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Despite having family members scattered all over the globe, the pull of one’s birth place and ancestral home can be strong. We talk with a financial analyst-turned-novelist about her debut work — an epic, multi-generational family novel critics are comparing to “Gone with the Wind” and “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
- Sarita Mandanna Author, Tiger Hills (Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group)
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from Tiger Hills. Copyright 2011 by Sarita Mandanna. Reprinted with permission by Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, we examine the implications of former Prince George's County executive Jack Johnson's guilty plea to extortion and witness tampering. But first, the poet Maya Angelou once said, I long as does every human being to be at home wherever I find myself.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIPerhaps there is nowhere so vivid in one's own imagination as the land in which you were born and raised, especially once you leave. So for the busy professional living abroad it seems only natural to set ones first novel in his or her native land. For Sarita Mandanna that land is Coorg, a small and relatively untouched area in the South of India. Her first novel "Tiger Hills" takes place on a coffee plantation and in the paddy fields and jungles of Coorg and follows the lives of two families at the turn of the 20th Century.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISarita Mandanna is the author of "Tiger Hills." As we said, it's a novel about life, love, marriage and betrayal in South India at the turn of the 20th Century. Thank you so much for joining us.
MS. SARITA MANDANNAOh, thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIYou describe Coorg as much the same as it was in the book, which starts in, I think, 1878 and ends in the mid 1930s.
MANDANNAThe 1950s actually.
NNAMDIThe 1950's. What was Coorg like the last time you were there?
MANDANNAWell, I continue to have very deep roots to Coorg. My immediate family is there. My parents are there. My in-laws are there as well, so I do visit very often. At least try and go back there once a year. And, you know, the book, to your point, it does have a historical setting starting as it does in 1878. But a lot of Coorg, the physical landscape is little altered from 150 years ago. The coffee plantations are still run, you know, pretty much the same as they were when coffee was first introduced into the region.
MANDANNAThe old planter bungalows still stand. They've been modernized inside, but the facades are still the same. And even the old planter clubs that -- you know, that I describe in "Tiger Hills" it's the same club where my father goes and plays bridge every evening. So a lot of the physical landscape is not very altered.
NNAMDIYou've lived in a lot of cosmopolitan cities, Hong Kong...
NNAMDI...New York. Now you live in Toronto. Why did you feel Coorg should be the setting of your first book?
MANDANNAYou know, it's interesting. I wrote the novel while working and living in New York. And, you know, I think I almost stumbled into my passion for writing. And I've heard it since said that when you first begin to write, you write about something that you either knew very well or something that is very dear to your heart. And it was definitely both of those things to me. I mean, I -- there's a sense -- there's a deep sense of familiarity with Coorg. No matter where else I may live, you know, I think that there's something to be said for where your roots are set down.
MANDANNAAnd Coorg is a place where my family traces roots for centuries and even for 6 or 700 years there. So there is a sense of deep connectiveness to that part of the world. And when I began to write, I mean, that was the setting that naturally unfold. It was almost maybe harkening back to the past and using that as a mirror of sorts to examine where I was at that moment.
NNAMDIWell, as someone who was born in another country himself, here's a different kind of question. How often does Coorg pop up in your dreams?
MANDANNAThat's an interesting question. Well, it's definitely part of kind of my psyche as it were. I mean, it's -- you know, I'm always aware of it. But do I sit and dream about Coorg? Probably not, no. That's a very interesting question.
NNAMDIWell, a lot of times in my dreams, the living room that I configure in my dream...
NNAMDI...turns out to be the living room in which I grew up in my native Guyana as opposed to the many living rooms...
MANDANNA...that you've had since.
NNAMDI...that I've had since then.
MANDANNAThat's so interesting. No. That's not been my (unintelligible) .
NNAMDIWe're talking with Sarita Mandanna. She is the author of "Tiger Hills," a novel about life, love, marriage and betrayal in South India at the turn of the 20th Century. You wrote this book, so to speak, on the midnight shift...
NNAMDI...working full time as a financial professional. What about writing kept you addicted enough to abide by such a grueling schedule?
