By Kiran Manral
Sarita Mandanna was born and brought up in India and worked in Hong Kong before moving to the US. She is a private equity professional with a PGDM from the Indian Institute of Management and an MBA from Wharton Business School. Tiger Hills, her debut novel, is an epic saga and a love story set in Coorg. We spoke to her about her writing, her inspirations and her tips to aspiring authors.
Tiger Hills is a magnificent novel, spanning decades. What were your inspirations for the character of Devi (either fictional or real life)?
Devi in the aggregate is fictional. Being from Coorg, and with a significant amount of family still there, I was concerned that I would end up ruffling feathers, however inadvertently, were my characters to mirror actual people or their lives. Having said that, there are bits and pieces of Devi that are rooted in reality. Her appearance for instance – pale, delicate – draws on the women in my family. My mother, her mother before her. A great aunt whose skin was so translucent, they say you could see the water trickle down the inside of her throat as she drank! Then there is Devi’s inner fortitude, which is also based on the women I know or have heard of – the most gently, softly spoken souls imaginable, but each possessing a backbone of steel. My paternal great- grandmother for instance was widowed very young. She brought up her children single-handedly while managing the family property, stalking up and down her fields with a dagger tucked into her sari. That tenacity of spirit definitely permeated my pen and the characters in Tiger Hills.
How do the comparisons with novels like Gone With The Wind and The Thornbirds affect you?
Given how enduringly popular both those novels have proved to be, I’ll take the comparisons as a compliment! In all seriousness though, the stories of all three are different; I believe what people are responding to when they make the comparisons are the period settings, central female protagonists and an “epic” or “saga” form of narrative that spans decades and is multi- generational.
You write about Coorg. How much of your childhood experiences do you bring into the narrative?
Tiger Hills is a period novel, beginning in 1878 and there was a significant expanse of canvas that had to be painted in colors not of my experience. Still, Coorg is so much a part of me that it was an easy backdrop to recreate. I could write lovingly about the place all day long (or all night, as was the case with Tiger Hills!). It is the cornerstone of my childhood memories – balmy summer afternoons spent roaming the fields and backwaters, lazy mornings in the shade of the coffee bushes, watching the sun set behind the jackfruit trees and listening to the crickets come alive at dusk.
Your day job as a finance professional and making time to write must have been difficult. How long did it take you to research and write the novel?
Tiger Hills was five years and counting in the making. It wasn’t an easy time – there were days when I seriously questioned my sanity for taking this on. While there is a degree of poetic licence at work in Tiger Hills, I wanted to get the historical detail as accurate as possible. That required a significant amount of research. I spoke with a great grand aunt who was well into her nineties, tilling her memories of a Coorg well before my time. I spent hours at the New York Public Library reading memoirs from that period, volume after dry volume of the Gazetteer of Mysore, and accounts of coffee planting in the 1800s. I was lucky to have a rich fount of Coorg folklore and tradition in the Pattola Palame, an English translation of old Coorg folksongs, proverbs and customs - this latter proved invaluable in recreating Coorg from a 150 years ago. I wrote whenever I had the time – typically late into the nights and on the weekends when I wasn’t working. I slept very little and am still a recovering insomniac as a result – there is at least one night a month where no matter what, I am unable to sleep at all.
Tiger Hills is about unfulfilled love, Devi's and Machu's and Devanna's love too for Devi. What would you like the reader to take away from the novel?
To my mind, the unfulfilled love stories in Tiger Hills are an instance of a larger theme – what happens when life doesn’t go your way. What do you do when your dreams do not come true? We are often placed in circumstances not of our choosing, but I believe that we still have a choice when it comes to reacting to those circumstances. Time spent in bitterness and regret is time lost forever. No matter what, we can still choose happiness; we can still find happiness. Happiness different in shape and form than what we had perhaps imagined, but one that is richly veined nonetheless.
Tiger Hills received an unprecedented advance which created a buzz about the book, did that add to the pressure of writing in any way?
I was already done drafting Tiger Hills by then, so there was no added pressure. It was embarrassing, more than anything else, to be suddenly thrust into the spotlight, and to see vastly inflated accounts of the advance I had supposedly received!
Who are your favourite female literary characters, and why?
Jo from the Little Women trilogy – I love her large heartedness. Jane Eyre – quiet, unassuming Jane but with a core inner strength. The Rani of Jhansi – historical Queen yes, and also the literary heroine of the Hindi poem. That line “Khoob ladi mardani woh to Jhansi wali Rani thi" gives me gooseflesh. George of the Famous Five – because she was brave and no nonsense and also owned that lovely dog Timmy. Speaking of which, is Lassie allowed? Smart, faithful Lassie?
What are you working on next? Will there be a sequel to the story?
I am in the process of researching something new. It is very different in period and setting from Tiger Hills, and I am poking around the subject, trying to determine if there is enough there to warrant a full blown novel.
Any advice you would like to give aspiring authors?
To borrow from Nike: Just Do It. That story you have clattering about in your head? That wonderful turn of phrase you’ve been saving for your magnum opus? Commit it to words. Start now, not tomorrow or when you are done with this project or that deadline at work. Sit down and write, and write your best. Be honest with yourself – cut what doesn’t work and retain only what truly resonates with you. If all you can manage are a couple of paragraphs a day, that’s fine. Even that small measure of daily output will add up to something significant provided you commit to it. Just Do It