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Interview: March 18, 2011

A former investment banker and a first-time novelist, Sarita Mandanna is the author of TIGER HILLS, a tale of two childhood friends who grow up together in southern India, until their lives are interrupted by an unexpected romance --- and an unforeseen tragedy --- that will affect their families for years to come. In this interview with's Usha Rao, Mandanna talks about what inspired her debut, elaborating on her own childhood experiences in Coorg and how a series of short stories eventually evolved into a nearly 500-page novel. She also discusses the role of clan identities in southern Indian history, muses on some of her book's central themes, and reveals how she found the time to write Devi and Devanna's incredible story while working at one of New York City's most prestigious private equity firms. What inspired you to write TIGER HILLS?

Sarita Mandanna: The inspiration for TIGER HILLS stems from a deeply personal vein. Coorg is where I'm from --- my family traces its roots in these hills for centuries. I've always felt a deep connectedness with this part of the world. Perhaps inevitably then, when I began to write TIGER HILLS six years ago, I knew that Coorg would be the setting, and none other. While Coorg forms the highly personalized canvas of TIGER HILLS, I wanted to write a story almost classical in structure --- a large narrative, with characters who struggle with universal themes. What do we do when we are thrust into circumstances that are not of our choosing? TIGER HILLS explores the nexus between fortitude and acceptance, the choices we make, and the far-reaching impact they can carry.

The desire to write itself took me somewhat by surprise. I was always an avid reader, and while I did think that I would write, it was very much a "one day, some day" kind of aspiration. About seven years ago, after a particularly draining week, I came back home from work itching for a creative outlet and looking to do something completely removed from what I did during the day. I booted up my laptop and simply started to write. That initial output became a short story, which was followed by six more in rapid succession, and these formed the springboard for TIGER HILLS.

BRC: Devi, the central character in the story, is not always a sympathetic protagonist; she goes from being impetuous in her youth to being embittered in middle age. In your eyes, is Devi a tragic figure? To quote from TIGER HILLS: "Who was the true victim, who had truly been wronged, at what price redemption?"

SM: It's interesting how polarizing Devi is as a character --- readers either admire her strength, or find her adamantine. In the aftermath of the crime perpetrated upon her, Devi has a choice between strength, or resignation and submittal. She consciously opts for the former. She hardens herself, and becomes determined to build a life for herself within the parameters that have been decided for her.

Some of the choices that Devi makes later in her life are far from right, and that was intentional. Nobody in TIGER HILLS is perfect --- like most of us, all of the characters, no matter however well intentioned, have their foibles. Devi makes her mistakes, realizes the impact of those decisions and then, with varying degrees of success, tries to undo the wrong.

BRC: Hundreds of herons appear at Devi's birth, and continue to appear at every important turn in her life. What do the herons signify to you?

SM: The imagery stems from the egrets you find everywhere in Coorg, flashes of white against bright green paddy. The herons represent that ubiquitous snapshot. They are a stylized rendering of the landscape that roots the story of TIGER HILLS; a symbol of the connectedness between the central characters and their land.

BRC: Devi and Devanna have similar names, especially in light of the fact that Devanna could be translated as Devi's anna, or brother. Did you choose these names to suggest the relationship that they were destined to have?

SM: That's an interesting observation --- I had not thought of that! There is a rhythmic compatibility between both names that was pleasing to me --- the "two peas in a pod" relationship between Devi and Devanna extending to even their names. I like to think that Devanna especially, bookish as he is, would have secretly delighted in this resonance.

That being said, the "anna" was pure serendipity. Most male names in Coorg end in "anna," "ayya" or "appa." Devanna is not an actual name --- it is an obfuscation of the name "Devayya." Given all that Devanna undergoes in the novel, and the fact that I have both family and friends named Devayya, I changed the name to Devanna. It is not a name common in Coorg, and I figured that this way, I wouldn't end up inadvertently upsetting anybody.

BRC: Many of the central characters --- Devi, Devanna, Appu --- lose their mothers under tragic circumstances very early in their lives. Are there common threads in terms of how each of these characters is affected by the loss of a mother at a young age?

