New Delhi, July 21 (Calcutta Tube) One always writes what one knows best the first time, says Toronto-based Indian origin novelist Sarita Mandanna. And her novel, ‘Tiger Hills’, is indeed being hailed by the British press as a staggering debut achievement.
The book is a nostalgic tale of love and karmic destiny set amid the picturesque green slopes and the colourful ethnic culture of her native Coorg in Karnataka.
‘Five years ago, when I began to write the novel, I knew it had to be Coorg. I was madly in love with the place where I spent several childhood years. The birth of the book was organic,’ Mandanna told IANS in an interview here.
‘The scenes were inside my head for a long time. The characters would crop up and render the story a life of its own. I felt that I was just a medium telling a tale.’
‘Tiger Hills’ was released in the capital Monday. Set in Coorg in 1878, it is the story of a little girl, Devi, who vows to marry the great tiger hunter Machu.
She befriends Devanna, a young boy whose mother has died in tragic circumstances; and they become inseparable. But their destinies change when Devi meets Machu, the tiger hunter of great repute and a man of immense honour and pride. The catastrophic consequences of the triangular romance affect generations to come.
Mandanna, an investment banker from IIM-Bangalore and Wharton Business School, had begun her career as a writer of ‘short stories to de-stress from the rigours of her work’.
The task to connect to a different historical period in the din of New York was mammoth for Mandanna, when she decided to write a novel.
But the New York Public Library, where ‘she accomplished the bulk of her research by jotting copious notes from 19th century botany books detailing the bio-fauna of the region – and old back issues of the Gazetteer of Mysore to backdrop her story’, helped her overcome the time lag.
‘I collected reams of information, mostly throwaway snippets that I inserted in my book. The more you graft on to your canvas, the more you understand how that period of life looked or felt,’ she said.
Hunting is integral to the Coorgi way of life, Mandanna said, recollecting the ‘genesis of tiger hunter Machu’s character’.
‘Almost every Coorgi household has old sepia photographs of men in their hunting gear and shotguns. Coorg has a long hunting tradition because the race is martial. Men still turn up in their traditional black tunics with golden sash and a dagger tied around their waists at Coorgi weddings,’ Mandanna said.
Mandanna spoke to ‘several hunters, mostly older members of the community,’ who told ‘her how it happened’. ‘Hunting was primarily a recreation,’ she said.
Another source of information for the period backdrop was Coorgi folk songs. ‘I read between the lines of the Coorgi folk songs. In the book, I wrote about a tiger song that was sung to the accompaniment of kettledrums. The drums were beaten to flush the game from its hideout. A wonderful anthology of Coorgi folk songs, ‘Pattola Palame’, translated in English, was my source of information,’ she said.
Recreating the period was a ‘process of imagination and isolation’.
‘The more I read about it, the easier it is to visualise the period. I turned my back on the modern world. I sat in front of my laptop for six hours before I could re-connect and allow the story to flow. Each time the phone rang, I lost the connection,’ Mandanna said.
The novelist, who grew up reading English classics and R.K. Narayan, observed that ‘translations of vernacular literature were enriching contemporary Indian writing in English’.
‘We have more access to regional literature now. I want to read the English translation of Chowringhee by Mani Sankar Mukherjee,’ Mandanna said.
‘Tiger Hills’ has been published by Penguin-India.
The book was published by Orion in Britain. In January this year, the Daily Express, Britain, wrote: ‘This book is a staggering achievement, especially as it’s a first novel … Sarita is a major new talent.’
The UK Telegraph said it was ‘one of the debut novels to watch out for in 2010’.
(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at email@example.com)