We used to argue as young literary critics that it wasn’t possible to have feminist romantic writing: the terms were contradictory by their very definition. Love stories were necessarily fissured by unequal relations of power, vulnerability, and injustice. This has always been troubling to me, as a diehard romantic, a firm believer in love stories, and a feminist. It was a niggling worry, too, as I read, and was instantly absorbed in, Tiger Hills.
Tiger Hills spans over fifty years, in the lovely region of Coorg in south India—from the last few decades of the nineteenth century until the buildup to the Second World War. It follows the destinies of two large clans from neighbouring villages, but the fulcrum of this epic novel is surely Devi. The story follows her life, from the heavily symbolic moment of her birth, and evolves around her relationships with three men: Devanna, who becomes her close friend and almost-sibling when his mother returns to their village from her marital home, and then dies; Machaiah, the larger-than-life "tiger killer" of the neighbouring Kambeymada clan; and Appaiah, Machaiah’s son. These individuals and their passions for each other, inextricable from the physical and cultural landscape of Coorg (belonging in the novel is almost always used interchangeably for person and place), form a gripping and emotive narrative.
The story would not be without Devi, and yet ironically, its three parts are named after the men in her life. The beauty of the story lies in the way fate, a strongly patriarchal family and custom, and the foreclosing of choices for Devi over and over again are interrogated by Devi’s own will and restlessness with her situation. At points in the story she recedes into an overly romanticised backdrop, and yet, the crucial turns the plot takes are when she emerges from this passivity, and fights for spaces and moments of happiness. What also keeps you drawn to the narrative is how the characters grow and change, both with tumultuous events that happen in their lives but also, subtly, with the movement of time and the accumulation of hurt and loss. So Devi’s changing relationship with Devanna is quite fascinating to follow, from close friendship to bitterness and repulsion, and these must intertwine in the end to reach a point of acceptance, despite painful past circumstances.
An excessiveness in language and plot notwithstanding, and a thinning hold over the reader’s attention, especially towards the last third of this expansive novel, Tiger Hills is a love story that absorbs you. It makes you angry when Devi—so willful, ostensibly strong, and controlling—seems trapped in her own life, giving in to the silences that patriarchy necessitates, and not articulating the injustices she suffers. But if it is frustrating, it also reflects our own love stories. and seems to understand the complexity of relations that come with love: the intense vulnerability, the often painful negotiations we make along the way, and the tenuous hold we ever have on happiness.