Of childhood, writing and history’s travesties: a conversation with Manu S Pillai

(Published in the Gulf News Friday Magazine, October 28 2018)

By Anand Raj OK

Standing close to an old and partially burnt-down temple, with ruined platforms and crumbling pillars, Manu S Pillai’s ancestral house was a veritable storehouse of mystique and magic, stories and legends. To add to the mystery was the vast serpent grove nearby — a treasure trove of history, adventure and myths — that was a magnet to any curious 10-year-old.

Thickly wooded — at least until development in the early 90s began eating into the greenery — the grove was part sacred part taboo, with centuries-old idols deep inside. Although kids were forbidden from loitering around or playing near the decrepit temple and its surrounds lest they invite the wrath of spirits that might be lingering in the vicinity, Manu loved sneaking away in the afternoons when the elders took their naps, to explore the ruins and play among the crumbling pillars.

For a young boy growing up in a cosmopolitan city like Pune, in Maharashtra, the annual summer holidays spent at his family home in a village in Aleppey, in Kerala, were days filled with fun and adventure. Thanks to his grandmother — whom he affectionately calls andyammachy and to whom he dedicated his second book — the yearly visits were occasions to sneak a peek into the fascinating world of history, legends and lores that the state is so richly endowed with.

Fascinated by the culture, society and political systems of yore, Manu would spend hours engrossed listening to his grandmother’s stories about the past – about the dynamics between the lower and upper castes — ‘a lot of it cruel and painful, but occasionally with sparkling stories of love and humour’ — tales offering an insight into ancient social mores and customs and of the agricultural economy and how even as late as the 1940s farm workers frequently were paid not in cash but in kind.

‘I always enjoyed my grandmother’s stories about my ancestors because she has a lovely, witty, irreverent way of telling them,’ says Manu, a bestselling author and writer, in a telephone interview from London. ‘As I grew older I realised that these tales were linked in several ways to the local ways of life.’

What would be a young boy’s interest in his family’s past would, in just a few years, morph into a keen interest into the region’s history and culture that would steer him towards the world of research and writing. ‘[The stories I heard] were fascinating and eventually I started 
reading about the wider region itself and found myself in the embrace of Travancore and its tales,’ says the barely 28-year-old, who will be speaking at the Sharjah Book Fair on November 2 at 5.30pm.

Manu’s thirst for exploring history would result in his first book The Ivory Throne, which would go on to win a clutch of awards while fetching him, at the age of 27, the coveted 2017 Yuva Sahitya Akademi Award.

The 700-page thoroughly researched and extensively footnoted — there are 104 pages of footnotes – tome narrates the history of the Travancore royal family, warts and all. While it went on to receive rave reviews, Manu, the former chief of staff to member of Parliament and author Shashi Tharoor, has quickly become a name to reckon with in the world of Indian narrative history. However, the success was not without painstaking hard work – and a generous slice of luck.

‘In a sense, the book began with a Facebook message to the Maharani’s granddaughter Dr Lakshmi Raghunandan who was born Makam Tirunal Lakshmi Bayi,’ says Manu.

The idea for the book, though, took birth more than eight years ago when Manu, 19 at the time, wrote a blog post on the Travancore maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi. ‘Oddly, there was a furious backlash because people thought I was insulting the royal family,’ says the young author.

Manu kept arguing that the family’s own records, signed by their own former rulers, supported his claims. ‘But it was futile. I suppose it was because of what is called raja bhakti: Blind devotion to the idea of royalty even now.’

Manu is quick to add that people are free to have faith in whatever they like. ‘History, however, is not about what one likes or dislikes. It revolves around the facts of the matter — my commitment was not to people’s prejudices and egos but to historical inquiry.’

Nevertheless, the fact that a blog post by an obscure 19-year-old had so many people worked up — one person even declared that if it was the old days, his head would have been cut off — roused Manu’s curiosity. ‘If the idea was that I would back off, I decided, on the contrary, to dig deeper.’

He went back online and replied to as many critics as he could. ‘I of course gave as good as I got,’ he says. Polite in his replies and without being abusive, he would point to the facts and calmly tell them where they were wrong and suggest they consult records. But this only got them angrier. ‘It was a lot like the frenzied Facebook debates that take place today, often devoid of any real understanding but with an excess of emotion.’

Intrigued that stating facts could provoke such an angry outburst from people, he decided to start researching more and set the record straight. Manu was in possession of a bunch of letters from the royal family, but that was only one piece of the puzzle. After doing some research at the National Archives in Delhi and the Kerala State Archives, in 2010, Manu decided to set off to the British Archives in London.

‘But when you are 20 and a student, telling your parents you want to go to London to write a book is not a clever idea; they are bound to laugh it off and tell you to focus on education,’ he says, with a laugh. So the budding story teller hatched a plan: he told them he wanted to do a Master’s and enrolled at King’s College London, choosing a course that would give him more time to spend at the archives in the city. In the process, he also got his parents ‘to fund my education and using that as an excuse I started researching for the book’.

