I opted because "Tiger Hills" is a good story. It moves and moves and moves. Things keep happening, and there's a lot to be said for that -- for the pleasure of a fast-paced, well written, multigenerational saga that brings to life a slice of India at a moment in time. So while the novel does have that "plotted" feel at times -- certain things happen because they need to happen to propel the story forward -- I buy in because it's a good story.
One thing that distinguishes this novel from others with which it might, wrongly, be lumped together, is that it doesn't for a moment suggest that love conquers all. In fact, it's a little more cerebral than that, suggesting your brain conquers all. That happiness happens in your head, that it's a choice that you make, regardless of whatever setbacks and disappointments line your personal landscape.
Encountering Devi at a point when she feels utterly beaten up by life, a kinswoman explains, "One has to live, not run away from one's problems. One has to fight for happiness. It isn't easy for a woman, I am the first to agree with that. But where is the sense in throwing everything away? One must fight."
However that might sound out of context, it works on the page; it resonates because it's true. Life can disappoint. Things get hard, and don't necessarily work out the way we wanted. What do you do when that happens? And how do the choices you make affect the people in your life?
Sarita Mandanna has written a fine story that treats these questions with the respect they deserve. This while also crafting a story that manages to offer the reader that particular rush of pleasure you get from diving headlong into a whole other world and allowing yourself, in the end, to be swept away.
A CONVERSATION WITH SARITA MANDANNA
The following interview was recorded over Skype on September 18 , 2012. Parts have been edited for clarity.
Judy Wertheimer: Where am I catching you? Are you in Toronto?
Sarita Mandanna: Right now, I'm in Toronto. I still tend to split my time between New York and Toronto, but I'm in Toronto right now.
JW: I understand that you got your MBA in the U.S. and you got the Indian equivalent of an MBA in India.
JW: And then you went on to work as investment banker in India, Hong Kong, and New York.
JW: And you managed to write this book while you continued to work.
SM: Yes. [laughs]
JW: It sounds like Devi inherited your work ethic. Are you and Devi alike in some ways?
SM: In the composite, I would hope not ... but I think whenever you create something, there are always bits and pieces of you that get embedded in the character that you create. In that respect, I'm sure there are some similarities. I mean, we're both really stubborn, for one, we're both pretty hard-headed for another. And then, yes, maybe there is a certain tenacity that I would say holds true for a lot of the women in my family, and Devi is very much modeled on a lot of those women.
In particular, I would say, if Devi were to resemble any actual person, I think she would most closely resemble my great-grandmother. That lady died well before I was born, but stories of her percolate through the family and she was quite a character, a very, very strong person, widowed very early with six young children, the youngest of whom was not even a year old. And she managed her property, the estate, singlehandedly, and made sure all the children were educated. There are stories of her-she was not quite five feet tall-and there are stories of her roaming the fields all alone early in the morning with just a dagger in her hand. So, beware, man or beast, who dared approach her. Those were the stories that I had in mind, and a lot of Devi's strength definitely draws from those sources.
JW: With so much else going on in your life, why was it important to you to carve out the time to write this novel?
SM: I started writing Tiger Hills about seven years ago, and even a month before then, or maybe six months before then, if you had told me that I'd be sitting here talking to you about a published novel, nobody would have been more surprised than I would have been. It just kind of crept up on me. I was always an avid reader when I was younger, and I'd write these nonsensical poems that a lot of us do, 'the sun' rhyming with 'fun' ... but I never thought that I would write, especially in a professional way ... I thought once I retired, I might write something, but purely for personal pleasure.
And I was in New York and I'd just gotten back from a really grueling day at work. It was just one of those weeks when everything was going wrong. I had a very difficult deal and the team was having a lot of difficulties, and the hours were really long and I came back home and it was close to 11 p.m. and I remember just longing to do something different, something creative and apart from Excel spreadsheets and number crunching.
And I remember wanting to bake a cake and that was just too long [laughs], so I literally opened up my laptop and I began to write without any conscious thought of what I was doing. And it was just one of those moments-it sounds so cliche, but absolutely true-when you're so absorbed in what you're doing that you completely lose track of the time. And I looked up and it was about three, three and a half hours later, and I realized that I'd been writing this fictional story. And I came back home the next day and I continued writing it. And I enjoyed the process so much that I kept doing this. And [after a] period of about four or five months, I had a collection of short stories. It was then that I said that maybe, since I enjoy it so much, maybe it's worth a shot to show it around to a couple of people and see if there was any merit to it ...
