India’s Coorg inspires debut novel

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India’s Coorg inspires debut novel

When private equity professional Sarita Mandanna set out to write a novel, it seemed natural to set it in the forests of Coorg, a region in southern India the British colonialists called the “Scotland of India.”

It was where she spent her childhood, surrounded by coffee plantations and the dense jungles that come vividly to life in her saga of star-crossed lovers in the early 20th century.

“Tiger Hills,” just launched in India, was five years in the making for Mandanna and involved hours of research at the New York Public Library. Mandanna, a vice president of New York-based Equifin Capital, also caused a buzz after reportedly bagging the highest advance ever paid by Penguin India for a debut novel.

Mandanna, who worked in Hong Kong after leaving India and before moving to the United States, spoke to Reuters by telephone about the novel and why she meant it as a tribute to Coorg:

Q. Coorg is almost like a character in the novel. Was it this setting that inspired you?

A. I do belong to Coorg. The family is from there and we trace our roots back there for generations. I love Coorg with a passion. It’s home, a place that I feel absolutely rooted to.

A number of debut novelists end up writing what they know and love best and that definitely was the case for me. When I began to write, I knew the setting was going to be Coorg and that would form the backdrop as well. It’s also a part of the country that you don’t see very often talked about or read about -- that was kind of my ode in a sense to a place that I deeply cherish.

How autobiographical is Tiger Hills?

Being from Coorg and belonging to Coorg and having a lot of family and friends there, I was acutely conscious of not mirroring reality in any shape or form at all and kind of inadvertently ending up ruffling feathers or offending someone.

It’s a purely fictional story, the characters are all fictional as well. Having said that, whenever you create something you always do draw in some form or measure on personal experience or memory or observation. Some of the characters are probably a composite of people I have seen or met or heard of but in aggregate Tiger Hills is absolutely imaginary.

When you sat down to write Tiger Hills, did you have this epic structure in mind - a novel spanning half a century?

I did. I knew I wanted to write something that had a long narrative arc. I wanted it to be the span of one person’s life and I really wanted to explore the evolution of that person and people around her as well. The length of it was pretty much set in my head. But the story itself and the characters - it was a very organic process, it almost kind of evolved as I was writing.

Tiger Hills has a very cinematic quality to it. Any offers from Bollywood or Hollywood yet?

Nothing as yet but it’s interesting that you say that because when I conceived the novel, it was in a very visual format. There were two or three scenes that I saw very clearly in my head. The novel germinated in a very visual format and it was in the actual kind of transforming image to word that the story actually began to take shape.

When I wrote the book, it was like I saw this movie first and transcribed that to paper.

Tell us about your research for the novel.

The whole process took over five years to do. Research included talking with people -- great grand aunts, people well into their 90s, talking about their childhood and just having them talk and trying to recreate this period. The other thing was looking through old Coorg folk songs and finding one piece about hunting or something like that and using that.

Where did you do your research?

I spent a lot of time in the New York Public Library going through memoirs of people who had lived there at that time.

Memoirs of planters, these huge dreary books on coffee planting and I would pore through them, trying to get something that I could use out of that. The physical backdrop of Coorg, I was fortunate there because a lot of the facade hasn’t really changed. It’s only now that Coorg is becoming increasingly commercialized and a tourist destination.

How did you balance writing with your work as an investment banker?

I was actually doing private equity which also was long hours. It wasn’t an easy process. I did it because I wanted to. It was pretty much excluding everything else from my life. It was just work and working on “Tiger Hills.” I began sleeping very little.

Toward the end, I was surviving on three-four hours of sleep a night, working constantly over the weekends as well and every other spare hour spent at the laptop working on the novel.

Reuters Life!
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