SM: Devanna loses his mother very young, and then he is virtually ignored by his own father. The gaps they leave in his life are perhaps never filled --- and fuel his need to compensate for them with other people: Tayi, the Reverend and, of course, Devi. When Devi loses her own mother a few years later, she has her grandmother Tayi, as well as the rest of the family, who have doted on her since she was a baby. That softens the blow somewhat, although in Devanna's eyes, it makes them evenly well-matched: two steadfast friends further united in the loss of their mothers. Appu is in some ways the mirrored doppelganger of Devanna. He loses his father, and then is literally abandoned by his mother, and he never recovers from the stigma he places upon himself as an orphan.

BRC: What role does fate play in the unfolding love triangle at the center of the story?

SM: It isn't fate as much as the things we perpetrate on those we hold dearest in the name of love. There are different forms of love explored in TIGER HILLS --- obsessive, possessive and filial, as well as the ways we wield them to undo one another. The fates of the three central characters change in the aftermath of a single act of violence that, in turn, has its roots in continued acts of tyranny perpetrated upon the aggressor. Was that fate, and does that excuse that act of violence? I think not. One of the themes in TIGER HILLS is the notion that no matter what happens to us, we typically retain a choice in terms of our reactions to happenstance and what we do in its aftermath.

BRC: You describe two animal deaths in vivid detail --- that of a tiger and that of a red squirrel. In the first instance, the tiger's death brings great glory to the killer, while the squirrel is killed in an act of malice and wanton cruelty. There is also an act of stunning violence perpetrated by a central character towards another important character. Was it difficult to write the scenes that describe acts of violence? Did you experience these three scenes differently when you were writing about them?

SM: Although I am against hunting for sport, the tiger hunt was somewhat easier to write than the other two scenes. To kill a tiger was considered an act of supreme bravery in Coorg, and tremendous honor was accorded not only to the hunter but also to the slain tiger. The hunter would actually be wedded to the soul of the tiger in a lavish ceremony attended by Coorgs far and wide. In some ways, writing that particular scene, difficult as it was, was almost just a transcription of the times in which the characters lived.

All the chapters that deal with Devanna's time at medical school, and the immediate aftermath, were grueling to write. I would literally find myself at arm's length from the laptop, face averted and squinting at the screen, trying to place as much physical distance between myself and the words that were unfolding. The squirrel episode in the novel also draws upon a personal horror of laboratory dissection. As a school kid in India, we dissected rats, frogs and earthworms. Sometimes the chloroform would wear off, and the poor things would still be twitching as we worked on them. I hated, hated, hated it. Some of that found its way into the story.

Violence in any form is abhorrent, and as a woman, it was doubly difficult to imagine and describe what happens to Devi. It was important to the story, however, and as a writer, it was important for me to write it with as much depth as possible. I would keep pushing away the laptop, getting up, and walking around the room as I tried to steady myself enough to finish writing that scene. I still find it hard to even think about it.

BRC: At the young age of 10, Devi decides that she and Machu --- by then a grown man and a renowned hunter and tiger killer --- are destined for each other. Do you believe that one can have and know a soul mate at that tender age? Does tragedy always ensue when soul mates are kept apart like this?

SM: I think the notion of "soul mates" differs from person to person. Did I know who I wanted to marry at the age of 10? Nope, I was tearing around the neighborhood on my trusty red bicycle, in two pigtails and woefully saggy socks!  Devi is a precocious, strong-willed child, and for her, what starts off as little more than a childhood crush evolves into something more enduring. It was part fantasy, but in her case, reality ended up more than matching it. There are people we meet who simply feel "right" to us, and for Devi, it was Machu and nobody else.

I think tragedy can be premeditated and consciously inflicted, as well as stunningly random. People are often just placed in the path of misfortune, and there isn't always a "why" when it comes to what happens to us. In TIGER HILLS, tragedy is both the cause and the result of Devi and Machu being kept apart.