So I showed it to a couple of people, and they said, "There's good news and there's bad news. The good news is that you can write. The bad news is, it's hard to get a collection of short stories published, a debut collection. Why don't you write a novel?" And at that point, I remember balking at the prospect and saying I'm not trained and I don't have an MFA. I'd been a math and finance geek all along and I had no idea how to start. To my mind, writing a short story was somewhat more manageable because you have a certain plot line in your head and you just have to get from point A to point B. At least, for me, it seemed a more finite, manageable project. But a novel, I had no idea how to start it. And then someone said the only way you're going to know if you can do it is if you try. And that seemed to make sense to me ... I think it helped being naive in some ways about the process, because if I had known now how difficult the process would have been, I don't know that I would have started it. But at that point, I just said, "Sure, let me just try."
And that's literally how I started and once I started, the story came about in a very organic fashion. I just had a couple of scenes in my head, but it was a process of knitting them together. And as I was writing, I would discover more about the characters. And the process was just so-it was a difficult time. I was very sleep-deprived, but it was so innately satisfying to do that and to create these characters and tell their story, that I knew that, no matter what, whether it was published or not, I had to write the story and get it done.
JW: So you continued to come home and do your writing after working all day?
SM: Yeah, pretty much. I mean, it took me five years to write Tiger Hills and I was pretty much writing in a vacuum. It wasn't like I had a publishing contract waiting for me. I had no idea if the book would get published or not. And I told myself, let me just write the story that I want to write and let me just write it to the best of my ability. Let me do the best that I can. And I would come home and my hours were pretty long for the most part, Wall Street's hours, and my typical schedule would be to start writing about 11 at night and then carry on till about two or three in the morning ... and then sleep for a couple of hours and then go back to work. And then every weekend, when I wasn't at the office, I was home working on the book ... I remember a friend asking me, she said, "It's not possible for someone to be so busy all the time ... What's going on? We haven't seen you in months." And I'd be like, "No, I'm just really busy."
JW: So you kept it a secret that you were working on this?
SM: Yes. A huge secret.
JW: Wow! Why?
SM: By nature, I am a very private person, and it was an undertaking that was so dear to my heart and it was so important to me that I got it done ... There were a few very close friends who knew I was working on something. My mom was my Rock of Gibraltar through the entire process. She was the one who would read the chapters as [they were] coming through and give me her comments. So she was very much clued into the entire writing of the book. My close family-again, my sister, my husband, my dad-they did know that I was working on it. But the day-to-day progress of it, that I kept to myself. And then at work as well no one really knew I was doing this. I just wanted to keep my personal, you know, the creative side of things and the professional side of things totally separate.
JW: I'm impressed that you were able to share your work with your mom as you went along. That says a lot about your relationship with your mom.
SM: Judy, I am so lucky with my mom, I mean, with my family in general, knock on wood, but my mom is just the sweetest, gentlest soul, but a very, very strong person, as well. She was the one really who really instilled this whole desire to write in me because she loves to read, as well. I remember growing up, my sister and I were always surrounded by books. We literally had trunks of books under the bed, stuffed with books, books, books, everywhere. And it was mom that really encouraged us to read and start that habit. And she's also a very natural storyteller. She's a doctor by profession, and I remember, growing up, she'd come back and dinnertime was a sacred ritual at home. And when we'd be sitting around the table, we would all [go] through our day. And for the most part, I'd have a couple of sentences to contribute. And mom would start talking about her day, and it would be the most mundane thing, but the way she would say it was so interesting that all of us would just kind of rattle through our stuff just so we could get to her and listen to her speak. But I think some of that-her storytelling ability-may be genetically passed on and that kind of got instilled in the book, as well.
JW: To me, Tiger Hills felt like a historical romance novel. That's what I felt like I was reading until-I don't want to ruin the surprise, but until one surprising event when it clearly became something else. I was wondering if that was your intention all along, or did the characters surprise you and lead you in a different direction?