MANDANNAIt was a grueling schedule. I'd start writing at about 11:00 p.m. at night after, you know, my day job was ended. And then write 'til about 3:00 or 4:00 the next morning. I was so tired but, you know, I was writing gibberish on my laptop. And I think what keeps you going is really -- at least for me, writing "Tiger Hills" was not just a labor of love. It was more an act of, you know, obsession almost. Once the story -- once I began writing the story it took -- it had such a -- it took such a hold on me that there was nothing I could do but finish it.
MANDANNAAnd that's not to say that I was, you know, perfectly sanguine throughout my -- throughout the entire process. I frequently felt very sorry for myself and I chafed of these constraints I placed on myself. And I longed for more sleep but there was never any alternative. I just had to keep going until the story was done.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation with Sarita Mandanna, you can call us at 800-433-8850 or go to our website kojoshow.org or you can send us a Tweet at kojoshow or email us at email@example.com. It's my understanding that after a particularly tough week or day at the office, you started writing because you just felt like you had to. It helped you -- it was a form of release. Talk about that.
MANDANNAExactly. It was almost an act of escapism, I think. Yes. I'd had an awful week at work. The proverbial week, you know, from hell. And I came back home and I was just itching for a creative art to do something -- you know, I'm a private equity investor by training and I wanted to do just something different. Nothing to do with deals or Excel spreadsheets or bosses, you know, something completely different.
MANDANNAAnd I booted up my laptop. This was about seven years ago in New York and I just began to write. And I came back the next day and I wrote again. And it was astonishing to me how much I seemed to lose track of time when I was doing this, you know, three and four hours of -- you know, at a stretch. And I would look up and be astonished at how much time had gone past. And that was really the -- you know, the springboard to diving into something deeper and trying my hand at a novel.
NNAMDIAnd as a result we have "Tiger Hills." We're speaking with author Sarita Mandanna. "Tiger Hills" is set in India's colonial period and Britain's colonial legacy has had a huge impact on a large part of the world. You've lived in Hong Kong. You now live in Canada. Talk about the similarities you find in these commonwealth countries. It's my understanding that you said that you read a lot of books that were authored in the '30s and '40s as a result...
NNAMDI...of the British-oriented education.
MANDANNAThat's right. I think, I mean, some of the similarities, you know, I grew up in India for the most part and yes, I did work in Hong Kong and I've just moved to Canada. And I do find differences. I mean, they've all been, you know, colonies in the past and even, you know, to date. In India in particular I think one of the remnants -- you know, to your point, one of the remnants of being a colony was that the books that I grew up reading were all these books coming from the 20's and the 30's. And books that had long since gone out of fashion in England, well, those were the books were still available in book stores and in school libraries.
MANDANNASo you grew up I think with this particular, you know, turn of phrase maybe, this particular affinity. (unintelligible) you know, kind of language, kind of English both written and spoken that's perhaps not quite as contemporary as elsewhere.
NNAMDIHow do you feel that's affected your writing?
MANDANNAI don't think it's -- well, it's interesting. I think, yes and no. You know, I'd hoped that my English is kind of -- it is contemporary now that, you know, I've lived in the U.S., for instance, for ten years now. So I'm not quite as wedded to the Queen's English as I might have been while growing up.
MANDANNAWhile writing the book though I did want to write something that was almost classical in structure that was not kind of -- a book that's, you know -- that was almost kind of saga or epic-like, a book with definite thrust and momentum to the story. Kind of a well peopled cast of characters, a strong cast of characters and something with a large narrative arch. I mean, "Tiger Hills" spans a period of 70 years and a lot of the characters you practically follow them from cradle to grave.
MANDANNASo that I think was definitely an ode of sorts to the books that I grew up reading and loving.
NNAMDIOne more question on this colonial period. In what way do you feel the British Raj's Legacy -- the British Raj being that period of British colonial rule in India -- that's what it's called, the British Raj. How do you -- how much of that legacy remains in India today, or has it for the most part disappeared in places like Coorg?
