When is a book not a book? When it is earnest, well-intentioned, breathless, clueless, and practically, endless.
Intrepid readers who plan to navigate Sarita Mandanna’s Tiger Hills and schuss its morass of cliche all the way to page 464 deserve to know it is a book written by an adult, published by adults, ostensibly for adults. An indispensible health warning, for it is easily mistaken for the juvenile effusion of a distinctly un-precocious schoolchild. Also, the reader who invests Rs 500 in a hardcover does so in the belief it is literary fiction, a faith hard won despite innumerable betrayals, and one we like to keep. No more. While back shelves in bookstores spill over with paperbacks witty, original, adventurous yet unseen and unread, how does something as clumsy as this deserve deathless bookbindery?
This is a cradle to—well, almost—grave story set in lush Coorg. I use that adjective advisedly, for the prose latches on desperately to tourist idiom. Mist hangs, banks roll, water ripples, and the rains come even when the lovers refuse to.
Devi, the sub-Scarlett protagonist, is brave, beautiful and passionate as every princess should be. Her childhood companion Devanna tags along in adoration. He is, by the by, a genius nurtured by a German missionary living out his extended mourning for a love that dare not speak its name. Devi, aged ten, falls in love with the tiger slayer Macchiah. Puberty rages, birds twitter, plants get pigeonholed in Latin. Devanna is sent to Bangalore Medical College (circa 1895?) where dreadful things happen to him and ambush the book into chaos.
But chaos too gets a straitjacket and every now and then, inventoried from colonial catalogues of horticulture, the landscape takes over. Where, O where, except in Mandanna’s Coorg, is the banana a tuber and colocasia a creeper?
Impossible things can and should happen in a writer’s imagination, but they must have some factual controls. If you must choose to bugger your protagonist with a bone, the ulna is a poor choice—inconveniently wide at one end and viciously hooked at the other.
Not every family saga can be Buddenbrooks or Kaalam. Literary opinion has long dismissed the romance novel as trash, but many of those long-forgotten books had unforgettable characters. For all her onus on tragedy, it is difficult to spare Devi of Tiger Hills a single tear.