SM: ... The theme that I wanted to explore was what happens when your love story or your life doesn't quite go the way you planned it? Where do you go after that point? And if you look at all the characters in Tiger Hills, all of them are inherently flawed, no matter how nobly intentioned they are, and I wanted to explore-once you make a certain mistake in your life or if you are the victim of a gross injustice, where do you go from there? Do you continue to harbor the grudge because that's a way of remembering who you were before then? When is the right time to let go of the past and look to new avenues of happiness in the future? That was a central theme in the book, the power of choice. And it's a core philosophy as well, in that no matter what happens to you, if you live long enough, at one point or another you are going to be facing a situation not of your creating, a situation very unfair to you and a situation over which you have very little control. But I think no matter how stringent the circumstances, more often than not, we do retain a choice in terms of how to react to our circumstance. And that's what I wanted to explore. And Devi, in particular, takes a certain path where she's so wedded to the past and she's so wedded to what might have been ... that's what I wanted to explore-the cost of holding on unduly to the past.
JW: You grew up in Coorg?
SM: I grew up in India, but my dad was in the army so we traveled a great deal around the country, a typical Defense Services lifestyle. But my family, my parents, they live in India now. They live in Coorg now, and every summer it was a family ritual to go back to one of the grandparents' estates there and have all of the uncles, aunts, cousins, everybody come down. So that was the foundation with which I grew up. And all those memories of Coorg and running around the coffee estates and the lakes. That part of the world is so dear to me. I mean, I have traveled and lived in a number of different places, but that part of the world still has such a pull on me that when I started to write the book, I knew that even though I knew the story would evolve as I wrote it, I wanted the setting to be Coorg.
JW: Is Coorg today similar to the Coorg you depicted?
SM: In a lot of ways, actually, we're fortunate in that it is still very, very similar. When I was researching the book, the physical landscape was easy to talk about because it is very little altered. The estates are still run the same way as they were 150 years ago. We still have a lot of jungles and the woods and the waterfalls. All of that still exists. Things are modernized, obviously. Modernity has come into Coorg, and it's rapidly becoming a mainstream tourist destination in India, but that comes with a mixed bag of things. On the one hand, it's great. There's a lot of new tourism revenue coming into the region, which is good. But the flipside of the coin is, you do have a lot more litter in public places and it's so very crowded.
And the town, called Madikeri, which I remember, growing up it was one of those quintessential small towns where you'd be driving on the road and you'd see somebody else coming up the other way and it would definitely be somebody you knew, so you would stop your car in the middle of the road and have this long conversation, [then] drive on. And now that's out of the question. I mean, there are actually traffic jams in Madikeri. So some things have changed, but it's still incredibly beautiful... . The greenery, the hills, all of that is still very much the same.
JW: One of the things that I like that you did was that you showed the effect of people's choices on the generations that followed.
SM: I don't think parents realize the impact they have on their children. I think very often, particularly in older times, children weren't always allowed to grow to the people that they were meant to be. There was so much familial expectation put on them in terms of who they were supposed to be. There was a lot of baggage that they were born with and had to deal with through their lives. And that's something that I did want to explore.
Devi's relationship with both her sons, her projections of the life that she wanted-she projects so much of that onto Appu, in particular, that he is never really allowed to blossom into the person who he might have been. He's always 'the tiger killer's son.' The burden of all her expectations are placed on this one boy, and he just grows up spoiled and not of very sound character. On the other hand, the other son [Devanna] who's just ... It's not an easy situation, but the boy is an innocent and he never quite fathoms, until later on, just why the mother never quite connects with him ... . There's no physical abuse, but at the same time it's very different than her relationship or her feelings with [Appu]. And that changed [Devanna], as well. He's always in search of that maternal approval, and he, as well, doesn't quite grow into the person he could have been.
JW: Do you have another book in the works?
SM: I do. It's a very different setting, but again it will be similar to Tiger Hills in that it explores family ties and some of the emotional [connections] that we make during the course of our years. So it's still in progress, but we'll see what happens with that one.
JW: Are you still working in banking?
SM: I'm not. I'm on a sabbatical right now, but looking to get back to work. The writing is absolutely fabulous, but it would be good to be getting a steady paycheck every month, too. [laughter]
Judy Wertheimer is a writer living in Squirrel Hill (firstname.lastname@example.org).