MANDANNAIt's astonishing. I think for the most part it's astonishing how in 50 years it's almost as the British have never even been. A lot of the roads have been renamed. You still have -- you know, the positive legacies of the empire still remain. The British modernized the mail service, the postal service and the railway system. So that's definitely kind of the positive impacts of the Raj.
MANDANNABut I think for the most part India is happy to be independent now. In Coorg I'd say -- I mean, it's interesting -- you know, there's a lot of Anglo influences in food. You have very, very traditional Coorg dishes. In my grandparent's home for instance -- I mean, you know, when you slide under the table you'd have things like pork curry and very traditional rice spreads. But you'd also have, you know, orange marmalade. That was -- you know, all my aunts knew to make and my mom. So this kind of juxtaposition of cultures still exists, I suppose.
NNAMDIThese are the conversations we have with Monica Bhide, who I think you know who joins us on food Wednesdays...
NNAMDI...from time to time. She is our source for everything spice. We're talking with Sarita Mandanna. Her new novel is called "Tiger Hills." It's a novel about life, love, marriage and betrayal in South India at the turn of the 20th Century. The attribution section of your book makes it clear just how much research you did for this book. What was it like to read the Ethnographic Compendium of the Castes and Tribes Found in the Province of Coorg With a Short Description of Those Peculiar to Coorg, 1887 edition?
MANDANNANot very interesting, I can tell you that much. But, you know, again, given the fact that the book, you know, it ends well before I was born, I did want to make -- and while the story is fictional I did want to have as solid a foundation as possible. So I had these volumes and volumes of notes.
MANDANNAAnd, you know, very often only a sentence, a throwaway sentence in one particular memoir or, you know, to your point, kind of these dusty government manuals that I read only one or two sentences might even make its way into the actual story. But it was just interesting. It was just important to me to be as thorough in my research as possible. And I spent hours and hours at the New York Public Library going through any and -- anything and everything that I -- that even tangentially touched upon Coorg.
NNAMDIWhich brings me to this. What were the particular challenges for you of writing historical fiction about this small part of Southern India, and the population may be at most 600,000?
MANDANNATo make the story as real as possible, because there was nobody -- I mean, you know, most of the people that -- the generation that I was talking about in the novel were all pretty much gone. So there was no one to really -- going to sit down and do a reference check to make sure I'd gotten all the facts right. So it was just this process of reading as much as I could and kind of, you know, extrapolating between what literature there was to create this image of Coorg at that time, that would be -- that would mirror reality as close as I knew to make it.
NNAMDIWell, the historical research was one part of it but here's the other part. You are by profession a financial professional. Here you are writing a novel in which you have to create characters. How do you make Devanna (sic) a convincing medical student? How do you make the missionary Reverend Gundad (sp?) a convincing botanist?
MANDANNAI think by making them as real as possible. And I think -- you know, all writing or all creating, at least for me, you know, we all stand from the same crucible. We might take different parts in life but really, I mean, most of us are the same. You know, we think the same, we have the same -- you know, the same kind of interests. I mean, the parameters for, you know, most of us are similar. And you start with that particular notion that, I mean, no matter how different we are in essence we are the same and you start from there.
MANDANNAAnd, you know, to your point, I mean, Gundad for instance, I mean, he was challenging. And one of the questions that I will think of, he was this German missionary in Coorg in the early 1900s. And what I was wrestling with was, well, what did he do in his spare time? There was a mission school that he ran and, you know, he was kind of a very literate man in my imagination. But what would he do in his spare time?
MANDANNAAnd it was interesting because that period in India you had a lot of amateur botanists and obsessed -- highly obsessed with finding the latest -- you know, the -- finding the last kind of undiscovered species of a particular plant. And it just made sense to me, given kind of Gundert's personality, his affinity for kind of, you know, being thorough, being very meticulous that this might be something that he might enjoy. And that became part of him and became part of the story.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue our conversation with Sarita Mandanna. She is the author of, "Tiger Hills." It's a novel about life, love, marriage and betrayal in South India at the turn of the 20th century. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Later in the broadcast, the guilty plea offered by former Prince George's County executive, Jack Johnson, pleading guilty to extortion and to witness tampering. We'll discuss the implications of that. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Sarita Mandanna. Her novel is called, "Tiger Hills." It's about life, love, marriage and betrayal in South India at the turn of the century. You've been careful not to take too much directly from real life in this book. But the women in your family and to a broader degree, the notion of Coorg women, as strong and willful, influences the way you've written.
