Hunting The Spoor Of Tiger Hills

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.”

First published here.