She has reportedly bagged the highest ever advance from an Indian publisher for a debut novel. Her literary agent, David Godwin, is the same man who represented Booker prize winners Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai. Sarita Mandana, an MBA graduate, is already being hailed as the ‘next-big-thing’. We caught up with Mandana while she was in town to promote her novel, Tiger Hills.
Some critics are calling your novel India’s Gone with the Wind. Given how enduring an institution Gone with the Wind has proved to be, I’ll take that as a compliment. In all seriousness though, the two are different in content. What people might be reacting to when they make the comparison are — a period setting (Tiger Hills begins in 1878), central female protagonists (Devi is wilful and headstrong) and a deep rootedness to place (Tiger Hills is set in Coorg).
Your journey from being an MBA graduate to a novelist is fascinating. I graduated from IIM Bangalore, followed that with an MBA from Wharton, and have been working in a private equity firm in New York. There came a time where I’ve had a particularly stressful weeks at work.
Itching for a creative outlet, I booted up the laptop one night, and began to write. That first output became a short story; I wrote six more and tentatively, began to show them around. “Write a novel,” I was told. So, I did. Five sleep-deprived years later, I was ready with Tiger Hills.
Does the response make you anxious?
Not anxious. Hopeful, yes, that readers enjoy Tiger Hills; but reading is such an individual pursuit that it is counter intuitive for an author to harbour mass expectations. The early response has been wonderful — the key indicator of a strong novel for me is when I find myself still thinking about it well after I’m done reading, and it’s very satisfying when readers react to Tiger Hills the same way.
Which Indian novelists you are fond of?
RK Narayan is a perennial favourite; I also remember being captivated as a child by Ruskin Bond’s writings. Amitav Ghosh has a compassion that permeates all his work. It’s hard to read Arundhati Roy without being struck by the intelligence of the voice behind the prose.
Will you ever consider writing a novel with Delhi as a backdrop?
I lived in Delhi for years when my father was posted at the President’s Secretariat. I have fond memories of our home at Teen Murti — poppies and sweet peas growing at one end of the garden and a host family of peacocks who had staked claim to the other, with the dome of the Rashtrapati Bhavan just visible through the trees. Delhi in the winter remains one of my favourite places in the world. The city would make a magnificent backdrop to a novel.
Which things do you feel are typical of Delhi, but have not been recorded in contemporary literature?
I am constantly struck by how steeped in history this city is. I’d love to read a period novel about Delhi, set in the 1920s and 30s perhaps. Delhi before the riots or the traffic, a Delhi of shaded roads and unhurried ambience, with this vast expanse of history stretching behind the immediate canvas and the promise of Independence just visible on the horizon.