NNAMDIThe women of, "Tiger Hills," there's a myth about the River Goddess Kaveri, which illustrates this beautifully. Would you read from that section of the book for us?
MANDANNAYes, absolutely. You know, to your point, Kaveri is a major river here and this is set in Coorg. And this passage really talks about the origin, her origins in, you know, she was actually a goddess before she became a river. "It was said that when her husband, the great sage Agastya, had wooed her, the Goddess Kaveri had accepted his offer of marriage on two conditions.
MANDANNAThe first was that he would never abandon her, not even for an instant. The second, that he never would try to contain her. Agastya had abided by these conditions, until one day, called away by an urgent summons, he had trapped Kaveri in his pot. There she would remain, he planned, until he returned. Ah, but how he had misjudged his free-spirited spouse. Kaveri had been furious.
MANDANNAShe burst free from the pot and flowed away, faster and faster, even as the sage chased after her, pleading forgiveness until finally she had disappeared underground. Free to go where she pleased, unfettered, unbound."
NNAMDIThat's Sarita Mandanna reading from her novel, "Tiger Hills." How does her example, Kaveri's example, how does her example shape the women of Coorg?
MANDANNAI think, you know, it's interesting. Coorg women have always known to be extremely independent, very strong minded. And I think this example really kind of epitomizes everything that the women in Coorg stand for. The character in the book, as well as central characters, a woman named Devi, and she lives a life according to this paradigm that, you know, she's determined to live life on her own terms. She's determined to kind of seek out happiness where she might or even, you know, fight for happiness where required.
NNAMDIWell, the women of Coorg are not only strong, but they are apparently -- not only strong, but very patient. It's my understanding that your own mother read every iteration of this novel...
NNAMDI...as it evolved.
MANDANNAShe did. My wonderful mom, yes. And she, you know, it was funny because she would read a passage and I would put her in this dilemma, you know. Again, she's a doctor by training. It's not, you know, she doesn't have a degree in English literature or anything similar. So this was the first large editing job and a very large editing job that I thrust upon her.
MANDANNAAnd she would say, well, I think I know what you mean by this passage, but you're my daughter so, of course, I know what you mean. And she'd have to distance herself from the book and, you know, pretend that she did not know the author and kind of read it from that perspective.
NNAMDIAnd did it over and over again. On another issue, here in the U.S., there's a belief that you can get ahead by dint of a lot of hard work and improve your economic and social status. So looking back at colonial India, where entire tribes exist as traditional servants to other tribes, a sort of permanent underclass, if you will...
NNAMDI...it can be very strange experience. How can we better understand social hierarchy in that historical Indian context?
MANDANNAIn the historical Indian context, the social hierarchy, I mean, you did have the caste system in India, which, you know, fortunately it's not as widely practiced anymore in modern India. But you did have this notion that you were born into your profession, you born into your social status. And, you know, if you were born in kind of the lower tiers, there was nothing that you could do to improve your circumstances.
MANDANNAAnd I think that that's, you know, it's terrible. It's absolutely terrible that that used to happen. In Coorgs -- amongst the Coorgs -- I mean, within the Coorgs, there was no caste system as such, but, yeah, the Coorgs were land owners. They were the traditional land owners and you had kind of people working for them. That equation is changing as well.
MANDANNANow, with modernization in India, with education everywhere, with this notion of equality and opportunity, it's becoming a much more egalitarian society.
NNAMDIThere are some tragic, some very difficult things which happen to your characters during the course of this novel.
NNAMDIAnd in shaping them, making your characters who they are, is it difficult to write them into painful situations like this?
