To most of us in North America India remains something of an enigma. We either think of it as the backward country where children are only saved from starvation by the intervention of foreigners or as call centre central where all our tech support questions are answered. Even those who have visited the country are barely going to scratch the surface of this ancient and complex culture with its multitude of languages and peoples. Compounding the problem is that the majority of books, fiction and non-fiction, written about India up until the last decade were written by non-Indians. History books still refer to the first nationalist uprisings that attempted to throw off colonial rule in the 1800s as the “Indian Mutiny”. Making out that those fighting for independence from the British were in the wrong.
While some British writers, like Kipling, were born in India and had a better understanding of life in the country than their compatriots, they were still part of the ruling elite and their perspectives were coloured accordingly. Thankfully that is changing and in the last few years we’ve seen more and more books published by Indian authors writing about both contemporary India and its history. One of the first things an astute reader will realize after reading any of these books is how little they know about the country and the incredible complexity of its history. Two things which become abundantly clear from reading any of the historical fiction are how the idea of India as one nation is a new concept and how British rule radically changed the lives of the subcontinent’s people.
Both these points come out in Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna, recently published by Penguin Canada. The book traces the history of one family from 1878 until the tumultuous days in the 1940s leading up to independence. I doubt if most of us have even heard of Coorg in Southern India where the majority of the story takes place, but what becomes abundantly clear almost immediately is how the people native to the region consider themselves to be from Coorg, not India.
We learn how they have fought fiercely to maintain their independence from neighbouring Mysore and when the story opens border posts are still manned in case their neighbour should try to invade again. They appear to have a type of feudal government, with those families with the largest land holdings being the most powerful. However, they don’t to use that power in order to tell others what to do, they just seem to be held in higher esteem by others. Instead the people are governed by their traditional moral codes and their belief system. A mixture of ancestor worship, belief in spirits and the worship of the goddess Kaveri as well as other Hindu gods associated with agriculture. Over the course of the book both the moral code and the hierarchy of families play key roles in the fates of the main characters giving readers a chance to understand and appreciate the delicate way in which they work to hold society together.
Focusing on the lives of two children from infancy to adulthood, the story Mandanna weaves follows the familiar pattern of frustrated love, betrayal, resentment and eventually reconciliation.
Devi is the first daughter born to the Nachimandas family in over 60 years. An obvious beauty from an early age, she is doted on by the entire family. Her male childhood companion, Devanna, is less fortunate as his mother commits suicide after fleeing her wealthy landowner husband to return to her home village. The young boy is taken in by Devi’s parents and they are inseparable as children. However while Devanna assumes nothing has changed when they come to maturity, Devi nurtures a secret passion for his cousin Manchu, a renowned hunter who slew a tiger with his dagger.
Even after she is forced to marry Devanna, Devi’s obsession with Manchu doesn’t end. First expressed in an elicit affair that only ends when Devanna attempts suicide and Manchu overcome with guilt refuses to see Devi again and finds his own wife. However not even Manchu’s death fighting for the British in Afghanistan can stop Devi from yearning for the man she loved. Seeking out his widow she convinces her to send Manchu’s son Appu to live at her estate where she can provide him with a far better life. She then directs the love she was never able to give Manchu to his son, to the point where she almost convinces herself he was their child. Of course this comes at a cost, for in the process she neglects her own son Nanju. It is Appu who she finds the most beautiful bride for, even though as eldest Nanju should have been married first, and it is Appu she plans on leaving her estate Tiger Hills to, Nari Malai. After all, it was named in honour of his father, so it’s only right he should inherit it.
While the family dynamic plays out, the changing world around them is also having its impact on the characters. While both Devanna and Devi attended a mission school run by German Catholics, and it was Devanna’s decision to attend a British medical school as a boarding student which precipitated the events that changed all their lives, they still remained rooted in their Coorg traditions. Devanna might have found himself being two people, one person at school and another at home, but he never forgot where he came from and who he was. While their son Nanju retained some of their love for the land which was so key to being a Coorg, on being exposed to British living through school and social activity, Appu quickly leaves his old life behind. He insists his mother change the family estate’s name to Tiger Hills, as referring to it by its native name is so “provincial”. He also quickly tires of, and is embarrassed by, his beautiful wife when she can’t handle herself in “Society”.
Of course he’s not the only one. Scions of old Coorg families are assuming British sounding names, affecting the manners of polite society and beginning to scheme as how they will fill the power vacuum created by the British leaving. It’s all very well and good for nationalists to preach equality for all, but these children of landowners know land is power and aren’t about to start surrendering either of those commodities. They are the face of the new elite in India, the power behind the scenes, and will fight tooth and nail to hold on to their positions of wealth and status.
While the story of Tiger Hills is a bit formulaic in its tale of thwarted romance, obsession and so on, where Mandanna excels is in her depiction of the changing world the story takes place in. Told chronologically we watch as the people of Coorg’s lives change radically in the space of only one generation. Almost everything about them, even down to the crops they grow and the reasons for growing them, change from the time Devi is a child to the time her adopted son comes of age. Interestingly enough it’s the people like Devanna who have managed to keep a foot in each of the worlds who seem to be best able to cope with the new world. He is able to combine his European education with his knowledge of Coorg to solve agricultural problems that no one else has been able to deal with.
Appu is the other end of the stick. Throwing himself wholeheartedly into being even more British than the British, he ends up losing all sense of himself. We gradually see him becoming all flash and no substance and his character floats in the wind without direction or focus. With his every whim indulged by his mother growing up, he is used to getting his way without effort, and expects privilege as his right not something to be earned. Never having had to work for anything, the few times he’s denied the things he wants, usually because of his own misdeeds, he becomes resentful and sulky, blaming others for his failures. Without the roots in his land to fall back on he has nothing, and in the end his ambitions come to nought as well.
Tiger Hills offers a glimpse into the past of one province in India and in the process allows readers a view of one of the many different faces of the country. At the same time Sarita Mandanna shows us one of the long-term results of colonial rule, something whose impact is still being felt in many former colonies, including India. How a generation attracted by the allure of the bright and shiny gave up the traditions that had defined their place in the world, only to be left with a void that constantly needs to be filled. A void they continue to attempt to fill to this day with power and money by any means possible. Reading this book will give readers a little more of an insight into what’s behind the Indian Tiger and perhaps help them taking the first steps towards understanding there’s a lot more to the country than they thought.