For the past five years, Sarita Mandanna led a double life. By day she was a New York financier, specialising in private equity. By night she morphed into a novelist, secretly writing what was to become the most highly paid debut novel in recent years, Tiger Hills, into the early hours. 'It was such a private endeavour,' recalls Mandanna, who was then head of Equifin Capital in New York and now plies her financier skills with start-up companies in Toronto. 'Virtually no one knew I was writing this. My hours at work used to be pretty long, so I'd come back and basically work on this well into the witching hours late at night and early in the morning, and over the weekends. So it's been somewhat of a slog, a very private slog at that.' But her cover was blown last year, when news broke that Penguin Books India had paid her the highest advance ever given to an Indian-born debut novelist. Mandanna found herself and her yet-unseen novel the subject of media scrutiny. Several months later, on the eve of the novel's release, she is still coming to terms with the fuss and hype. 'It's very encouraging to see the response, but from a point of complete privacy ... to have it out there is very, very surreal. I felt like I had to be socialised and brought back to society again from under this rock where I had been living all these years.' Yet the thing that strikes most about Mandanna is her social ease and profound sense of purpose. That, together with an almost dazzling eloquence, belies her 30-something years. But then, if you read Tiger Hills, nothing about Mandanna should surprise you. This is a confident and assured debut in which the Coorg region of southern India, where it is set - and where her family roots extend back more than 1,000 years - is given such vivid life it is like an extra character in the novel. Described variously as a family saga, an historical novel and an Indian Gone With the Wind crossed with The Thorn Birds, it is a story that spans some 70 years from 1878 to the eve of the second world war. Yes, it opens with the birth of its beautiful headstrong female protagonist signalled by the arrival of 100 herons. And yes, it has a star-crossed love affair or two. But it is more lyrical, profoundly sadder and a lot richer than either of these tags might suggest. Mandanna chuckles at the notion that she's penned an Indian Gone With the Wind, and says 'that and The Thorn Birds are both family sagas and they're both iconic books, so these comparisons are flattering, and I think I was more amused than anything else'. It is, she concedes, 'a bittersweet novel' that follows the lives of two childhood friends - Devi, a free-spirited young girl, and Devanna, a bookish young boy who is taken in by Devi's family when his own mother commits suicide. Devanna's scholarship sees him singled out for a private education, where bullying leads him to make a tragic, if well-intentioned, mistake. Its disastrous effects ricochet across generations as the story ripples out from the coffee estates of colonial Coorg to Germany in the grip of Nazi fervour on the eve of the war, and to a wider India in the throes of independence. Like her characters, Mandanna maintains a fierce love affair with Coorg - often described as the Scotland of India for the fiercely independent character of its people as much as for its terrain - despite spending much of her early life moving around India as the daughter of a military officer. She finished high school in New Delhi, where she lived on the presidential estate when her father was deputy military secretary to the Indian president. But every summer she, along with family members, would return to their grandparents' coffee estate in Coorg, a place much like the one she describes in Tiger Hills and which, like many other coffee estates in Coorg, 'are run pretty much as they were about 150 to 200 years ago'. She believes that she is only the second person to write about the region. 'Given the fact that it was up in the hills and fairly isolated, and even insular, there's not a lot of familiarity with Coorg history, and it's one of the smallest communities of India as well. 'There are also some peculiarities about our customs and traditions that don't quite follow the rest of India, no one knows where the Coorgs originated, so there are all these theories that they came down to India with Alexander's army, then moved south.' A potent lure, she says, is the strength of its women. 'Coorg women have traditionally been given a lot more space in which to thrive and their opinions accorded more legitimacy. That's particularly interesting given that it hasn't quite always been the same in the rest of India, and I wanted to bring some of that out as well,' Mandanna says. It was only when undergoing 'a tougher time than usual at work', some five years ago in New York, that her passion for Coorg and for history spilled out onto the page. 'My personal life was interesting at that point as well,' she laughs, refusing to elaborate on 'interesting', but saying: 'I just needed to do something that would completely take my mind off where I was, to create something of beauty almost. So I just opened up my laptop and started writing, and I was just taken aback at how much I enjoyed that process.' She wrote several short stories then three vivid scenes took root in her consciousness, scenes that led her deeper into what became Tiger Hills. 'It just completely took me over. It was such an obsession I just had to put down word after word and finish it. 'In some senses it helped that my husband was in Toronto at that time. We were doing a long-distance marriage ... so in that sense work was the only other distraction. Everything else was the book.' Now at work on a new novel, she says she has no plans to give up her job as a financier just yet. 'It's interesting work and I enjoy it, but writing is all that has kept me going these past five years. I am truly passionate about it, and once I start writing it is to the exclusion of all else. I find that I'm so truly in my own skin when I'm writing,' she adds, 'that I know this is what I want to be doing for a very long time.'