MANDANNAVery difficult. And, you know, one of the things that I wanted to do, well writing, "Tiger Hills," is make sure that, you know, "Tiger Hills," -- the story, I wanted it to reflect life as closely as possible. In other words, none of the characters are black or white. Everyone has their flaws. You know, no matter how well intentioned, good people end up doing bad things in, "Tiger Hills."
MANDANNAAnd it really was an exploration of, you know, where -- once you're placed in circumstances not of your choosing, I mean, where do you go from there? And there are some things that happen to character -- there's some very graphic violence, you know, some -- there's one instance of particularly graphic violence and that, for instance, was very, very difficult for me to write.
MANDANNAAnd actually would write it almost kind of distancing myself from the laptop. You know, pushing myself back and typing on, you know, on the pads of my fingers. It was not an easy thing to write. But as a writer, I think, you owe it to yourself to explore both the pleasant and the unpleasant aspects of your characters.
NNAMDINever the less, I have to say, the writing in, "Tiger Hills," is very accessible and you can access it by going to our website, kojoshow.org, where you can read an excerpt of, "Tiger Hills," there. As for me, I've got the author in studio so I can have her read some more to me. This is a book that looks back at a particular history. And at the end of this book, there is something that you write about, time spent looking backwards. If you'll read that segment for us, I'd really appreciate it.
MANDANNAWith pleasure. One of the core themes in, "Tiger Hills," is really this notion that time spent looking backwards, time spent in regret is time lost forever. And that, no matter what circumstances we might find ourselves placed in, whether they are not of our choosing, we do retain the choice in terms of how we react to those circumstances. And I think that's so important, that no matter what, we try and keep ourselves open to happiness.
MANDANNAAnd this passage speaks to that. "Unless consciously set cast aside, it accumulates, building on itself, hardening, thickening, gouging our hearts apart. We try at first to pick at the scabs, to render ourselves as untainted and innocent as we once were. Over time, though, it becomes too difficult, this forced unbandaging, this revisiting of painful memory.
MANDANNAEasier to lock it away unseen, unspoken, to haul it about like an invisible stone about our necks. We leave our wounds alone. Layer by layer, our scars thicken until one day we awaken and find ourselves irrevocably hardened, rooted in a colloidal past while the world has passed on by. To let go of hurt, to cast bitterness aside, this is the only way forward, to cast aside the pain and allow hope a chance once more.
MANDANNAWe drift through time sometimes in shadows, sometimes blistering under the sun, laying ourselves open to the skies until inevitably we begin to heal. The lips of our wounds coming slowly together, we fill with light, with grace, capable once more of opening our hearts, of letting someone in."
NNAMDISarita Mandanna reading from her novel, "Tiger Hills." You worked most of your life in finance. How hard is it to think of yourself as a writer? Would you put one profession before the other?
MANDANNANo, not yet. But I find it very presumptuous to think of myself as a writer. I mean, you know, "Tiger Hills," is my debut novel and I feel like I have many miles to go before I can, you know, truly consider myself part of that tribe. And I do enjoy, you know, using the other part of my brain as well. I do enjoy the world of numbers and spreadsheets and, you know, ideal environments. So, I think, that for the immediate future, it'll probably be (unintelligible) book.
NNAMDIIs there any aspect that can help you with writing, to help you decide this or that plot element or arrange the timeline of, "Tiger Hills?"
MANDANNAWell, it's interesting. Whenever I'd find myself at a crossroads on, "Tiger Hills," I would open up my trusty exo-spreadsheet and start putting forth these, you know, these detailed kind of decision trees and, you know, saying, you know, if I did this, then this, said, you know -- yes, I mean, that was kind of the one geeky aspect of work life finding its way here.
NNAMDISarita Mandanna is the author of, "Tiger Hills." A novel about life, love, marriage and betrayal in South India at the turn of the 20th century. Thank you so much for joining us, good luck to you.
MANDANNAOh, thank -- thank you so much. Absolutely a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, former Prince George's County executive, Jack Johnson, has pleaded guilty to extortion and to witness tampering in what is clearly a plea deal. We'll discuss exactly what happened in court today and the implications for Prince George's County. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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