About The Author
Sarita Madanna gew up in the Kodagu region of southern India, also known as the Coorg. She worked as an investment banker in India and Hong Kong, before setting up as a private equity professional, first in New York and then in Toronto, where she now lives.
Her novel, Tiger Hills, received the highest ever advance for a debut novel in India and also sparked bidding wars amongst publishers in territories around the world. It was longlisted for the 2010 man Asian Literary Prize.
Set in the lush foothills of the Coorg in a time when the modern world is gradually encroaching, Tiger Hills carries us through three generations in the company of the beautiful Devi and the brilliant Devanna, who grow up best of friends. When Devi falls for Machu, the tiger killer, Devanna goes off to boarding school with a heavy heart, but there are many twists and turns over three generations to come before their story is run.
On publication, Sarita talked to Foyles about her childhood memories, the blend of old and new to be found there and how she managed to write the book while still working full-time in banking.
Questions & Answers
In this exclusive interview, Sarita tells us a little about the the Coorg of Tiger Tills and today and the influences on her writing.
To what extent did you draw on your own childhood memories of the Coorg district in India for the setting of your novel?
A great deal. Coorg is a lovely part of Southern India, tucked away into the hills. It's where my family is from - we trace roots back for generations in this part of the world, and when I began to write, Coorg was the automatic backdrop. While Tiger Hills has a period setting, beginning as it does in 1878, much of the landscape of Coorg remains unaltered from a century ago. A few more jungle trees cut down each year perhaps, with the massive bamboo groves of old existing now only in deepest jungle. However ,the coffee plantations are still run very much the same as they were a hundred years ago. The old planter bungalows are still there, modernized within, but with their original facades of tiled roofs and wooden shutters. Even the North Coorg club where my parents play bridge dates back to the first European planters in Coorg! It was relatively easy then, to draw upon the memories I have of Coorg and to recast them in a somewhat sepia tint for Tiger Hills.
The book covers several generations and, even as the modern world encroached, tradition and ritual behaviour still seemed a central part of the local culture. Is this still the case today?
Yes, that kind of fusion between the old and the new still exists everywhere in Coorg. Attire for instance. While you would find many of us in t-shirts and a pair of jeans ordinarily, come the occasion of a Coorg wedding, the women all wear saris knotted in the distinctive Coorg fashion, over the shoulder. The men, meanwhile, wear traditional black tunics with a dagger tucked into the cummerbund at their waists.
Many old customs have altered with the times, but still retain a kernel of the original. It used to be customary for instance, for a brass pot filled with water to be kept always by the entrance of a home. This was so that a guest, who had presumably walked many miles to visit, could wash the dust from his feet and refresh himself before entering. The advent of cars has rendered this obsolete. Still, most Coorg homes, mine included, continue to keep a wide mouthed, beautifully carved brass urn by the entrance, filled with water and fresh flowers. Functional has morphed into ornamental, but a lovely way to keep the spirit of the old customs alive.
Is Devi's strikingly pale, almost translucent appearance an archetype of what was considered beautiful in Coorg or is it intended more as a contrast to the lush and colourful backdrop of the novel?
She wasn't intended as a physical contrast; I simply drew on the women in my own family when imagining what she looked like. My maternal grandmother was considered a great beauty - I still come across the old - very, very old - gentleman or two whose eyelids literally flutter when they start to reminisce over her! My lovely mother fits that very light skinned mould too. Then there is the distant aunt who I have been enthralled with from the time I was a child - she has a haunting luminosity that really ought to have been captured on screen for posterity. A cousin's grand aunt had skin so delicate, they say you could see the water slip down her throat. Devi is a composite perhaps of all the beautiful women I have known, seen or heard of in Coorg.
The hope of a number of characters was based on the idea of romantic destiny. As the writer directing their lives, did you feel a need to satisfy the dreams of characters you must have felt very close to?
I wanted to; left to my own devices, everyone would have a happy story and a happier ending. That's not quite how life works though, is it? The key theme in Tiger Hills is that our stories don't always play out like we wish them to. Nonetheless, it is important that we keep ourselves open to happiness. A happiness different in shape and form than what we had perhaps imagined, but if we look hard enough, there is happiness to be found even in roads previously discounted. There is grey in every character in Tiger Hills, and it tinges their stories too. Always the promise, sometimes deeply hidden, of rainbow pleasures, but they face a significant amount of grey.
The colonialists in the book seem to struggle more with moral ambiguity than the Indian characters. Do you feel that a strong attachment to cultural roots is an important part of personal identity?
I don't necessarily agree with that... I wrote each story in Tiger Hills as belonging to an individual, and did not conceive of the characters as white, or brown or colonial or nationalist. It was a wider lens through which I imagined them, where each character regardless of colour or origin had similar issues to grapple with - longing, belonging, duty, despair.
As far as the importance of cultural roots goes, yes, they go a long way in grounding a person. Equally, however, we live in such a fluid, osmotic world, that I think it is important to adapt, rather than remain rooted in some fixed notion of cultural identity. It used to be a badge of honour among the Coorgs of a hundred years ago to never set foot outside of Coorg - to live and die among those hills. Fast forward to the present: I love Coorg with a passion - it has always struck a deep chord within me. Nonetheless, I've lived in five countries across the world, and do think I am the better for it. Maybe what works best is a mid-point along the continuum - where one recognizes the gift of community and origin, but equally, one has the desire and willingness to strike out in new directions, to explore new cultures and create an expanded sense of self through the mixing?
You wrote Tiger Hills while working in the infamously high-pressure world of finance. How did you manage to find the time to focus on your writing?
I just slept very little. I was averaging about 3-4 hours of sleep during the years I was working on Tiger Hills. It wasn't easy; at the same time, nobody was twisting my arm to do this. I was very aware all through the writing that no matter how angst ridden the process, I was doing it because I wanted to, perhaps more than anything else. When you have nobody but yourself to get grumpy at because you are under-slept, you tend to ignore the lack of sleep and keep pushing forward!
Every new writer these days has to make herself available to the media to help promote the book. How do you feel about promotional side of being a writer?
I'm a private person by nature - the kind of person who stubbornly refused to have a profile on facebook for the longest time, then finally created one, but refused to post anything there at all. (Yeah, I know.) Tiger Hills was written under such a veil of secrecy (nobody but my immediate family and a few close friends even knew that I was writing) that I do feel at times like a mole emerging blinking into the sunlight! Writing is a solitary pursuit - in an ideal world, Tiger Hills would make its own way into the world while I immersed myself in another story. The reality of it is different, and I am still feeling my way forward. It does take up a significant amount of time, which can be disconcerting. The part that's been wonderful is being able to connect with people who have reacted to the story. It feels almost surreal at times - the notion that after these five long years of hermitry, Tiger Hills is actually out there and people are reading and responding to it. Did I mention the mole blinking in the sunlight?
Are there any particular authors or books that first fired your desire to be a writer?
The Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Mark Twain - I have an abiding affection for the classics, probably given that I read them as a child with the luxury of time and being able to completely lose myself in the worlds that they created. While conceiving Tiger Hills, those were the structures I wanted to recreate - big plots, large casts of characters and a wide narrative span.
Can you tell us anything about what you might be working on next?
It's still early days - I'm in the process of researching a new idea. It's a very different setting and I am still poking around at the edges, trying to determine if there is enough substance to merit a novel. Hopefully there is, we'll see.
Find out more at: www.facebook.com/tigerhillssaritamandanna