Penguin Rs 599 pp 464
If it weren't for the flight of herons that the book opens with (and which turn up at significant moments thereafter), I'd probably have read Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna with a slightly more open mind. As it was, the blurb at the back of the book seemed impossibly lush, making me worry that I was about to be pulled down into a bog of exoticism from which I might never re-emerge. So the opening line — "Muthavva knew her seventh child was special, had known from the very day of her birth, the day of the herons" — did nothing to quell my fears.
Which meant I approached this novel with extreme caution and some amount of prejudice — both of which, I am happy to say, were unjustified. Yes, Tiger Hills is a lush and exotic novel, but no, that's not all it is. It's a gripping romance-cum-family saga that traces the life of a spunkier-than-usual Coorg girl from her birth in the late 1800s to the 1930s, when she's hoping to become a grandmother and everything's changed — and is still changing.
Devammi (known as Devi), the 'special' seventh child, is a lively little thing, everybody's darling. As a child, she befriends and protects Devanna, a miserable orphan whose life changes when she enters it. As they grow up, Devanna realises he's in love with Devi — but Devi, alas, has been smitten by his tiger-killing cousin Machu since she was a little girl, though Devanna doesn't know it.
So off he goes to medical college, hoping that will impress Devi who, blissfully unaware, has promised herself to Machu. But brutal ragging in college turns Devanna into a temporary brute himself — and that means everything changes. Devi is forced to marry Devanna (and make him suffer); she taunts Machu into marrying (and his wife suffers); and the boys Devi and Machu produce also (when they grow up) suffer. All because of the premise that for some people, there can only be one true love.
In a sense you could compare Tiger Hills to novels like Barbara Taylor Bradford's A Woman of Substance and Colleen McCollough's The Thorn Birds — women-oriented romances based on the One True Love principle that are also family chronicles. But unlike those, this book is not really a generational saga (though it has the potential to be one). And it's also much better written than either Taylor Bradford's and McCollough's books — Mandanna has an easy style and a knack for making her characters come alive.
So my prejudice was unjustified — though I still think Tiger Hills could have done without the herons.
The Sleeping Beauty: Novelist Elizabeth Taylor's 1953 story is a 'Woman's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde'. Here, of course, it's Mrs domesticity and Ms Unbridled Passion.