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February 17, 2012

In The Name Of Love

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena.

Her first novel, a love story of epic dimensions, Tiger Hills, got the highest advance for a debut novelist in India and also made it to the long-list of the Man Asian Literary Prize two years ago. Sarita Mandanna interacts with Verve on how she writes about what she loves most

  • Sarita Mandanna, Tiger Hills, Man Asian Literary Prize winner
  • Sarita Mandanna, Tiger Hills, Man Asian Literary Prize winner

The Coorg-raised Toronto-based finance professional, who is also an IIM(B) alumnus and a Wharton School graduate, made the literary world sit up and take notice when her debut offering Tiger Hills was given the highest advance – Rs 35 lakhs – by the publishing house Penguin to a debut novelist in India. Busy with her second novel, due for release this year, she speaks about her personal roots in India and professional life.

Was it easy to blend the worlds of finance with the world of words?
They are largely two very different worlds. Writing is a solitary pursuit and is all about diffusing a single thread of thought into a larger exposition. Private equity is people dependent, and for the most part involves distilling a large volume of information into a succinct thesis. In some ways, the two are almost exact opposites and I feel fortunate to have the option of both – it’s refreshing, after polishing and perfecting a particular line, to be able to turn around and do something completely objective and numbers driven.

Are there literary or storytelling antecedents in your family?
My mother is a natural storyteller – the kind who had us completely absorbed in her recounting of even the most mundane, everyday things. Her father, my maternal grandfather was the same – he would gather all of us, his grandchildren, around and make up the most amazing stories about castles made of salt and other fantastic things. Finally, my paternal grandfather had an abiding respect for the written word and even penned a memoir on his mother. Tiger Hills is dedicated to the memory of my grandparents.

How much of being an Indian abroad has moulded your creative process?
They say you write first about what you love or know best; for me, that was Coorg. Regardless of where I lived – whether in India or abroad, my first novel would have been set in Coorg. Furthermore, Tiger Hills is a deeply Indian story, with a historical setting to boot – my being in NYC while writing it had no impact whatsoever on either the characters or the plot.

How close is your India connect?
I am responding to this interview while on vacation in Coorg. I can hear crickets outside.  My parents are in the pooja room lighting the oil lamps, while a stray firefly flickers in the banyan that shades a corner of the garden. I feel fully, firmly home. I grew up in India. My immediate family is here, as are a number of close friends. India will always, in some deep rooted, intimate sense, always be home.

Tiger Hills was a tragic love story of epic dimensions. Does the second one also revolve around love?
Tiger Hills is an exploration of what happens when life, love et al don’t go as planned, and the choices we make in the aftermath of happenstance. As the story unfolds, the characters experience different versions of love – unconditional, obsessive, possessive and filial, and Tiger Hills is in part, a commentary on the ways that we wield these upon one another, all in the name of love.

The novel that I am working on has a different central theme and setting, but there are deeply bonded characters in this one as well, with all the ups and downs that accompany a human relationship.

Almost all your characters in Tiger Hills have shades of grey. Was that deliberate?
Yes, absolutely deliberate – I wanted the characters to be as human as possible. All the principal characters are well intentioned, but hardly perfect. They make mistakes like any of us, they make decisions that are sometimes far from right, and are just trying to live their lives the best that they can.

Do you feel the elements of romance and attraction, hold readers the most?
Readers identify with emotions and situations that resonate most deeply with them. Love is a universal emotion and is something that each of us has experienced in some form and can identify with. At our core, we are all similar, regardless of origin and circumstance.

Have you titled your second novel?
I have a working title, but in all likelihood, will have a finalised title only once I am done in entirety with the novel. It’s in a different setting than Tiger Hills – other than that, I am still feeling my way forward.

Are your characters based on real-life people you have known or heard of?
Not fully, no. They definitely carry shades and nuances of actual people – a stray habit, a manner of speech, or a facial tic perhaps. For the most part however, they come together in my head. Some characters come more fully formed than others, speaking early in the process, and for others, it is a long road of incubation before they come alive.

How autobiographical are your works?
Completely fictional… there may be a core philosophy or theme that holds particular resonance for me personally, but the story and characters themselves are of the imagination. For instance, while Tiger Hills is purely fictional, a core theme that is explored time and again in the novel, that of the futility of holding on to the past, of forgiveness and letting go, is something that is very important to me.

How do you cope with writer’s block?
With utter frustration! Writer’s block feels like a dream just outside the periphery of memory, or a melody you cannot quite remember. The words are there; you can feel them prickling under the pads of your fingers, but try as you will, they refuse to come forward. I switch to research when that happens, and try and sit out the log jam. It shifts, eventually, but the waiting is hard.

Do you have an ideal reader?
Rather than write for an ideal reader, I write what resonates most for me. With Tiger Hills for instance, I spent five years writing in a vacuum, not knowing if it would ever get published. I write for the love of it, and the need to tell a particular story the best I can. I think once you start creating with a specific audience in mind, you run the risk of tainting the creative process.  My mother sees my writing first – she patiently read every draft of Tiger Hills – and there were six or seven of them before I was ready to share it with anybody else!

What do you enjoy most about being a writer?
When the words flow, there is nothing like it. You exist almost in a state of grace, as the words pour out from some deep, untapped subconscious part of you. Those moments are precious few, and are threaded with a great deal of hard work as you wrestle and grapple with the plot, but it is those moments, few as they are, that make it all worthwhile.

Writing is often a lonely exercise…. How does your family adjust to it?
They are incredibly supportive which makes it that much easier. I go into hibernation when I am in the thick of writing, emerging only momentarily for the quick call or conversation. They are complete sweethearts to not only go along with it but actively egg me on.

Since the first novel was epic in form and narrative, do you see yourself creating a trilogy around it?
Not just yet – you never know, though I’d love to revisit Coorg in another novel, and pick up where Tiger Hills left off.

What do you read when you are writing and in between books?
I cannot read fiction while I am actively writing – all of that comes to an abrupt halt. The only things I read then are work related material and cooking blogs! I listen to a lot of music, watch a lot of films, and draw inspiration from those instead. When in between writing, I scarf up everything I can find, usually reading two or three things at a time.

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