Interview in Pune Mirror (22 November 2015)

Royal Chronicles

Twenty-five-year-old Manu Pillai researched and wrote his first book over six years to bring to life a forgotten India

It has been rather a remarkable journey for Manu Pillai. The Fergusson College alumnus, who, after graduation in Economics, went on to work with Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor and followed it up with stints at the House of Lords and with BBC World Service, is now all set to release his first book at the age of 25. Titled The Ivory Throne, it chronicles the life and times of Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the last and forgotten queen of the House of Travancore.

A tete-a-tete with the young author.

[By Mrunmayi Ainapure, Pune Mirror, November 22, 2015]

You grew up in Pune. What drew you to Kerala and this royal theme?

History, as taught in schools, is packed with tedium, and it was really on visits to Kerala during holidays that I took an interest in the subject. For instance, at school we were taught that earlier, women married once and then led dreary lives as widows. But I learnt I had a great-great-grandmother who was a divorcee in the 1880s.We were taught that India is a permanent clash of religions — Kerala shows that, to the contrary, we intermingled indiscriminately when it came to values and ideas. We are subtly informed that Islam is an aberration that arrived with invaders — well, it came to Kerala through peaceful embassies of commerce long before the first swords were raised in Sindh.

Kerala, if you look beneath the surface, is the complete opposite of what we are taught about the country at large: socially, culturally, and politically. I was a spirited teenager looking for an obsession, and I found it in Kerala. My Malayali roots played a role too, no doubt.

In Kerala, I came to know about Lakshmi Raghunandan, a descendent of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, who had brought out a compiled volume of her grandmother’s uncensored personal correspondence in 1995. It was the only source where I could find information on my protagonist. I wrote to Raghunandan who sent me the book — later I went to Bangalore and saw the actual papers. That veneer of political correctness that is passed off as history fell away, and I knew there was a compelling story here.

Could you walk us through the story?

There are two parallel lines in the book. On one hand, it is the story of how the tempestuous marriage of Raja Ravi Varma provoked political repercussions for millions of people 50 years later. It is the tale of his two granddaughters who became the Maharanis of Travancore. They were rivals, and factions at court and eventually the common people split into communities to take sides. What began as a domestic spat in one generation assumed monumental proportions in another, affecting policy and government.

The book also investigates the construction of a ‘Hindu State’ in Kerala — an irony since it was built by Tamil mercenaries, commanded by Dutch generals, armed by the English Company, bureaucratized by Marathi administrators, in a region with the largest number of Christians in India and its most ancient Muslim families.

It is a lot like today’s Hindutva — it could never have emerged without intellectual foundations of colonial vintage, even while, very convincingly, masquerading as ancient, timeless wisdom and practice.

Tell us a little about the characters.

There’s a fascinating assortment. Court favourites relinquishing their wives to kings and then plotting against the throne; matriarchs of violent, sordid and profligate character, who schemed against their own offspring; bare-bosomed seventeenth century warrior princesses, spilling blood on the battlefield and doing business with English agents. The women were remarkable — husbands never mattered in the matrilineal system, and were not allowed even to sit in the presence of their wives. As late as the 1920s, they were allowed only Rs 200 a month, and at feasts they were served two desserts while their royal wives had four!

It’s such a tragedy that in India we tend to turn our female figures into receptacles of (patriarchal) virtue, when really they led such remarkable, heady lives — full of vigour, energy, and plain force of personality.

What was the process of writing like? You also worked with Shashi Tharoor and at the House of Lords during this time — did that help?

I began writing here in Pune when I was at Fergusson in 2009. It took me six years, but with a little effort, I could progress with both my work and my writing. I gathered all my initial archival material in London. Then, when working with Dr Tharoor, I had the National Archives and the Kerala State Archives at hand. During my time at the House of Lords and with the BBC, I returned to the British archives and sourced material from the USA.

What sort of research did you put in?

Over the last six years I have on numerous occasions visited and interviewed Raghunandan’s family in Bangalore, including Rukmini Varma, the painter, and Uma Varma, who are Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s grandchildren and Raja Ravi Varma’s great great grandchildren. They showed me diaries, letters, and paintings and all other material they had from the 19th and 20th centuries. Their house is one of Bangalore’s last standing colonial bungalows — a large, old place with dusty chandeliers and high ceilings on Richmond Road.

What kind of readers will your book attract? Has anybody read it yet?

Readers of history, biography, and politics, and those interested in statecraft and plain power politics should be interested. Despite sturdy research foundations, I have tried to keep the narrative engaging. A few people have read parts and have enjoyed the sections I sent them. But to be frank, I haven’t let anyone read the whole manuscript other than my editor. In fact my own family will probably learn what my book is about after they read this interview.

Tell us about your Fergusson days and how you have evolved over the years.

Great fun, lots of friends, plenty of activity, and an exquisite setting. I always sniggered at people who said their college years were the best, only to realise that the cliche is actually valid. Writing is, in a way, a socially isolating experience — I was running from the classroom to the archives, and later from office work to writing. So it’s been a tremendous learning experience. I am rather wistful about the life I led as a fairly social person back at Fergusson.

What is in the pipeline?

Absolutely nothing for at least another year! I think I have earned myself a break, and though I have the emergent beginnings of a very remote idea in my head, I have neither the intention nor inclination to put that plan into action till after next summer.

Source: Pune Mirror