BRC: There are detailed and lyrical descriptions of the geology and botany of Coorg in the book. Do you have any particular training or interest in these areas? If not, what sources did you use for this information?

SM: It largely stemmed (pun unintended!) from Reverend Gundert's character in the novel. I wondered what he would do in his spare time, and by reading memoirs from that period, I realized that there were a number of amateur botanists in the country at the time. The hills in South India are particularly bountiful --- there are a number of plants that are either not well documented to this date, or with a myriad medicinal uses that are still slowly being understood. It made sense to me, then, that the Reverend would apply his intellect and interests to botany.

Some of the plants described in TIGER HILLS are from personal experience. Like Justicia Wynaadensis, for instance. Its leaves are sweetened and cooked with milk, and they are traditionally served during the monsoon, when it's supposed to be at the peak of its medicinal prowess. I love it so much that my mother freezes a batch for me each season, for when I next visit Coorg. The narvisha plant is another example. Planted in the courtyards and corners of gardens all around Coorg, the scent of its leaves supposedly wards off snakes. All of this found its way into the narrative. For the balance of the research, I have the NYPL to thank. That, and my best friend, Google.

BRC: The book derives its name from a coffee plantation that Devi builds. What is the history of coffee growing in Coorg? Your novel suggests that coffee was not native to the region, and that it was brought there by the British colonials. When did this begin? Do modern coffee plantations still play a big role in the economy of Coorg? 

SM: Legend has it that the first coffee beans were brought to India hundreds of years ago by an enigmatic holy man named Baba Budan. He rode across the Arabian deserts with seven precious, smuggled coffee beans strapped in a silken pouch to his belly. He distributed the bounty among his followers, telling them that, if they tended to the plants carefully, in return, the plants would reward them with a potent liquid, filled with vigor. He then disappeared into one of the many caves dotting the Sahaydri mountains. It is said that the old sage still lives, even all these centuries later, and that when the coffee blossoms each year, he descends from the mountains now and again to take in their perfume.

Although Baba Budan is the one credited with introducing coffee to India, it was only much later, in the 1850s, that the British developed it into a viable crop. They settled in Coorg, taken by the cool climate and beauty of the place, and set about replicating the coffee estates of Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) here.

Coffee remains key to the economy of Coorg, and virtually every Coorg family, mine included, tends at least a few acres of coffee. The estates are run pretty much the same as they were 150 years ago --- coffee bushes are grown in the shade of old, gnarled jungle trees, and tended by manual labor.

BRC: Your heroine has been compared to Scarlett O'Hara. Some of the similarities are obvious: Devi and Scarlett are both resilient, redoubtable women, who conquer their respective circumstances; both are in love with men they cannot have; and both of these novels --- which are epic love stories and sweeping, multigenerational sagas --- are set on plantations during times of war. Was Scarlett an inspiration for you?

SM: On the contrary, Devi's tenacity and spiritedness draw on the women of my own family! My great-grandmother was an especially fiery woman. She was widowed young, and left with a brood of small children. Family history has it that, at my great-grandfather's funeral, a relative with a bone to pick taunted, "Let's see what the widow does, now that the tiger is dead." Without missing a beat, my great-grandmother whirled upon him. "The tiger might be dead, but never you forget, the tigress is still alive." She never remarried and went on to manage her estates and property with great alacrity, roaming her fields with a dagger tucked into her blouse.

BRC: Did you see any similarities between TIGER HILLS and GONE WITH THE WIND when you were writing the novel, or did other people note the points of similarity first?

SM: I have a sheepish confession to make: I have yet to read GONE WITH THE WIND! It's very much on the top of my reading list, and it has been for a while, except I am almost nervous to read it now! I knew who Scarlett was, of course –-- Who doesn't? She, Rhett Butler, and the most basic outline of the story, "Frankly my dear...", included.

People have compared TIGER HILLS to GONE WITH THE WIND, as well as to THE THORN BIRDS. Given how enduringly popular both novels have been, I take the comparisons as a compliment! In all seriousness, though, the stories are all so different; I believe that people are responding to the period settings, the strong connection to land that is present in all three, the central female protagonists (some stronger than the others), and an "epic" or "saga" form of narrative that spans decades and is multi-generational.

