Tedious star-crossed love

Tedious star-crossed love

Book sales soar in India " is the title of an article on the London Book Fair 2010 website. India was the theme for the book fair, and the article makes it clear that Indian publishing is in its heyday. Agents, writers and publishers are producing a slew of formulaic works, attempting to replicate Chetan Bhagat’s astonishing commercial success. A year ago, it appeared that Penguin had found its own money-spinner—a historical romance, Tiger Hills

David Davidar, then head of Penguin, had shelled out an astounding seven-figure advance (a rumoured Rs35 lakh) to first-time author Sarita Mandanna. Expectations for such an expensive work are obviously high, particularly so when Mandanna’s agent, the highly reputed David Godwin, has represented the likes of Arundhati Roy and Aravind Adiga.

But Mandanna’s book fails to live up to the hype. Advance reviews compared Tiger Hills with Gone with the Wind and The Thorn Birds. It is clear that those two works have served as the inspiration for Mandanna’s novel, which at moments verges on being derivative. Devi, the determined heroine of Tiger Hills, is a weak evocation of Margaret Mitchell’s powerful heroine, Scarlett O’Hara. Aspects of the plot resemble Colleen McCullough’s epic romance—like Meggie Cleary of The Thorn Birds, who falls in love with the one man out of her reach (Catholic priest Ralph de Bricassart), Devi too falls in love with the seemingly unattainable Machiah, a famed tiger-killer, who has sworn an oath of celibacy for 12 years. Suffice it to say, this is not the only similarity between the two works.

Tiger Hills is the story of Devi and Machaiah’s “star-crossed" love and the consequences this entails for two generations (from 1878-1930), played out against the lush landscape of Coorg. Devi, from the very beginning, is special—she is a seventh child and her birth is marked by the flight of herons. At key moments in the novel, the heron imagery resurfaces, presumably to remind us of the special destiny that Devi’s birth portends. But as there is nothing bird-like or flighty about Devi, nor anything truly unique about her destiny, one is at a loss to understand the heron metaphor.

It’s hard to like the tenacious Devi. Her single-minded, determined pursuit of what she wants would win accolades from any corporate or management guru, but to this reviewer, she is a spoilt, selfish character unable to perceive the effects of her actions on those around her. When realization dawns, it is too late to redeem her character. Mandanna, unlike the authors she is inspired by, fails to provide a foil or a set of circumstances that ennoble Devi’s character. Mitchell, for example, provides Scarlett O’Hara (as determined and selfish as Devi) with a foil (the mild and weak Melanie) and throws into relief her heroine’s admirable characteristics. Mandanna, clearly basing some aspects of Devi on Scarlett, would have been better served to emulate Mitchell’s craft as well.

The most likable character with the greatest potential is the gentle, sensitive Devanna, Devi’s childhood friend, who wants to be a doctor. Devanna, however, commits the act of violence that the novel hinges on. To drive this mild character to violence, Mandanna facilitates the death of a pet squirrel, a possible concussion and a quarter-bottle of gin. This ordeal takes 30 pages to develop in the plodding hand of the writer.

The language of Mandanna’s novel initially meets with approval—simple and readable. But as the novel progresses, Mandanna’s language turns monotonous. The only meritorious aspect of this novel is the backdrop—rich, verdant Coorg, with its fierce clans and martial traditions. She demonstrates a certain acumen in developing an interesting subplot that explores the history of coffee cultivation in Coorg. However, the novel displays a few historical inaccuracies, evident even to a layman like myself—Mandanna refers to the “Sultans of Mysore" (Hyder Ali never declared himself such; only his son, christened at birth “Tipu Sultan", can be referred to as a sultan and, that too, at a stretch).

For the princely advance, one expects many things—a tightly crafted, well-written and well-researched novel or, at the very least, a sensual, tantalizing romance. Tiger Hills disappoints on all counts, and seems unlikely to generate great commercial success.

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