Rebel Sultans by Manu S Pillai

By Swati Singh

After the 600 page Yuva Sahitya Akademi Award winning debut “The Ivory Throne”, Manu S Pillai’s second book, “Rebel Sultans”  is perhaps the most fitting elucidation of the old fantasy writer Terry Pratchett’s quote “History has a habit of changing the people who think they’re changing it… It’s been along a long time”.

The incredibly well researched and nuanced book dealing with the history of the Deccan,  from Khilji to Shivaji, and unlike the textbooks that skip over most of the fun bits- Pillai manages to make this both interesting and accessible.  The book divides this eventful period into seven chapters,  in which characters from all over the continent take centre stage in the political affairs and intrigues of the Deccan.

Pillai remains accurate while being witty, and gives the reader a sense of the exciting realpolitik of the time with detailed maps, charts and a narrative that’s so vivid that it becomes impossible to put down.

The simplicity of his language, and the verbal dexterity with which Pillai wields it to present fact and myth make Rebel Sultans a delightful and deeply engaging read- even for readers who aren’t history buffs : the gory details of the Tughlaqi response to their enemies, and the anecdotes of the more eccentric rulers of the land come to life again with his retelling. In dispensing with the myths of religious divisions and moral binaries, Pillai gives us food for thought as well.

The layout of the book, too is something remarkable – there’s a timeline of the key events, and the genealogy of dynasty is graphically represented before the beginning of the chapters concerning them, with maps that show the geographical extent of the reigning kingdoms of the time. There are detailed endnotes and references, along with paintings and visual evidence to make the subject material clearer. In fact, if this book were any more easy to read, it’d be a part of the “horrible histories” franchise, with cartoons by Priya Kurien and a caricature as a narrator- Not that I’d mind,  but I suspect that a 90 page picture book won’t do the Dodgy Dudes of the Deccan as much justice as Manu S Pillai does.

As most readers of Indian History grow increasingly limited to the realm of IAS aspirants, Rebel Sultans is a book that will appeal to a much, much wider segment of readers (while maintaining neutrality in a post ‘Padmaavat’ world).

With Rebel Sultans, Pillai, too, rebels against the conventionally boring stream of academic nonfiction with his engaging, sharp writing; which is just as well, because while the Deccan may be a plateau, the world deserves to remember that it has seen some memorable ups and downs.