Hunting The Spoor Of Tiger Hills


Sarita Mandanna is welcome to ‘borrow’ from Kavery Nambisan’s novel but why did she have to do such a boring job, wonders Gaurav Jain

Illustration: Samia Singh

WHEN GEORGETTE Heyer began writing her Regency romance novels in the 1930s, she didn’t know she was going to create a veritable industry. Within a decade, imitators were ‘borrowing’ her plots, characters and her painstaking period research (they’ve continued till today). Despite several provocations, Heyer chose never to sue her pesky plagiarists.

Last year, banker-turnednovelist Sarita Mandanna got the highest ever advance from an Indian publisher for a debut novel. Now that her book Tiger Hills is out, one can attempt the game of tracing her influences — one prime candidate that’s emerged is Kavery Nambisan’s The Scent of Pepper (1996), from which Mandanna seems to have taken more inspiration of genre than specifics. At one point, though, at the end of both Nambisan’s chapter 12 and Mandanna’s chapter 17, a character does the kolata mock-battle dance to impress his love, wins the contest, and the chapters end with marriage proposals for both men.

Here’s how Nambisan de- scribes it: Boju danced “matching his intricate footwork with the other dancers; in ever-decreasing circles, he moved to the beat of drums, striking his cane cluster with its tiny bells… the Pariakali, in which the opponents strike each other with canes, but never above the waist. The sport at times is used to settle feuds between the villages…”

And here’s Mandanna: Machu danced “moving in intricate, ever-decreasing circles to the steady beat of the drums… the bells at the ends jingled softly as the canes swooped and fell… the paria kali… had been tamed now into a game contested during Puthari and used occasionally by the village elders as a means of settling disputes: each contestant… was allowed to strike his opponent only below the shins.”

MANDANNA WANTED Nambisan to be ‘in conversation’ with her at Tiger Hills’ launch but the latter couldn’t attend. Says Nambisan, “I can’t speak too much about Mandannna’s novel. She did write [to] me recently saying that she found my novel to be inspiring. I’ve only read 50 pages or so of Tiger Hills. I’m flattered if someone feels inspired by my writing but would be displeased if any imitation took place. I don’t expect it from Sarita Mandanna.”

Much like Heyers’ imitators borrowed the frills and watered the wit, Mandanna blurs what she borrows. Nambisan’s Kodagu saga is much starker and her people much harder at the edges than Mandanna’s simperers. Along with a new Nambisan novel, Penguin is also releasing Pepper in a new edition next month, with author revisions about Kodagu’s 1834 British annexation and its 1952 Karnataka merger. Unlike Mandanna’s bodice-ripper sensibility, Nambisan writes with the grit of a rural doctor — The Scent of Pepper was criticised in Kodagu as obscene and anti-community. Says Nambisan, “I was asked to withdraw the novel. One accusation was that I hadn’t written enough about the beauty and bravery of our people. I was very puzzled and rather hurt by this, since I love my community just the way anyone else would love what is close to them. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to do any glorification.”

In Another Life, Kamala

This book presents Kamala Das’ last compilation of stories before death. Let the re-evaluation begin, says K Satchidanandan

Photo: DC Books

KAMALA DAS (1934-2009) is better known outside Kerala as a pioneering woman-poet writing in English, though her reputation among Malayali readers has remained as ‘Madhavikutty’, a great short story writer who went beyond the social realist mode to explore the psyche of solitary people haunted by desire, guilt, lovelessness and death. Kamala travels from the outer drama of social events to the inner drama of emotions, for which she developed a taut and cryptic lyrical idiom so personal that her stories can hardly be retold in another voice. The stories most often evolve from a central image and express a mood or a vision. Even her titles in this new collection sound more like paintings or poems: The Game of Chess, The Scent of a Bird, The Cattle Market. She turns her limited Malayalam to her advantage by deft and spare use of her fragile lexicon. Many stories are no longer than two or three pages.

Even as her stories show great thematic and structural diversity, they are linked by their essential femininity, their sisterhood with nature stories and the presence of her rural locale (either actual setting or nostalgic landscape). She’s a modernist in urbanising Indian fiction: her urban women are mostly schizophrenic, conflicted and desperate for real love while her mostly lower-class rural women are less inhibited and openly critical of the patriarchal masterrace. They also seem more at peace with themselves, through the presence of a community and nature. Women and nature here appear to fertilise each other.

Despite the absence of some of Kamala’s masterpieces, this new collection is fairly representative of her oeuvre and testifies to her narrative skill, deft characterisation, verbal economy, formal range and stylistic innovativeness.

The Kept Woman and Other Stories Kamala Das 163; Rs 195
The Kept Woman and Other Stories Kamala Das 163; Rs 195

Many stories revolve around extramarital love: Achala in The Game of Chess happily recalls her fling, while Mona in The Kept Woman (a tale in dialogue form) is a busy man’s contented mistress who refuses a marriage proposal. In Iqbal, a man’s gay relationship gives him joy and causes envy in his wife.

Elsewhere, the element of fantasy grows stronger. Kalyani is a scary story of mistaken identity where the police wrongly charge a woman for prostitution, and even her husband joins in denouncing her. Ramani of The Truth about Flying Saucers is spirited away by black magic, leaving only a fragrance in the room. The Scent of a Bird, a story Murakami would have been proud of, is a fantasy on the death of a job-seeking woman in an elevator.

The translations by several translators, including the author, successfully capture the nuanced simplicity of the original stories. This is a well-produced collection that was long due.

Satchidanandan is a poet and former Secretary of the Sahitya Akademi


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