For an entire year, as soon as classes were over at 11am, Manu would head straight to the archives, where he would stay until it closed at 8pm sifting through documents and letters collecting information. ‘Photocopying was quite expensive, and because I didn’t want to ask my parents for money for my project, I’d painstakingly type up everything into my laptop,’ he says.

After earning a distinction in his master’s – and armed with extensive notes about the Travancore family – Manu, at 21, returned to India, where he landed a job working with Indian parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor in Delhi. There was a reason behind the choice of the job and the city: ‘so I could have easy access to the national archives’.

Even while holding the post of chief of staff of the high-profile MP and running his Delhi office — a job that included working on parliamentary questions for Tharoor, researching speeches, managing his international commitments, coordinating with diplomats, NGOs, journalists and petitioners – Manu was also busy researching for his book. ‘It was a high stress, demanding job and from 9 to 9, I would be on my toes,’ he says. ‘But it was also a learning curve for me because I learnt to manage time to do my writing as well.’

Working with Shashi Tharoor opened access to several other repositories of historical documents, including the Kerala State Archives and the Kerala Council for Historical Research.

A year later, Manu was back in London, this time working as an aide to Lord Karan Bilimoria at the House of Lords and on a project for the BBC. ‘Being in London gave me the chance to revisit the archives,’ he says. This time though, as an aide to the member of the House of Lords, Manu had access to some private papers and on one occasion even managed to get a copy of a crucial document from the collection of Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India.

In 2014, he returned to India and went on a spree photographing paintings of Raja Ravi Verma, a royal who would become an important character in his book, and interviewing people varying from relatives of a British resident to the nephew of the maharani. ‘It was all great fun. I got to meet a number of remarkable people, from an anthropologist in his 90s to assorted tampurattis (female members of the royal family), and visit some lovely places.’

That same year Manu, still in his early 20s, was drafted to work on Shashi Tharoor’s election campaign, which Tharoor went on to win ‘at the height of the Modi wave’.

During it all Manu was burning the midnight oil researching his book, which had become almost an obsession. By then he had a wealth of material and was convinced that if he didn’t write the book soon, he’d never be able to finish it. So he sat down to write the book. ‘At the end of the day you have to draw your own deadline because we can keep going on indefinitely. 
One has to learn to let go,’ he says.

In October 2015, The Ivory Throne finally went to press but until the previous day of printing ‘I was tinkering with the manuscript adding bits and pieces and begging publishers if I could review a particular section and make changes and add footnotes,’ he says.

The footnotes, incidentally, are one of the differentiating factors of the book. Running into 104 pages, they give an insight into the detailed research that went into the making of the book. ‘This love of footnotes is something that I have cultivated because not only does it provide a source of information but it can also lead scholars to other areas of research. Every 
other footnote has a nugget of information that could potentially help someone pursue it as a separate idea.’

Was it easy for a first-time author like him to get published?

‘For many first-time authors, the process of publishing can be frustrating. I was lucky,’ he says. ‘I remember sending [his then publisher and chief editor at Harper Collins VK] Karthika an email timing it for 2am so she would read my email first thing in the morning before it got drowned in the other messages she might get. I sent her six pages of the opening chapter of the book with a long email. She replied in a matter of hours, and asked me to send her the manuscript. And that was that.’

The book went on to win several awards, including the 2016 Tata Prize for best first book of non-fiction. ‘My grandmother is not an easy person to impress, but when news of the Sahitya Akademi honour came in, even she was pleased,’ he says, with a laugh.

Earlier this year, The Ivory Throne went into its 15th reprint.

Did the success of his first book weigh on him when he started writing his second one?

Manu takes a moment to answer before saying he prefers to believe he is ‘fairly well grounded’, not allowing success ‘to go to my head’. Admitting that there have been several people who are one-book wonders, he says he was conscious that ‘I too might become a one-book wonder’.

While his second book Rebel Sultans has done well — critically, commercially, and now on the shortlist for an award — Manu is aware that success today is no guarantee for tomorrow. ‘The only guarantee you have is if you make a promise to yourself to keep working hard, without letting anything else go to your head.’

Writing, says the author, is a very precarious thing. ‘The art evolves. The craft evolves. Younger people come in and can completely change the way things are done — which is not a bad thing at all.

‘So, momentary success does not mean much in the long run. This is also why my second book is somewhat different in style and size when compared to The Ivory Throne.’

If the first was intense, woven with intricacy and detail, the second is more a broad-picture book — a grand canvas telling the story of the Deccan in a brisker fashion, and in half the size of The Ivory Throne. ‘Each serves different purposes and is meant for somewhat different audiences,’ he avers.

So what made him turn to the Deccan for his second book?

