‘Had we learnt from the past, we would not repeat today’s mistakes’: Manu S Pillai

(Published in The NewsMinute, March 08 2020)

Neetha John

When The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore which told the tale of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi of the house of Travancore came out in 2016, the world was astounded to find a mere 26-year-old behind the 700 page heavy nonfiction. Since then, Manu S. Pillai has been a prominent figure in the landscape of Indian history – publishing two more books before he reached 30 – Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji (2018) and The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History (2019).

With his significant contributions to the historical scenario of India, Manu S. Pillai has consolidated his name in the literary scene of the country. In this chat with TNM, Manu talks about his writing process, the significance of history and more.

It has been a grand historical journey for you, spilling over a decade. How has this journey been for you? How is it different from how it was when you started off?

Grand may be an overstatement, but it certainly has been fulfilling. None of this was planned. I began my studies in history in my teens, specifically in the context of colonial Kerala, which remains in many ways my principal area of interest. It was only when I decided to write about Sethu Lakshmi Bayi of Travancore, that my research took a more specific direction and assumed a life of its own. Writing The Ivory Throne—which entailed obtaining material from London, Delhi, Kerala, and oddly even America—consumed the first half of my 20s. While it had its ups and downs, those six years also changed me. The success of the book, especially in terms of critical reception, gave me the confidence thereafter to consider seriously a life focused on history and writing. It is, like much else, hard work, but I have the satisfaction that it is the kind of work I enjoy doing. The world of libraries and archives also gives you a lot of humility—there is such an ocean of knowledge, and the work of a whole lifetime constitutes only a drop in that vastness. Being constantly reminded of this keeps your feet on the ground, and your pen stable. So although it has been a decade, it feels only like a mile on a long road.

Once you said that during your research, you found it easier to retrieve information and old documents from the archives in Europe than in India, that here, neither are they respected nor protected. How can that change?

I don’t mean to generalise, but yes archives abroad often tend to be better run and better maintained, which means that your productivity is heightened and less time is wasted in bureaucratic slowness, endless procedure, and so on. For instance, the same files are often available in the National Archives in Delhi and in the India Office records in London, pertaining to the colonial period. Having used both, I find that the latter is easier to negotiate. But things are changing steadily in India. A lot is being digitised and at the payment of a fee you can access material straight on your screen. The feeling, however, of touching old paper, opening files that have not been touched in decades—that remains special. What is more, discovering material that no-one before you has in its physical form remains even more exciting. In India this is especially true: in Kerala recently I saw palm-leaf manuscripts, whole cupboards full of them, in a single house. They had barely been mined for information.

I was listening to an interview and you were saying how on most days, you are pacing up and down your room, figuring things out in your head. Do you get stuck, confused over contradicting facts? Do you get anxious over tiny details – considering how, in this line, there will be different and many versions to an incident? Does that happen?

The walking up and down, where I often talk to myself, is essentially to clarify my own ideas or arguments and develop a flow, which I can then put down on paper. There are no contradictory “facts”: fact is always singular, but its interpretation can be contradictory. Any good student of history will know the methods to handle a situation like this. You must interrogate your sources, to begin with, and never take them at face value: what language is a text written in, by whom, for what intended audience, what is it seeking to achieve? These questions help place things in context and make them clearer. So when you connect the dots of history, you realise which is the more rational, scientific, and objective way to do so. For instance, imagine a king and his official prasasti or state narrative: this is the official record. But you may also have a counter-narrative in a folk tradition, not written anywhere but surviving in song and lore. Both are communicating something: one from a position of power, and the other from a more marginalised place. Both are important in developing a fuller understanding of that king and his reign. The job of a historian is to bring on board all such sources and then form an assessment of the time and its protagonist. If you don’t have a political axe to grind or preconceived conclusion, this is a phenomenally interesting process. Every day I find that the past can challenge so many preconceptions we uphold with so much certainty. It is always a question of perspective and being open to developing new ideas. The past, viewed that way, is full of surprises and an infinite quantity of riches.

How far from fiction is non-fiction? 

