Manu S Pillai’s Tryst With History; His Works And Protagonists

(Published on, July 21 2018)


Manu S Pillai was not just one among the men of letters when he penned his first work at the age of 25 ; ‘The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the house of Travancore ‘ . It was indeed a culmination of his arduous journey of six year long research which began as he was a boy of nineteen years old. His endeavor to delve into the past on Travancore history based on a forgotten Travancore queen, Sethu Lakshmi Bai , enabled him to have an indelible mark in the literary world. His latest work, ‘Rebel Sultans : The Deccan From Khilji to Shivaji, was well-received among the readers too. In an interview with, Manu S Pillai talks about so many things touching upon his works and approaches of writing to his future plans. Excerpts from an email interview with Manu .S.Pillai , who is based in London.

You are the author of one of the biggest ever-written books on Travancore history in recent times (‘The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore’). What drew you to Travancore history, particularly Sethu Lakshmi Bayi as a protagonist in your first work?

I am a Malayali who grew up outside Kerala. But in my teens, I developed an interest in the history of the region, originally through stories told in my own family about our ancestors. There were tales about yakshis andkavustaravads and kalarisyajamans and adiyans, and all of this sparked a deeper interest as I grew older. By the time I was eighteen, I had read a number of books—ranging from Shungunny Menon in the nineteenth century, to Sreedhara Menon in the twentieth—and developed a degree of fascination for Travancore. And then, when I came across the story of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, I was gripped.

History often has characters who, due to some reason or another, end up with the short end of the stick. That is what happened to this remarkable woman, and there was such sheer drama and fascinating complexity to her story, that I thought someone needed to resurrect her in popular imagination. I could have written two books perhaps—one on Travancore history and the other as a biography of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi. But in my enthusiasm and youthful vigour, I decided the combine the two, and wed history through the life-story of Travancore’s last queen. I am glad it worked and received the kind of critical acclaim as well as commercial success that it did.

It seems to be taken almost 6 years of research work for your first work. Did you face any hurdles in the course of your research on Travancore History? How did you manage to overcome it?

Yes, I started in 2009 properly and the book was finished in 2015. There were hurdles, not least of which was managing time. When I began, I was at university, but soon I was juggling fairly high-pressure jobs with my writing, working first with Shashi Tharoor and then Lord Bilimoria at the House of Lords in London, followed by a BBC project. So a lot of my own writing was done at the cost of sleep, and weekends and any free time I could find was spent in the archives and library. Travel, sourcing material, etc meant also spending a great deal of money. But I have no regrets—for those six years, it was the book that energised everything else I did, and I am only happy I made this investment of time and resources. The result is something that has since not only been appreciated across the board, but also returned Sethu Lakshmi Bayi to the mainstream.

Why did you choose Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s personal narrative as a platform to tell socio-political history of Travancore spanning 300 years?

I have realised that I have an interest in the complexity of human beings, and how people negotiate life and its challenges. There is so much to Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s story—there is wealth and power, but there is tragedy and loss also. There is life in the limelight as queen juxtaposed against a highly retiring personality who would have liked, instead, to have been a schoolteacher. There is palace intrigue and court drama, and while she sat at the helm of power, she was quite unable to play the games that were required to retain influence there. Her life was full of ups and downs, like everybody else’s, but in that context of palaces and politics, it was especially interesting. I knew this would appeal to a very wide audience, and so if I could weave Travancore history through the story of this woman, it might result in a ‘formula’ that worked and interested more readers than merely historians and scholars.

Matrilineal system was prevalent at the time. Do you think it played a vital role in the socio-political history of Travancore apart from other princely states?

Yes indeed. It was an Attingal Rani (the title of the eldest woman in the Travancore family) who gave the British one of their earliest enclaves in India at Anjengo—till 1949, the Attingal Rani had a unique ceremonial position in British eyes as a result, something not granted to any other non-ruling female anywhere else in the subcontinent. Similarly, it was partly due to the matrilineal system (and its slow collapse) that Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and her sister, the Junior Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bayi, failed to stick together and ended up as rivals. The reign of Chithira Tirunal himself, similarly, is almost universally recognised as one in which real power was wielded by his mother, supported by Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer, the Dewan. Women play an important role in my narrative, as does the unravelling of the matrilineal system, all of which left a lasting impression on Kerala, and by extension, on Indian history.