‘Because nobody has given the Deccan the respect and the position that it deserves in general narratives of Indian history. I wanted to plug the gap in a fun and interesting way.’

While academic historians have been working on the subject, the popular imagination seems to begin and end with Shivaji and the Marathas, he says. ‘I wanted to remind readers of a time before the Marathas. Given the political climate around us, the book is also a contribution to the public debates around us. 
It is an effort to show that history is not black and white. It is not a tale of Muslims versus Hindus in some epic, civilisational battle. It’s more complicated.

‘Hindu kings in Vijayanagar called themselves sultans. A Vijayanagar emperor could propose a marital alliance with Portugal, and so on. The stories are endless and most revealing.

‘Of course, there was also bigotry, but then as now religion was largely an excuse for political motivations. In that sense the world has not changed – power and greed more than religion or moral quests write the destiny of people.’

Manu also has a bone to pick with historians regarding objectivity when compiling history. While the researcher admits that history can never be objective, the historian’s desire to be objective is a good thing, he believes. ‘The quest for objectivity keeps us true and balanced to the extent possible, weeding out prejudices and approaching history scientifically.’

However, what irks Manu are the ‘pseudo historians on Twitter with massive followings. They wilfully read recorded facts in a perverted twisted manner,’ he says, stressing that the job of the historian is not to sit in judgement of the past. ‘Our job is not to determine what is right and wrong. Our job is merely to understand things as they occurred in their own context, not to apply today’s standards to the past or project our anxieties on to historical figures.’

Manu is also against using ‘history to peddle a political agenda or to satisfy your latest impulses. History must rise beyond that, and cannot serve as a mistress to politics. Sadly, pseudo historians are striving for the exact opposite, where history is reduced to an instrument of politics and some odious agendas.’

Does he think south Indian rulers of the past receive less space in history textbooks? South India in general gets the short end of the stick because everything is so Delhi oriented, he points out. The fact that power resides in the north and ‘because text books are written by those in the north, the orientation is generally north Indian.

‘It’s the capital and the rest. Whereas in reality culturally Delhi had more in common with Kabul than with the south of India. Kerala had more culturally in common with Arabia than it had with north India.’

To illustrate his point, he suggests examining the legends of Kerala where the presence of Arabs and links with Arabia are evident. Kerala had a coastal economy and Arabs, who controlled much of the seas, were visiting the state even before Islam arrived to India, he says.

The Chinese too had links with Kerala and the legendary admiral Zheng He came with some 250-odd ships before the Chinese became insular and disappeared from the 
seas just on the eve of the Portuguese period. ‘South India’s history is unlike that of the north, which dominates our imagination; in the peninsula you had empires like the Cholas who went out and conquered lands overseas,’ says Manu, adding that cultural links with faraway countries existed in historical times – as with Nandivarman II who was born in Vietnam and then adopted as heir to the Pallavas in Kanchipuram in the 8th century.

‘The south teaches us to look outward, eschewing narrow identities and limitations.’

The researcher and historian points out that while the term ‘globalisation’ might be a new one, the phenomenon existed in Kerala during ancient times. ‘Kerala and our history is proof of this,’ he says. ‘But yes, because there is an emphasis on north India, we learn about events there and find that the story of the south receives, at best, secondary treatment. It is a tragedy and must be rectified.’

Manu, who is busy on a new project — ‘I can’t tell you much about it now’ — recalls how there were several ‘oh wow’ moments while researching for Rebel Sultans.

‘Researching [the Ethiopian military leader] Malik Ambar was fascinating,’ he says. ‘There is very little about him in our text books, a man who in some respects paved the way for Shivaji a generation later.

‘Few realise that thousands of Africans came to India year after year, for centuries. African women married Indian kings – two Sultans in Ahmednagar had African queens. Malik Ambar, who went on to fight the Mughals and preserve, for decades, the independence of the Deccan from the north, is merely the most glamorous of them all. But there were Africans in Delhi, in Bengal, in Uttar Pradesh, in Mysore, and until a few decades ago even in Hyderabad.’

Manu, who credits PG Wodehouse for ‘giving me the awareness and importance of irreverence’, is convinced that everything in life — and in writing — needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. ‘Wodehouse to a great extent inspired my own attempts at irreverence and in my teens I learnt not to take anything so seriously as to become self-righteous,’ he says.

Other writers he rates highly are Aubrey Menn — ‘largely forgotten today, a terrific writer’; Ramachandra Guha — ‘an extraordinary historian’; William Dalrymple — ‘one man who has helped a great way to make narrative history big in India’; and Meera Nanda — ‘whether you agree or disagree with her position, always provokes thought’.

Manu believes that at the end of the day, that is the purpose of every writer – not just to tell a story well, but also to make the reader think of greater things. ‘Reading,’ he says, ‘can be entertaining, but what is truly remarkable is when a book inspires evolution of the intellect and our mind.’