In fictional love triangles, the heroine is often presented with two options: the dashing bad boy or the nice, dependable dud. Just such a triangle appears in “Tiger Hills,” the first novel by Sarita Mandanna, which opens in the South Indian district of Coorg (where Mandanna was born) at the turn of the 20th century.
The novel’s heroine is Devi, a girl so willful that, at age 10, she declares to her mother that she will marry no one other than Machaiah, a handsome local hero and famed tiger hunter. She has no idea that her lifelong friend, the shy, sensitive Devanna – Machaiah’s younger cousin – harbors his own hopes of marrying her.
And so “Tiger Hills” seems bound for territory already well trod by Jane Austen and Jennifer Aniston. But time and again, Mandanna steers her novel in surprising directions. More than a love story, “Tiger Hills” explores the hazardous side of passion and the shackling grip of memory once love has been thwarted. It also vividly evokes Coorg itself – the coffee plantations, the European settlers, the age-old clans – offering an illuminating portrait of place through six decades of social change.
As children, Devi and Devanna are practically inseparable. Both attend a missionary school, run by Reverend Gundert, a German priest and amateur botanist, who recognizes Devanna’s intelligence and resolves to make a civilized doctor of the boy. Upon leaving the village for Bangalore Medical College, however, Devanna is cast into a claustrophobic hell of abuse, perpetrated by a tyrannical fellow student. To cope with his most harrowing ordeals, he lapses into half-mad spells, reciting the names of his beloved botany texts (“Flora Sylvatica, Flora Indica”) and contemplating his love for Devi: “Close they had been, ever since he could remember, like two eggs in a nest.”
Back in the village, Devi is carrying on a secret relationship with Machaiah, full of ardent promises and sexual longing. While Devanna suffers far from Coorg, Machaiah and Devi are as bound to the land as they are to each other. Surveying the hills, Devi feels “a sense of belonging, natural as breath. Like . . . a bird, folding its wings, come home to roost at last.” But all idyll is destroyed once Devanna returns and, in a shocking series of events, forces Devi to be his wife.
Of the three characters, Devanna – romantic and ambitious, tortured and heartbroken – is the most nuanced. Mandanna delicately charts the psychological breakdown that leads him to violence and lifelong regret. As the novel surges ahead, though, it turns to Devi and Machaiah, and the continuation of their ill-fated affair. The plot gathers in energy and pace, but these characters aren’t as fascinating as Devanna, and their emotions can feel overly articulated, their dialogue stilted with metaphors bordering on melodrama.
The novel accelerates through several momentous historical events, including both world wars and the Indian independence movement. But while the passage of years gives the book an epic sweep, the story loses some of its carefully accrued depth. Few of the novel’s late plot twists deliver the emotional force of a single ruminative scene in which an older Devanna recalls the rare bamboo flower he had longed to discover as a boy, in the jungles of Coorg, just so he could name it after his childhood love: Bambusa indica devi. “There was so much left to say,” Devanna thinks, but he goes no further, leaving the reader to feel the reverberations of what he has lost.
Courtesy of The New York Times.