This is a sweeping historical drama/romance reminiscent of Gone With the Wind and Doctor Zhivago. It follows a couple of generations of families in the Coorg region of India from the mid-19th century until the movement for independence and features a strong, beautiful heroine, the men who love her and the land itself. Mandanna’s writing is full of lush prose, matching the environment she covers, and her characters are well developed and complex, as are their relationships over time.
The two main characters are a village beauty named Devi and her adoptive brother Devanna. Devi is confident and pursues her desires with singleminded purpose. She can be selfish but she is loyal and devoted to her family, her work, and her true love Machu, the tiger killer. Machu, the scion of a wealthy Coorg family, killed a tiger when he was young and has acquired respect and status locally for this. Devanna comes from the same extended family as Machu, but the circumstances of his being adopted by Devi’s family are somewhat shameful. Devanna lacks Machu’s physical prowess, but he is an adept at the mission school. Taken under the wing of the reverend who runs the school, Devanna is on his way to becoming a respected doctor when tragedy strikes, affecting Devi, Machu and Devanna, as well as future generations.
The themes throughout the novel focus on fighting for what one loves, coping with loss, and forgiveness. This sounds as if it might be rather tired and hackneyed soap opera, but Mandanna has written a very engaging story that shies away from melodrama. She also places her story in its historical context and provides insights on British colonial rule, World War I and British involvement in Afghanistan, as well as the place of natives and of women in an evolving society. One of the passages I found relevant to today involved Machu’s fighting for the British against the Pashtuns and the common (incorrect) view that the natives were too divided against one another to unite and put up an effective defense from superior outside forces. “It was all so ridiculous. Honor, glory — all trampled underfoot in some misbegotten pass. The battle would end soon, he knew, and eventually the war. The world would turn. Men would forget. And then, as sure as the sun was rising even now in the east, the very same battles would be waged again, for reasons that would not matter.”
Every character in this story must deal with not getting what they wanted, with pain that they will carry throughout life. And with that pain and loss comes a resentment of the person who seems to be the obstacle to their happiness. This is especially true for Devi, who is at the center of the story. Her pain and losses are tragic, and she carries her anger and bitterness for practically her entire life. It’s not until very late that the words of her grandmother make sense to her: “… the true beauty of a flower lies not in the size or the color of its petals, but in its fragrance…. Be like the jungle flower that despite blooming unseen, untouched… still gifts its sweetness to the breeze.” The novel ends on a satisfying note. Whether it is a happy ending is up to the reader to decide.