Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna is truly a Bollywoodesque tragedy of a Devdasian calibre. Devdas being one of the most tragic, melodramatic Bollywood movies I have ever seen. Here the tears are shed among the men as well as the women, the impossible love as heart-wrenching for the parties involved, as well as for those responsible for inflicting this pain.
And I have to say, Indian authors truly know their tragedies. A Fine Balance, An Atlas of Impossible Longings, The Palace of Illusions, and Evening is the Whole Day are just a few of the Indian novels I've read that spring to mind. From the back cover blurb, I knew that the story would be sad: "a decision that has heartbreaking consequences for generations to come...". Duly warned, but warning ignored.
The story even starts with foreshadowing. As Devi is born, her mother knows she is special. The several omens gives the story a fairy tale-like effect, bringing to mind The Palace of Illusions, which is the rewriting of an Indian myth. Devi's mother fastens an amulet on her daughter to keep the evil eye away from her. In many ways I am tempted to read this novel as a sort of Indian Things Fall Apart, as the society described is one where the tension between Indian tradition comes into conflict with "modern" British culture. The story is set in at the end of the 1800s to the early 1900s, a period of growing nationalism in India. The political unrest, however, is a mere backdrop for the story itself.
Devi gains a brother when a mother in the community commits suicide, leaving her son Devanna behind. Devanna and Devi grow up practically as brother and sister, doing everything together. Devanna is satisfied with only Devi as his companion, but the wilful Devi wants more. When the first tiger is killed in decades, and Devi attends the "tiger wedding" to celebrate the hunter, Devi's life suddenly takes a new turn, and destiny makes her strong presence on the scene. Devi knows, without a shadow of a doubt, that this is her man. Machu, the tiger killer, however, sees Devi as only a child.
Nine years pass before Devi once again sees Machu. Nine years of waiting and being convinced that if he only sees her - because she has turned into an unparalleled beauty in the mean time - he will also know that they belong together. Devi is so focussed on Machu that she is blind to the fact that Devanna, her brother in all but blood, nourishes as strong a conviction that she belongs to him. As events unfold, it becomes more and more clear that there will be no happy ending, and destiny weaves a web of secrets, unhappiness and suffering that the characters must go through.
After reading this story, I wrote a somewhat detailed summary of the plot for my boyfriend, whose response was: "these people have terrible communication skills. It's ridiculous". He's so right. Many times in the novel, I thought to myself, if they could only talk to each other, tell each other what's wrong, then things wouldn't have turned out this way. The author mentions that people from Coorg are notoriously proud, so there seems to be a reason behind their lack of communicating shame and pain, hopes and dreams deferred. And at the same time, I am also aware of what kind of book I am reading. This is a tragedy after all. What can go wrong will go wrong, and most of the time it'll be a lot worse than the reader can imagine.
What's fascinating about the story, is how matter-of-factly the tragedies occur. The author does not brood on these events. People die without the last forgiveness, the last spoken acknowledgement. So-and-so dies, and then life goes on. So-and-so has a stroke, and then life goes on. So-and-so is abused, and then life goes on. Because life has to go on. That's what happens in Coorg. In contrast to this, the book also asks the question: "how do you grieve what you on paper have no right to grieve?", and "how do you live a lie so completely that it is your entire life?".
None of the characters are saints, or demons for that matter. You sympathise and critisise all of them. Devi, although the heroine, is both selfish and cruel. Devanna, who is kind to a fault, is too kind, too quiet, too scared of confrontation. Machu, the man of action, shows himself to be passive and blind. The author shows us all the reasons, all the whys of every antagonist's action. I find that to be a very interesting approach to the story. It does not excuse the actions, but it shows us how that action came to be.
There is a lot of symbolism in this story. The omens that foreshadows tragic events. The parallel stories that shed light on people's relationships in the book. The garden at the Tiger Hills estate, and a special Bamboo flower. Fragile earrings made from wings for a very fragile beauty. All coming together to make a very neat story. Additionally, the author writes beautiful prose that makes the landscape, the scenes and the people truly come alive.
Tiger Hills consumed me whole. I was sucked into the story, heart and soul, and it's been a long time since I was this engulfed by a novel. So many stories of love and loss make up this book, and Mandanna makes me want to know more of all of them. As I read the end, page 591, I really wanted there to be about another 100 pages left. I might have read the book to the end, but I am not nearly done with it yet. Not by a long shot.