(Published in Mid-Day, June 24 2018)
By Jane Borges
Until two years ago, Manu S Pillai was a familiar right hand to MP Shashi Tharoor. In media circles, reaching out to Tharoor meant going past this bright 20-something, who worked as the politico’s chief of staff. But, in 2017, Pillai’s writing set him on an another plane — one that immediately upped his credentials as a historian of note. His debut work, The Ivory Throne, which is based on the royal family of Travancore, won the alumnus of Fergusson College, Pune, the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar. Pillai’s new historical title, Rebel Sultans: The Deccan From Khilji To Shivaji, narrates the story of the Deccan from the close of the thirteenth century to the dawn of the eighteenth. While the history of this region is primarily associated with the clash between Chhatrapati Shivaji and the Mughals, Pillai focuses on the period before the former, when the region was a fascinating place with Persian kings, African warlords and Hindu Sultans.
“Shivaji was a remarkable figure who dramatically altered the political fortunes of the Deccan. The region was being swallowed whole by the Mughal empire in the 17th century — the old Sultanates were past their heyday and devoid of unity. It was Shivaji who put forward a new vision of power, a new ideology of state, and set in motion a movement that would take the Marathas everywhere from Punjab to Bengal, and from Delhi to Thanjavur,” says Pillai.
“However, in colonial times Shivaji also became a vehicle for politics, which happens often with historical figures — sometimes in ways, which might surprise those people themselves. So Mahatma Phule cast Shivaji as protector of the weak, while higher-caste leaders saw him as a protector of cows. The result was that since then, Shivaji has become political capital for various parties. And those who came before him were obscured. For instance, the Marathas and their techniques of guerilla warfare were legendary. However, decades before Shivaji, this strategy was inaugurated by Maratha generals under the leadership of Malik Ambar, a Muslim who came to the Deccan as an African slave and went on to become a king in all but name. Even in the Sivabharata commissioned by Shivaji, high praise is reserved for Ambar who is ‘brave as the sun’. Since there are hundreds of books on Shivaji I thought I would make my contribution by focusing on those who have been reduced to footnotes in the story of the Marathas, when they genuinely deserve much more,” explains the 28-year-old.
The result is a book that brings some historically, dynamic characters to the fore. Ibrahim Adil Shah II of Bijapur, is one example. “He wore red nail polish, sang praises of Ganapati and the goddess Saraswati, and was in love with the Marathi language,” says Pillai. Devaraya II of Vijayanagar, similarly, was an emperor with a remarkable, internationalist bent of mind, who knew all about Persia. Chand Bibi was a Nizam Shahi princess — descended from a Brahmin who converted to Islam — and bravely led resistance against the Mughals, till she was assassinated. The author doesn’t hold back from crediting Tharoor — whom he joined as a 21-year-old — for playing a significant role in shaping his career. “He is a prolific, tireless writer, and I think watching him work helped me put in the time, energy, and discipline I needed for my first book,” he says.