Friday, October 08, 2010

an announcement, a review

So that joblessness thing did not work out very well. Not only did I NOT have a chance to write a single book update for this blog, I did not have the chance to READ more than a couple of books all the way through last month. But now that I have a new job, I should get my time management completely wrong all over again, and updates should be frequent! Yay! Right?

Anyway. I did write a couple of reviews for the books section of CNN-IBN's website, last month. Here's one of them.

#82 Tiger Hills, Sarita Mandanna

There are several characteristics of the Indian novel in English that Sarita Mandanna's Tiger Hills commandeers in all seriousness, perhaps aiming for their reinvention among the hills and plantations of Coorg. If there are readers who have never before read a novel full of lush Indian crops, rained-on Indian villages and sprawling Indian houses inhabited by agonised but fecund Indian families, they should have no trouble knowing them by heart, as it were, within pages of Tiger Hills. Mandanna treats the reader to a reiteration of the Great Indian Novel, many of whose norms are now so familiar that they have passed into the realm of parody. Yet, if she is aware that omens of foreboding, floral analogies for sex, far-sighted grandmothers and illicit affairs with white people are a bit 1990s, she writes in defiance of that awareness.

So the birth of Devi, the tempestuous and beautiful heroine, is heralded by the circling of a flock of herons, who will make their appearance repeatedly through the book at moments of especial doom in her life. Her love affairs are conducted in bowers of laburnum flowers. Devanna – her best friend and eventually the architect of her destiny – is mentored by a kindly German missionary who is secretly a tortured gay man. The bald facts of narrative do not occur in a vacuum: every repetition of a familiar image is an anchor of its overall effect, and Tiger Hills aims for nothing more than unreconstructed nostalgia, and unexamined, heaving-bosom notions of grand passions.

And of what? The book's publicists explicitly drew a connection between Tiger Hills and Gone With The Wind, which is a popular classic because, not in spite of, the sterotypes of place and race that it perpetuates. There are glancing familiarities between the two: both feature strong-willed, unsympathetic heroines, tempestuous love triangles, and multi-generational consequences for the mistakes of a few. But more pervasive yet is the presence of a stifling, objectifying point of view that reduces the landscape and history of a place under the guise of authorial love, an emotional investment that, at least in Tiger Hills, succeeds only in being overwrought and essentialising. Early in the book, the German missionary Gundert, writing on the Coorgs, is quoted:

"They constitute a highland clan, free from the trammels of caste, with the manly bearing and independent spirit natural in those who have been, from time immemorial, true lords of the soil...I have often been approached by them, demonstrating a frank, open curiosity in my antecendents and in a refreshing departure from the obsequiousness so readily found elsewhere, with no hesitation in taking my hand in a grip as firm as any I have experienced."

Tiger Hills upholds this imagined positivism. The Coorgs of the novel are passionate, sexualised beings, with speech full of local colour, destinies predicated on violence and solemn vows, and little inner life that does not relate to any of the above. As sprawling and elaborate as the plots of the novel are, it also mirrors Gone With The Wind in its romanticisation of rape – nowhere near as egregious as the 'Rhett Butler, Animal Lover' moment of Mitchell's novel, but in its elided use as a tool of coincidence, to further the narrative and even, laughably, to elicit post-facto sympathy for the suffering rapist.

Writers – particularly in the Great Indian Novel tradition – are often accused of exoticising India for foreign audiences, but perhaps it's time to look at Mandanna's book not merely as another instance of the 'mango-motifs' narratives which are produced and presumably read in the West, but as a product of a late Indian obsession with self-consciousness. Tiger Hills is just as reminiscent of ironic self-parodies of old Hindi films in nu-age Bollywood, or the indefatigable reproduction of everything from dabbawaalas to autorickshaws in popular art. Its appeal is the appeal of kitsch, in both form and content. Its invocation of, and affection for history go so far, but no further. It may recall Gone With The Wind without the overt racism; but it also does recall Om Shanti Om without the comedy track.

A version of this review first appeared on, here.

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