Any resemblance is accidental & unintentional—II

A nice little slanging match has broken out on the letters’ pages of the newsweeklies over banker-turned-writer Sarita Mandanna‘s debut book Tiger Hills and simmering allegations that it draws its inspiration from surgeon-cum-writer Kavery Nambisan‘s 1996 novel The Scent of Pepper.


In the August 23 issue of Outlook, Mathew Panayil wrote:


“I was reassured reading Kalpish Ratna’s book review of Tiger Hills (Books, August 9). The pre-release reviews I read (even in top magazines such as India Today) were so biased as if to resemble a well-crafted press release by agent David Godwin and Penguin India.

“It was disappointing to find Tiger Hills carried more than just traces of Kavery Nambisan’s Scent of Pepper (1996). The latter is also a family saga set in Coorg. Both books have an episode (one of several such) where the two main male characters participate in a mock battle (pariakali), part of the traditional harvest celebrations. The description is identical in passages: both men in the two books have the women they love watching, both win, and both episodes end in a marriage proposal being made.

“In another instance, female protagonists of both books cut up their wedding sarees to make a costume for their sons,  one for a school play, the other for fancy dress. One boy plays king, another goes as a prince. Both books deal with coffee, westernisation and the nationalist era.

“I travel to Coorg regularly, and know enough on the place  to know the book is full of inaccuracies, and the writer’s knowledge of Kodagu shaky. And eucalyptus in 19th-century Coorg! The bamboo district is in the east, not north. And the title of the Nayakas had been done away 200 years before the period Tiger Hills is set in. One final word: if a book is endorsed in the West, do we have to be so quick to accept it unquestioningly?”

Mathew Panayil, on e-mail

In response to Mathew Panayil’s letter, two Kodavas have defended Sarita Mandanna in the latest issue of Outlook.


“As Kodavas who are familiar with our culture and as researchers and authors on Kodava culture and tradition, the comment on the review of Sarita Mandanna’s Tiger Hills by Matthew Panayil in Outlook’s letters pages (Aug 23) put us out a bit. The letter-writer had written that “Tiger Hills carried more than just traces of Kavery Nambisan’s Scent of Pepper.”

“We have read and enjoyed both books—both are set in the same community, area and period. However, the plots are different. We maintain that it’s unsurprising when two books about a small community living in a small area, with well-defined festivals (kail polud, puthari, kaveri), dances (kolata, pariakali), crops (paddy, and the coffee introduced by British planters) and social influences (the club culture—another thing bequeathed by the Brits) feature a very similar backdrop!

“Any novel/story set in the Coorg of those times would be described more or less similarly—with familiar phrases, or ‘stripes’, as Mr Panayil puts it. Thus, the insinuation in his letter is unfair.”

Boverianda Nanjamma and Chinappa, Coorg

Almost simultaneously, this letter appears from Yamini Belliappa appears in the current issue of Tehelka:


“Refer to Gaurav Jain’s ‘Hunting the Spoor of Tiger Hills’, 28 August. I’ve only read 80 pages of Sarita Mandanna’s debut novel, which you reviewed. The book is riddled with inaccuracies, such as:

1. The book is set in late 1800s and she talks of Nayaks (local chietains) in Coorg, but they were gone 200 years earlier and we only had family heads called Pattedaras.

2. There’s a ‘poleya tribal’ character called Tukra. Poleya means untouchable; tribals were never considered untouchable and certainly never referred to as Poleyas. I think she’s got the Yerava tribe confused with the poleyas.

3. The character Devanna goes to Bangalore Medical College in 1895. No medical colleges in Bangalore till the 1940s. And he actually sits for an entrance exam, which came much, much later.

4. Madikeri (Mercara), now a town in North Coorg is filled with the ringing of bicycle bells in 1890s. I don’t think it was happening even in London at that time.

5. From atop the Coorg hills, the protagonist Devi can see the Chamundi Hills in Mysore and the Arabian Sea and Kudremukh in Mangalore. Not possible, and even if it’s a figment of her imagination, it doesn’t ring true.

6. Devi enters the sanctum sanctorum of a temple and talks to the priest. No one (let alone a meat-eating Coorgi) is allowed into the sanctum but the brahmin priest.

7. The thick bamboo forests are described as being in south Coorg. They’re in the east.

8. A Coorg feast is being laid out: ghee rice, payasam, jalebis and coffee are the only items mentioned. Anyone who’s even sniffed at Coorg will know that we never ever celebrate anything without several meat dishes. In those days it would have been bison, wild boar, partridge, wild fowl, etc.

9. A wealthy father offers to give his daughter Rs.100, or even Rs.200, every month in 1901 or so. Even in the 1940s, Rs. 30 was considered a decent salary.

“We should all be a bit worried about the slipping standards in literature, which few seem to care about.”

Yamini Belliappa, on email


Photograph: courtesy The Hindu

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