Fiction is, after all, created by human beings and reflects the “non-fictional” world in which its authors reside. But I’d rather answer this through examples. We know Tipu Sultan as a king, a conqueror, and so on. There are his records and decrees and his dream diaries, and there are the documents left by his adversaries. But creative activities from his time also tell us a great deal about him: I mean architecture, art, and cultural happenings from his years in power. The mural painting at his palace in Srirangapatna which shows the Battle of Pollilur, for instance. It is a painting but the way it depicts Tipu (regal on his horse, smelling a rose, despite the carnage around him) and his British adversary (depicted as unmanly, chewing his nails in a palanquin) is communicating something. It is propaganda art, but also offers a window into Tipu’s kingly self-image. So too look at Partition: we have the statistics, the figures on how many were rendered homeless, the number of women who were raped. But Manto’s fiction around the horrors of Partition reveals the emotional horrors of the time. In future, a student of history will have to study the literature and art that the experience of Partition produced because that also tells us something. But if you also mean that a lot of history reads as though it were straight out of fiction, yes: as I mentioned earlier, a good student of the past will find a lot of surprises, wit, humour, and even comedy in history. Then as today, the world was complicated, and then as today, it had a serious side as much as it did a lighter, even hilarious one.

How important would you say it is, to know history – especially considering the political climate in the country – where laws are being re-written?

The political climate in our country is obscene, to the extent that no amount of history teaching will alter the minds of those who remain wilfully defiant of wisdom. It is not like the horrors we are witnessing now did not occur earlier. But at least the state felt a fraction of shame. Today the state seems not to possess even that fig leaf of shame. It is naked power and ambition married to a completely immoral pursuit of goals, no matter what the cost, that we are living through. Individuals can act irresponsibly, because there are frameworks to address that: social conventions, the law, and so on. But when the state itself discards its moral basis, the whole edifice collapses. Politicians around the world are becoming more and more brazen when it comes to retaining power no matter what the price, which is why it is for the people to learn not to be taken in by distractions, tricks, bloodlust, and their love of chaos. In that sense, yes, history can be a corrective. History can teach us to recognise when we are being turned into fools by our rulers and their foot soldiers, and the past can remind us why if we fail to do so, we will live to regret it.

Do you see history being repeated in today’s scenario? Is knowing history a way of keeping it from being repeated?

History can guide us, yes, and tell us what not to do, and how to negotiate tricky corners. But history also tells us that human stupidity will remain a constant, which is why for one intelligent voice, you will have ten voices of unreason. If we had learnt from the past, we would not be repeating the mistakes of today. But we haven’t and even when the past stares us in the face, many of us refuse to learn. The future may judge us as a people who wrote their own obituary. That said, I still have a sense of optimism, because a lie cannot sustain itself, and mere noise masquerading as vision will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. But the path to that end will be long and difficult, and as is becoming clear on a daily basis, increasingly violent. That really is the tragedy. Those who created institutions and ground-rules for democracies knew what violence could do—they had lived experience of that previous phase. So they sought to create a space for competing ideas and thought devoid of bloodshed. Without realising the consequences, there are some now dismantling all those checks and balances, all those ground rules, and inviting back the days of a jungle raj. It will be a cold irony in the end for those at the helm that they will be unable to control what they are unleashing. If we proceed at this rate, a day will come when the architects of today’s chaos will also regret what they have done. You can, after all, set a place ablaze knowingly, but when a fire spreads, it does not spare even its maker.

Does language mean more than just as a tool for conveyance, according to you?

Language is such a complicated, fascinating affair. It is, necessarily, more than just about communication and itself encapsulates historical dynamics of great richness. Think of Marathi, for instance, which has derived so much from Persian (notwithstanding late-nineteenth century attempts to “purify” the language with Sanskrit and expunge the Persian): it bears witness to the Persianate phase of the region when the largely Shia dynasties of the Deccan Sultanates were in power in the early modern period.

Think of Malayalam spoken by the Mappilas of Malabar, strongly influenced by Arabic. All the languages in India are reflections of multiple cultural influences and historical processes, and our pluralism is patent in the very words we use every day. Even English, originally the coloniser’s language, was owned by Indians, and it was in this language that the freedom struggle originally took off. In fact, the first Indian National Congress circular specifically required delegates to speak English because they would, otherwise, have no other common language. Or even more interestingly, take Tamil: I was reading about R Balakrishnan’s Journey of A Civilization in Tony Joseph’s review the other day. The author talks evidently of how Sangam poetry often uses the motif of camels laden with goods, which is a very unusual image in peninsular India. Does this mean that that literature in Tamil carries the echo of a distant past when languages of the Dravidian family were spoken even in north-western India? I wouldn’t be surprised. Language, in that sense, is not merely about expression. It is also a record of history in its own right.

There were talks about adapting The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore into a series. Are there any updates on that?

There are indeed, though perhaps I should not be the one to reveal them. It is best left to the producers, who will, no doubt, make public these developments when the time is right.