(Published online by Platform Magazine, July 9 2018)
Merely at the age of 28, Manu S. Pillai has accomplished many milestones. From managing the parliamentary office of Shashi Tharoor to publishing his first book, the Ivory Throne in 2016 and winning the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar last year for the same, Pillai is now all set to further his writing repertoire with the release of his latest book, Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji. With a profound passion for researching and retelling the lesser known history of India, Pillai is perhaps one of the very few narrative history writers from India. Focussed on bringing to light the neglected history of the Deccan region of India in his new book, the author lets us in on his relationship with writing, the problems with popular Indian historiography and why he chose to retell the history of this particular region.
When and why did you venture into the world of writing?
To tell stories. It began in my teens when I picked up an enthusiasm for reading, and my first efforts to write thereafter—some of them quite disastrous—were in fiction. But as I grew older, I discovered, initially through the tales of my own ancestors, that history often unfolds information that even the most inventive mind might hesitate to fashion for a work of fiction. There are stories and episodes from our past that challenge everything we assume and take for granted about ourselves as a people, and about history as a subject. The idea, then, of telling history through people (with all their quirks, human flaws, complexities, and basic impulses) as opposed to history through dates and battles seemed to be a particularly attractive way of bringing alive our rich, endlessly fascinating past. And so, I combined an appetite for writing with my fondness for history.
What drove you to dig deeper into the history of India and retell it through the genre of narrative history?
The books I read made it clear to me that the typical (and I daresay tedious) linear narratives which masquerade as history in popular imagination are highly limited, unable by their very nature to do justice to the magnificence of India’s story. Of course, it was work on my first book, The Ivory Throne, that really got me questioning received wisdom and notions—my protagonist, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, was the last female Maharajah of Travancore, someone who was deliberately written out of the popular history. I wanted to resurrect her because she deserved to be more than a passing footnote in the story of Kerala. The themes I tried to weave around her tale—the matrilineal system, the invention of “tradition”, and the constant intermixing of cultures, in ways that would amaze and perhaps even shock some of us today—challenged elementary concepts I had learnt in school, based as they were on patriarchal standards and viewed through historically limited lens. As soon as my eyes were opened, I wanted to combine solid research with appealing language—after all, what is the point of discovering the past in all its glory, if it cannot be disseminated to a larger audience? We are all heirs to a remarkable heritage, and we owe it to ourselves to do justice to that heritage. My way of doing so is to write about it.
While your first book, The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore, dealt with the history of Kerala, your new book, Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji, deals with the history of the Deccan. Why did you choose to focus on the Deccan region of India for this book?
The Deccan is oddly a neglected zone in Indian history when it ought to receive a far greater amount of our attention. In general, to begin with, the problem is that Indian history is pivoted around Delhi and the north. This needs to be questioned because other regions have their own unique pasts and stories. Kerala, for instance, can barely be understood if we look at it with a north-India-oriented gaze. This sliver of the Indian coast had more in common with Arabia for 2000 years than it did with states and people north of the Vindhyas. So each region must be studied in its own context. The Deccan is particularly interesting if we turn our attention properly to it. We know it as the graveyard of the Mughals and as the homeland of Shivaji and the Marathas. But what of the Shia Sultanates and their longstanding Persian links? What of the thousands of Africans who helped shape the history of the Deccan, founded cities, saved kingdoms, and even married their daughters to local kings? What about the fascinating interaction between religions and peoples in the Deccan, where a Muslim prince could worship Hindu gods, and where the scion of a Muslim dynasty could become a master of Advaita philosophy? The Deccan, as I write in the book, was more than the battlefield where the Marathas and Mughals clashed—for many centuries it was a mirror of the world, attracting talent, art, architecture, and ideas from around the world. Its story deserves to be told in all its fullness, and not merely from within the narrow prisms that currently dominate Indian historiography. And then, of course, there was the diverse cast of characters—some of Indian history’s finest historical figures— from Firoz Shah Bahmani, who had an empire of wives to Chand Bibi, who valiantly fought the Mughals; from Ibrahim Adil Shah II, who painted his nails red, to Malik Ambar, slave-turned-kingmaker— that emerged in the Deccan. To make sense of these men and women, we must also make sense of the land where they were born and in which they existed.
Can you share with us some facts or incidents that you came across while researching for this book and personally found were very intriguing or were affected in any way (and how) by them?
In Tirupati, there are bronzes donated by the Vijayanagar emperor Krishnadevaraya. Now, Vijayanagar is often cast as a “Hindu bastion” that emerged to resist “Muslim domination”. But if you look at Krishnadevaraya’s costume in this bronze that sits in a Hindu temple, he is wearing a Persian-style hat, not an Indian turban. In the Vitthala temple in Hampi, there is a column that features a Muslim man on a horse. Sculptures show the degree of Islamicate influence in Vijayanagar, that the usual Hindu-Muslim narrative does not reveal: whether it was costume, in the thousands of Muslims who served the Vijayanagar kings, or even in terms of the interaction its elites had with Islamic courts, we discover that Vijayanagar was not so much a reaction against Islamic aggression as much as a bold, confident, innovative place, that absorbed the best of Hindu and Muslim cultural resources. This, perhaps, is the principal lesson the Deccan teaches us, especially in today’s climate where everything is centred on exaggerated Hindu-Muslim animosities. It can tell us that the past is not black and white—and no matter how much some may seek to change the past, it is what it is.
Which writers have influenced you the most in your work since narrative history is still an emerging genre in the world of writing?
There are influences from various places, including fiction. For instance, in Rebel Sultans there is a degree of irreverence, even though what I am discussing is serious history. This is definitely a result of PG Wodehouse’s influence on my writing. Then there is a whole host of academics and scholars, whose influence is clearest in my tendency to provide extensive notes at the end of the book—so while the main text reads smoothly, for a reader who wants to go beyond that and explore the research material, the end of the book has as much information as possible. There are many names, then, in terms of influence rather than one or two.
Since your stronghold lies in research, how would you describe your relationship with writing?
I do want to write for writing’s sake, and somewhere at the back of my head, there is a work of fiction I have been wanting to write. It will probably need to wait another five or six years, though, because for now, I am enjoying being that bridge between meticulous research and the lay-reader in understanding—and celebrating—Indian history.
What is more important to you as a writer, the subject of your work or the way it is written.
I think the way it is written. The subject is of course chosen by me so there is already a degree of interest I have in it. The more important question is perhaps how do I persuade others to take an interest in what interests me? It is through the way I write and express my interest.
You’ve worked intimately with the likes of BBC, Shashi Tharoor and Lord Bilimoria CBE DL. How have these work experiences affected your current work and views?
I have tried to juggle my academic, research- and writing-oriented life, which features archives, libraries, and hours and hours every day surrounded by books, with one foot in “the real world” where I am dealing with more immediate issues, whether it is parliamentary work, speeches, dealing with a wide variety of people, from petitioners to politicians and diplomats. This “real world” I think informs my writing in subtle ways as it does the way I approach history.
Are there any new projects that you are looking forward to or wish to work on in the future?
I have a project underway, but I’ll speak about that when it is finished.