Interview in The Hindu (20 November 2015)

Queen & Kingdom

Manu S. Pillai recounts a personal yet political tale in his biography of Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, ‘The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore’

It’s a story of palace intrigue; of how the relationship between two ‘sisters’ had far-reaching political ramifications, one that changed the very history of Kerala. Through his new biography, The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore, debutant author Manu S. Pillai traces the rise and fall of Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (1895 -1985), regent queen of the erstwhile Kingdom of Travancore. The Regent Maharani, as she was known, ruled the kingdom between 1924 and 1931, on behalf of her nephew Sri Chithira Thirunal, then a minor. November 19 was the Regent Maharani’s 120th birth anniversary.

Ahead of the release of the biography on December 7, the 25-year-old Malayali author, who holds a master’s degree in International Relations from King’s College, London, talks about his six-year-journey of discovery into the life of Travancore’s “forgotten” queen. Edited excerpts from an email interview with Manu, who is based in Delhi.

[Interview by Nita Sathyendran, The Hindu, November 21, 2015]

What drew you to Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi of all the historical figures in Travancore?

To be honest, it was the fact that she was really the most interesting of them all! One of the relentless tragedies of writing history in Kerala is that most accounts offer pious homilies about assorted kings and queens, oozing reverence that doesn’t belong in an open, enquiring society.

In Travancore, because of the semi-divine aura constructed around its royal family, the traditional formula has been to list ‘reforms’ and to venerate each ruler for these ‘accomplishments’. But what motivated these Rajahs? What pressures did they face from their colonial overlords? How willingly did the people really accept them? What were their prejudices? If you look at the line, you will find a suspiciously convenient flow of adoration from one ruler to the next. Only when it comes to Sethu Lakshmi Bayi do even seasoned royalists stumble. I became curious to know why she was singled out. And now, six years later, I have 704 pages in an attempt to answer that question!

Instead of focussing on the Maharani’s accomplishments as a ruler you’ve chosen to trace her personal story in the biography…

Her story is remarkable. She was born as Raja Ravi Varma’s granddaughter into a somewhat challenging home. At five she was uprooted and exalted as the Maharani of Travancore. She was reared as a queen, and became an establishment figure, quite conservative, with almost unreasonable notions of morality, and so on. By the time she was 30 she was ruling five million people, when she proved she could for most part keep her personal sentiments separate from public questions. The ritualistic, tradition bound queen became the first in the ‘Hindu State’ to allow minorities a real chance, for instance. By 40 she was sidelined because she had upset entrenched elites by doing just that. A little after 50, her former kingdom dissolved before the greater idea of India, and by 62 she had given up her palaces and privileges, and decided to spend the remainder of her life faraway from the land she once ruled. And in her 80s, she died in obscurity. Here was a woman whose life was full of ups and downs, packed with drama, rich with experience, and who left an actual legacy for millions of people. And then she effaced herself. Her story found me out of the blue and I was gripped.

You’ve also used her story as a platform to tell the social and political history of two centuries of Travancore…

History has to be seen in its context, and my effort has been to see how Travancore was conceived and sustained. Isn’t it fascinating that an 18th century warrior, Marthanda Varma, could consecrate himself as god’s regent on earth? Or the fact that the Kerala kingdom was built by hordes of mercenaries, trained by Dutch deserters, armed by the English East India Company, bureaucratised by Marathi administrators, while the Malayalis themselves clamoured for power while simultaneously quarrelling with each other? Travancore was a contradiction except to its rulers who had every incentive to believe in it! And Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, when in power, confronted this every day and tried to bring balance to the disequilibrium. It was not difficult for me, then, to weave the history of the region and its people over several centuries through her life and times.

Can you elaborate on the research that went into the book?

I have used material from the Kerala State Archives, the National Archives in Delhi, British archives in London, the Maharani’s personal papers in Bangalore (where she spent the last years of her life), and resources from libraries in three continents. In the process, I did discover some absolute gems. In London, for instance, I came across the text of the late 17th century grant of Anjengo by the then queen to the English. I don’t think the actual text in Malayalam is available in Kerala.

Similarly, I came across a fascinating letter from the 1870s from Kerala Varma, famous poet and great-uncle to Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, to the then Maharajah, pleading for mercy. The records of the British Residents are particularly transparent when noting the internal dynamics of the ruling dynasty and the court around them. The documents show that there was uninhibited power politics and ambition.

What is her legacy to the people of Travancore? Do you think she is a role model?

Her record as an administrator is exemplary – infrastructure, education, trade, and so on, which have played their role in Kerala’s high social development today. But what is most striking for me is the way this orthodox woman championed the rights of the modern woman.

She employed nearly 500 women in her administration, as clerks, secretaries, and so on. Before that there were no women in these positions at all and in fact people were complaining by the end of the 1920s that women had started demanding even more! She opened up the legal profession to them, which allowed Anna Chandy to become India’s first woman judge, while also appointing the equivalent of the first female minister in India. She brought in the first ‘lady legislators’, and supported Kerala’s first filmmaker. When the Dalit actress of that film faced a backlash for playing an upper-caste character, she provided police protection to her. Sethu Lakshmi Bayi was not perfect and had her faults too. But there is no doubt that she was a singular woman – a little too committed in a quaint, old-fashioned way to her ideals to survive in unpleasant political waters, alas.

Did you always see yourself as an author? What were your influences?

I used to produce some atrocious poetry and fiction when I was in my teens. And then I would inflict it on my family. I am hoping that now at 25, I’m a little better with writing non-fiction and delving into history. I read quite a bit of non-fiction. As for influences, I am influenced by those who ask questions, so it is really a range of people. Even if I don’t agree with them, the ability to ask an intelligent question and to critique means there is potential to learn and to broaden one’s horizons.

What can we expect next?

Nothing for a while! Sethu Lakshmi Bayi took over my life that my friends in London took to calling me ‘the Monk’ because I was always studying and working. Now I must try and recover my social life and act my age, at least for a brief period!

(The Ivory Throne is published by Harper Collins)

Source: The Hindu