Muthavva knew her seventh child was special, had known from the very day of her birth, the day of the herons. It was a clear day in July. With almost two months to go before the baby was due, and the sowing season upon them, Muthavva had put off leaving for her mothers home. She made her laborious way to the fields instead, and was standing ankle deep in the flooded flats when she heard a rustling. She looked up, shading her eyes against the sun and rubbing the small of her back. A flock of herons wheeled overhead. In itself, this was not unusual. There were herons to be seen in every field in Coorg, the flash of their wings startling against bright green paddy. But in all her years, Muthavva had never seen as many as were now slowly descending upon the flats. A hundred birds, maybe more, flying wingtip to wingtip, casting the sun-drenched fields into shadow. The fluttering of their feathers drowned out the croaking of frogs, the cawing of crows, even the incessant racket of crickets. Muthavva could no longer hear her brother-in-laws voice carried on the wind as he called out instructions to the laborers hired to help with the sowing, his words muffled by the steady beat of wings. The birds circled slowly, lower and lower, executing a final sharp turn to land by her feet. Muthavva stood surrounded, still absently massaging her back among a sea of silent white.
And then, without warning, the herons took wing again. Up they soared on some secret cue, all around her, showering her with the glittering droplets of water that rolled off their wings and the tips of their feet. At that instant, not one moment sooner or later, Muthavva felt a gush of warm liquid on her thighs. Her daughter was here.
The mountains. That is what the dead must notice first, Muthavva had always believed. That very first time, when they rose from the funeral pyres, slipping through ash, borne by the wind high into the clouds. And from there, that first, dizzying, glorious sight of Coorg.
It was a tiny principality, shaped not unlike the knitted bootie of an infant, and tucked into the highest reaches of the Sahaydri mountains that girded the countrys coastline to the south. The far side of the mountains was bounded by the ocean, dropping abruptly into the glittering blue of the Arabian Sea. The way down the cliffs was so slippery, so fraught with loose rocks and sharp-edged shingle, that only the most money-hungry traders were foolhardy enough to attempt it. They assembled twice a year at the edge of the bluffs, in time to meet the Arabian ships docked below, with baskets of captured monkeys whose feet they had painted red with betel juice and lime. They would release the monkeys over the cliffs, driving them down toward the sea with a great banging and bashing of drums; as the monkeys jumped, terrified, from rock to rock, they left behind a map of tiny red footprints for the traders to follow. Even so, each year there were those who fell, men screaming as they spun through the air, finally smashing onto the rocks far below.
Turning inland, the silver flash of the Kaveri river, ribboning the olivine mountains and parceling Coorg neatly in two like the halves of a coconut. To the north, the undulating hills of bamboo country, softly rounded, dotted with towering arches of bamboo and slender knots of trees. Blackwood and ironwood, dindul and sandalwood, eucalyptus, benteak and rosewood, interspersed with breezy glades where grasses shimmered in the sun. The Scotland of India. That was what the many white folk in Coorg called it, this part of the land that reminded them so much of Europe.
They had set about civilizing the central town of Mercara, rechristening its streets Tenth Mile, Queens Way, and Mincing Lane. They clustered their estates about the town --- coffee plantations sprung from Ceylonese beans that had rapidly taken root in this virgin soil. Their planter bungalows lay in a series of rough circles around the town. Low slung, red roofed and diamond paned, replete with verandahs, croquet lawns, and racquet courts. In stark contrast, the shola forests of the south. Wild, untrammeled tracts of pipal, cinchona, ebony, toon and poon, crowding in on themselves, adorned with club moss and lush, unscented orchids. Tangles of thorned underbrush erupted between their trunks, vast, laboriously spun cobwebs bridging the exposed corrugation of their roots.
Excerpted from Tiger Hills © Copyright 2011 by Sarita Mandanna. Reprinted with permission by Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
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