You have already done with your second work; ‘Rebel Sultans’. What prompted you to choose a topic based on Deccan History?

I grew up in Poona, and while I call The Ivory Throne a tribute to my Malayali roots, Rebel Sultans is a tribute to the land in which I was raised. Like with Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, I found that the history of the Deccan is also often neglected in general narratives about India. So my second book is a modest attempt to return the Deccan to the limelight, going beyond Shivaji (about whom hundreds of books have been written) and looking instead at an earlier period, when the Deccan was a magnet for Persians, Africans, Arabs, Europeans, Ottomans, and even Jews fleeing the Inquisition. All of them together helped shape history here, and in times when we are again succumbing to a kind of parochialism, I want to remind readers of this fascinating past where a Muslim Sultan in Bijapur could worship Saraswati and Ganapati, and where the rulers of Vijayanagar could dress in Persian clothes, calling themselves ‘Hindu Sultans’. It is an effort to communicate one simple principle—no matter what contemporary politics might suggest, the past is not black and white. It is a complex, multi-layered world, and we must learn to look at it in its own context.

Your first work ‘Ivory throne’ took long six years of research to see the light. But ‘Rebel Sultans, comparatively, got published within a short span of time? What is the reason for that?

The two books are quite different. Where The Ivory Throne is an intricate, detailed affair with a specific focus, Rebel Sultans is more of a grand narrative, with a much larger cast of characters and a larger span of time covered. So the style of writing is different, and the kind of material used is also different. Besides, the protagonists of my first book died in the late twentieth century—in Rebel Sultans, the story ends at the beginning of the eighteenth century. So the amount of material, the kind of information available, etc., is different. Finally, length: where The Ivory Throne was a 700-pager, Rebel Sultans is a much shorter book at 300 pages. With the first book I also got used to writing long, detailed chapters. In my second book, I also set myself a challenge to try and condense as much information as possible, in as appealing a style as possible, without writing page after page after page.

We could see a particular pattern in your works. You are so fascinated to rely on a biographical narrative to tell history. Whether its Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bai in ‘The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore’ or Ibrahim Adil Shah II in ‘Rebel Sultans: The Deccan From Khilji To Shivaji’. Why do you prefer to tell history derived in a biographical narrative?

Because as human beings, we can connect better, I think, with the past when we look at the people who lived then, rather than at abstract concepts and dates and events. An Ibrahim Adil Shah II—with his red nail polish, patronage of a Renaissance artist, love of Hindu gods, sponsoring of architectural marvels, his literary works—serves much better in holding the attention of the reader, rather than an impersonal description of the events of his time or battles and conquests. By making history about the people in it, I find that most readers are able to veritably melt into the story themselves, and learn a great deal more. Besides, I myself am interested in historical figures and using them as the lens through which I look at history—so my own predilections will feature prominently in my writing.

As we go through your works whether ‘Ivory Throne’ or your second work ‘Rebel Sultans’, we really feel history as profoundly engaging and interesting. But history is always regarded as a subject of dates, events and kings which requires more objectivity from the author which ultimately results in its disengaging nature. Is it really pragmatic to write history engagingly without losing its authenticity?

Engaging history does not mean poorly researched history. The research must be impeccable, of integrity, and of the highest academic standards. It is in the style of writing that there is a difference where narrative history is concerned—an effort is made to present the research in an engaging fashion, so that history can move beyond the seminar and conference circuit and reach the shelf of the layreader. Especially in times when history is so politicised and often deliberately perverted, it is essential that history is communicated better to as large a readership as possible. And good communication means good writing, without compromising on the quality of research.

Why are you fascinated more to do with nonfiction work especially history. Do you have any plan to do any work on fiction soon?

Yes, perhaps by 2024.

Working on any new projects? What can we expect next?

Something I first got into in 2011-12—but more about that when it is finished.