Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna is a family epic. Think Gone With the Wind heads to India, and then the Gone With the Wind characters accidentally sabotage their lives more thoroughly than Scarlett O'Hara ever could.

Devi is a princess in her family. The only girl, and the most beautiful girl in the village, everyone dotes on her and concedes to her every whim. Devanna is a half-orphan, born of a mother that was rejected by her husband and drowned herself in a well. The sunshine in his sad childhood is the radiant attention of Devi, and as they grow up together Devanna blossoms into an intelligent, kind man. However, Devi is interested in Machu, Devanna's kinsman and the first man to kill a tiger in generations. Tragic circumstances lead all three into a twisted version of their dreams. And everyone is sad.

As I was reading this book, I kept looking for some thread of redemption, some hint that at least someone in the story would be able to find happiness, however fleeting. There was just hit after hit after hit of sorrow and misery, with only few joyous moments interspersed. In some ways this is realistic - life is difficult, and we often have to fight for our moments of happiness. However, most of the sadness of the novel was caused by circumstance, not individual bad choices or malicious intent. The characters made plenty of bad choices, but I don't think anyone could say that what happened was anyone's fault (sorry I'm being so vague here - this story is very spoiler-prone and I don't want to give anything away). I kept searching for the message of the book as I read - what is the author trying to tell me? Not to make religious vows? Not to love someone too much? To try harder to love someone in return? In the end, she spelled out for me the message I'd been fearing that she was sending - "Sometimes, it would seem, we are simply cast in the path of misfortune." You mean we can't learn anything from that sad, sad story except that sometimes life really, really sucks? *Feels depressed* Although I will say that there is a wispy thread of redemption at the very end. It doesn't tell you that things are going to get better for the characters, but it hints at it, and that was a relief after all the sadness.

With that said, despite the depressing events (every time something else happened, I just kept thinking, Really?! Can't these people catch a break?), the plot did keep my interest. Mandanna does a good job of integrating sudden twists and changes to the characters' lives without being jarring. While the events are depressing, they are logical - it does seem like fate for events to unravel that way.

As for the characters, they were a mixture of lovable and unlovable traits. Devi is charming, exuberant, and tenacious, but she is also selfish and even cruel at times. Devanna is smart, sweet, and devoted, but unwilling to assert himself. Machu is brave, athletic, and pious, but tends to make promises he can't faithfully keep. They all have a fatal flaw - for Devi it is the need to always get her way, for Devanna the inability to stand up for himself, and for Machu, his piousness. I was bothered by the fact that these characters never overcame their flaws. Devi never stops demanding, Devanna never asks for respect, Machu sacrifices everything he owns out of guilt. These leads the children of the three (in various combinations) to begin messing up their own lives as thoroughly as their parents did.

The plot was at times depressing and the characters tenaciously remained flawed, but the writing was sweeping and gorgeous, the redeeming quality of the book. Sarita Mandanna paints the jungles and villages of Coorg with dazzling beauty.
Photo Credit

You think that's pretty? Listen to this:
The fields erupted in an explosion of white as a flock of herons suddenly took wing. Water rolled off their wings, their beaks, and their claws in minute droplets, catching the first rays of the sun as they hurtled toward the earth. And it was as if the birds were weeping, crying a shower of diamonds over the still-sleeping town below.
Or this:
Even the light seemed different, the dust particles in its shafts alchemized into shards of broken, dancing gold.
Yes, Mandanna definitely has a way with words. Honestly, while this book drove me crazy at times, it is a well-formulated modern tragedy. I do not regret reading this book, and I won't soon forget the beautiful images it conjured. I plan on reading more of Mandanna's work, although I hope it is a little brighter. :)

Readability - Many unfamiliar Coorg words, but there is a glossary at the end.
Plot - 3
Characters - 3
Writing - 4
Personal Response - 2.5
Overall: 3

Read for The South Asian Challenge hosted by S. Krishna's Books

FTC Disclosure: Received from NetGalley.


  1. A book that's even more Gone with the Wind than Gone with the Wind?? I'm totally reading it.

  2. Do it! Be warned though - it is very frustrating the way the characters ruin each others' lives!

  3. I'm definitely going to read this one but I have trouble with the constant misery thing that sometimes occurs in South Asian novels. I don't want to be depressed by the books I read!

  4. @Swapna - I was wondering if maybe all the death and havoc-wreaking was a theme in South Asian novels or not, mainly because most of the reviews I've read by South Asian reviewers absolutely loved it and said it was one of the best novels they'd ever read. The writing was definitely beautiful, but all the sadness was depressing. I'm interested to hear your thoughts on it!


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