No easy answers (07 March 2019)

(Published in Pune Mirror, March 07 2019)

When the debate over tradition reached a flashpoint in Kerala when the gates of Sabrimala were to be opened to all women in September last year, it brought to the fore the deep-seated patriarchal strain in the state that prides itself on women’s empowerment. The custodians of tradition are motivated by politics and not a commitment to History and understanding the actual traditions, believes Manu S Pillai, whose debut book, The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore (HarperCollins India), explains Kerala’s matrilineal system that once accorded a great degree of autonomy to women of the state. “It is interesting because if we go back to ‘tradition’, then wearing a blouse would be taboo for Malayali women — till the 1920s, it was considered indecent to cover yourself, and the first Brahmin lady to wear a blouse was ostracised. So too, polyandry was part of ‘tradition’ for several groups in Kerala,” he explains. The author will explicate Kerala’s matrilineal system at a talk this weekend, which will focus on lessons that can be drawn from Indian history.

In The Ivory Throne, Pillai unravels the tradition of matriliny and its transformation in 19thcentury Kerala, where Victorian disapproval took root and dislocated several pre-colonial practices. The principal characters of the book are two powerful queens of Travancore — Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and Sethu Parvati Bayi — heroines and villains both, (both were granddaughters of the painter Raja Ravi Varma). The two were at the centre of the systematic dismantling of a tradition that was replaced with a patriarchal cultural setup. “From the late 19th century onwards, Travancore saw tremendous investment in education, which played a role in modern Kerala’s advanced social development indices. But this very same education system also ingrained new patriarchal values among Kerala’s men and women. Polyandry came to be frowned upon, as did any kind of autonomy for women; instead the notion of the ‘good wife’ took hold. So much so that the matrilineal system was abolished by a Maharani who inherited her power in the first place through that very system,” says Pillai.

Pillai, who grew up in Pune, was only 25 when The Ivory Throne, which went on to win the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, was published in 2015. By then, He had earned a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Fergusson College, and a Master’s in International Relations from King’s College, London. The book was written alongside high-profile jobs — as Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor’s chief of staff; with Lord Karan Bilimoria at the UK’s House of Lords; and as part of Sunil Khilnani’s BBC radio series, Incarnations: India in 50 Lives. Despite Pillai’s interest in History, which emerged from the stories he learnt during visits to his family home in Kerala’s Mavelikkara (also Raja Ravi Varma’s hometown), he chose to major in other subjects in college. The poorly designed history textbooks put him off. “But academic rigour is certainly critical in history. This is why my first book took me six years — because I knew I had to work with great responsibility and didn’t want to rush carelessly with half-baked ideas,” he explains, adding that the lessons on research methods for his master’s thesis came handy when he started digging into archival material. The author, who is now a columnist too, gave up full-time employment in 2017 to focus on writing and history.

Pillai’s second book, Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji (Juggernaut), published last year, is based on historical events closer to Pune. Spanning four centuries and across empires, it delves into mediaeval Deccan and presents a riveting cast of characters, court intrigues and power struggles that shaped the region. In his talk on March 9, titled ‘From Matrilineal Queens to Rebel Sultans: Forgotten Tales from Indian History’, the author will also highlight historical figures from the pre-Shivaji era. “There are marginalised figures in Indian history who have hitherto languished in the footnotes. Deccan history is populated by remarkable people. What is wonderful is how much it reminds us that these people too were like us,” says Pillai. He will also touch upon Hindu–Muslim relations and examine “if the past was all about religious clashes or was it all syncretic”.

Through the stories and characters from his books, Pillai will reiterate that history exists in its own space. “We should at the very least be able to recognise when it is deployed as an instrument of vengeance, or turned into a battlefield for politics,” he says. For every generalisation one makes about Indian history, the opposite is also true, he points out. Pillai is currently busy with his next big project — “a fairly heavy proposition” is all he’s willing to tell us.