BRC: Tukra, the Poleya tribal, spends his entire life taking care of Devi and tending to her family. Can you discuss his relationship to the clan and the role that he serves so faithfully, even though he is not one of them?

SM: He is virtually a member of the family. Devi and Devanna have known Tukra since they were all children together, and there is a sense of loyalty that exists between the three of them for the rest of their lives. I've known people like Tukra --- old Paati, for instance, who has been with my family since I was a child. She must be a hundred years old, looks impossibly frail and can barely even hear, but still manages to keep tabs on us all. There is the man who came every day to milk our cows, and who was devoted to my grandfather. When my grandfather was ailing, he took better care of him than any certified nurse. These are the people who were the inspiration for Tukra in TIGER HILLS.

BRC: Clan loyalties, as well as a strict sense of honor and one's role within the clan, dominate the relationships between the Coorg in the story. Do clan identities play as big of a role in modern Coorg life as they did in the 1800s, when the story is set?

SM: The joke is that when a Coorg introduces a fellow Coorg to an "outsider," he or she will say, "Meet my cousin," even if the two Coorgs have only just met! In the past, having traditionally large families and being constantly under siege from neighboring kingdoms meant a tightly knit community, where virtually everyone was related --- either by blood or by marriage. That sense of kinship holds true to this day: No matter how distant the connection, it is a palpable one.

While the old joint family structures have given way to nuclear families, as they have in the rest of India, clan relationships are still given a great deal of importance. There is a designated "elder" for each clan, and a common question at weddings and other large gatherings still is, "Which clan are you from?" Honor and bravery are still prized virtues. Most families in Coorg have at least one member serving in the Indian Armed Forces; my father, for instance, was a Colonel in the Indian Army. There is also a great deal of pride in our heritage, as well as a continued sense of belonging to the land. My generation is a far-flung one --- we have moved far from Coorg to settle in all corners of the world. Yet we still talk about going "home" to retire. For most of us, Coorg is where we will all eventually come to roost. 

BRC: You wrote this nearly 500-page novel while holding down a full-time job at a private equity firm. How did you find the time to write this story, and how long did it take from beginning to end?

SM: TIGER HILLS was five years in the making, and counting. I wrote it while living and working in New York City. It wasn't an easy time; while it was deeply satisfying in the aggregate, there were also days when I seriously questioned my sanity for taking this on. Extracting yourself from the immediate world --- the physicality of it --- and immersing yourself in one of the imagination takes a bit of transitioning, and it was all the more challenging in the case of TIGER HILLS because I was working full-time, as well. There were many hours spent staring at my laptop without writing a word, as I made the mental leap from bright lights, big city New York to 19th-century Coorg! Still, it wasn't so much an act of discipline as a labor of love. As much as I chafed being tied to my laptop, there was little else I could do –-- I was obsessed with TIGER HILLS as soon as I began it.

While work took priority, I wrote during all of the spare time that I had. It was a strict process of compartmentalization: I walked to work in Manhattan, and I would give myself time to think about the plot and characters until I reached the doors of the building. Once I was in, that was it, the story was shut away. I'd walk back home late at night, and once home, I'd give myself an hour to unwind. I'd then begin to write once more, working until I was simply too tired to go any further.  I wrote on the weekends when I wasn't working, even carrying drafts to the gym to edit on the treadmill. That schedule meant that I slept very little, averaging about three to four hours of sleep a night during all the years I was working on TIGER HILLS. I am still a recovering insomniac –-- there is at least one night a month when, no matter what, I am unable to sleep at all.

BRC: Has the writing of this novel and the very positive reception it has received made you see yourself as more of a writer than a finance professional? Is there another book in your future?

SM: Ideally, I'd like to do both. I enjoy the financial services sector and the structure of a day spent in the office a great deal. I am on a sabbatical at the moment, as I am researching my next novel –-- I hope it is written with a little less stress and a bit more sleep, though! 

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