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Love Conquers Naught?

Tiger Hills

by Sarita Mandanna

Grand Central Publishing | 2011 | 464 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber


For a romantic saga of colonial India, with its lush background sets, fragrant coffee plantations, and titillating jungle soundtrack, Tiger Hills has some unexpectedly bitter lessons to impart about the power of Love; . Love, actually, is rather destructive: it wants what it wants; it thinks it excuses everything one does in its name. And what is its exact relation to real life, anyway?

Tiger Hills explores this conundrum. This surprisingly cynical theme catapults a sweet tale of lifelong love, both requited and not, past some melodramatic plot twists, quasi bodice-ripping scenes and credibility-straining moments, into a novel worth its weight in coffee beans, one that could give Dallas (TV miniseries from the 70’s – 90’s) a run for its money.

    Devi and Devanna, as their names suggest, are like two sides of a coin, growing up together in Coorg, Southern India, at the end of the nineteenth century.  Devi is the first girl born to her family in 60 years.  Her doting grandmother rubs flowers steeped in coconut oil into her hair, intoning, “You are my precious flower bud, my sun and my moon, along with all the stars in the sky.”

   So, instead of getting a realistic vision of her place in the world, Devi follows her impulses and expects the world to play catch up. Her father, mother, and the villagers overlook her many missteps and breaches of convention. 

    Devanna is a motherless child a few years younger than Devi that she takes under her wing.  He’s her opposite in most ways: contemplative, a shy boy, and so good with his studies that he’s thought to have “gold for brains.”  As children and young adults, they are inseparable until Devi spots the virile tiger-killer,Machu at a fair and decides that he is to be her fate.  And so we have the classic triangle in place.

    Tragedy ensues (suicides, war, sickness, penury) and carries forth into the next generation.  One can’t help feeling that Devi has no compassion for her steadfast friend, her own son, or other innocent bystanders, particularly the wife of Machu.  How did she evolve from a softhearted girl who was despondent over the massacre of some chicks in the henhouse, and from the protective girl who crawled into the closet with Devanna to comfort him when he was frightened at his mother’s funeral, to someone so grasping and narcissistic?

     As an adult, she overlooks the fact that other people around her are living their lives and trying to fulfill their own destinies; she shows no forgiveness towards others, and plunges ahead single-mindedly, keeping her own counsel.  She’s forced to wear the pants in her relationship with her husband (or chooses to). Brooking no interference, she overcomes any obstacles put in her path, and creates a wildly successful coffee plantation, Tiger Hills.  She buys several other plantations and becomes a rich landowner, quite a coup, then and now.

    Devi forms a household made up of Devanna, her son, Nanju, and her adopted son, Appu (Machu’s son).  She coddles Appu, raising him as she was raised, openly favoring him over her own flesh and blood.  As can be expected, Appu grows up self-indulgent, lacking in ambition, and a product of British schools in India where he picks up some not-so-savory habits.  He, too, has a kind heart underneath his bluster and is very fond of his “brother,” Nanju.  Seemingly directionless, by the end of the story, he starts to show an interest in a political career  – and he’s probably the perfect fit for politics.

    All of the characters are artfully drawn and tug on our heartstrings despite, or because of, their frailties.  Devanna, as a child, is taken under the wing of a German reverend who runs the mission school.  The reverend prepares him for a medical or scientific career, but it all comes to naught, partially because of Devanna’s weakness of character and his inability to stand up to the bully at medical school, with no Devi around to back him up. The reverend does manage to awaken a passion for botany in his young student, and this knowledge is later key to saving the coffee plantation from a plague of insects.  But a pivotal point in the plot requires us to accept that mild-mannered Devanna could also be capable of great brutality – I, for one, wasn’t buying it.

   In the third generation, we are given a love affair that culminates in marriage:  Appu marries Devi’s beautiful niece, Baby.  Are they happy?  No, because they now come from two different worlds – she wants to be a good Indian wife, but he’s become a Brit wannabe, hanging out in clubs, drinking cocktails and engaging in clandestine trysts with officers’ wives.  They fail to produce an heir – she loses child after child in miscarriage – and their future as a couple looks bleak.  We have to wonder if the grand passion between Devi and Machu would have survived the mundane realities of marriage. 

    As the story draws to a close in 1938, there’s a last surprising plot twist, the welcome resurrection of a character, steadfast and loyal in his devotion to the land and the family.  As he rushes back to Tiger Hills, India takes her first steps towards independence from Britain (not attained until 1947), and Devi finally stops mourning what-might-have-been and reaches out to embrace her life.

     Mandanna, in this first novel, gives us the Indian version of a saga of the Old South, replete with colorful descriptions of the land, insight into her characters’ attachment to family, tradition and history and their struggle to adapt to changing times.  The book is dedicated to her grandparents, and it is likely that research into ancestral roots provided the inspiration for this exotic tale.  May we hope for more from this talented new-comer.

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