More than a Dakkani Tale

(Published in The Hindu, July 17 2018)

By Nikhil Varma

In our school textbooks, history is often taught from a largely North Indian perspective, with Delhi and the emperors who controlled it playing a central role. The stories of kingdoms, sultanates and principalities on the other side of the Vindhyas often get a passing reference only. Manu Pillai’s second book, dwells on the lives and times of the sultans and kings in the Deccan during the Mughal period. It was a time when the region was abuzz with political intrigue, of groups of political players jockeying for political control and rivalry between the Bahamani sultanate and Vijayanagar empire. The book traces the history of the region from the Khilijis to Shivaji.

Rebel Sultans was launched recently by former foreign secretary Nirupama Rao. The launch also featured a discussion between the author, Rao and Vaishna Roy, editor of the The Hindu Sunday Magazine .

Pillai spoke about the need to view the history of the Deccan as a region, where people from all over the world, came to make a living. “There were Persians from Iran, a huge number of Africans, some of them even ended up as queens. I think we have a very North India-centric view of history. It is often said that Islam came to India with a sword. However, even during the prophet’s rule, there was a mosque in Kerala and merchants from the Persian Gulf have been serving in kingdoms in the Deccan for a long time. ”

Pillai says, “History textbooks in school had to fit in a lot about such a diverse group of people, with their different cultures, traditions and political history in 100 odd pages. That is a tough ask. Moreover, I think that people relate more to histories with stories about people and their lives, in a specific time frame than a chronological listing of major events. In my books, I have tried to bring this human interest angle in history. Writers like William Dalrymple also do that.”

Rao said she read the book, on her tour of Greece, on the edge of the Western world.

“I grew up in the Deccan and was always fascinated by the history of the region.”

On history in India and the constant change it undergoes, depending on the political dispensation in power, Pillai pointed out, “It is something all governments do. Once you take over, you start to rewrite history texts. I think it is to do with the fact that we are a relatively young nation and are still trying to find out who we are what we stand for. I think it is important to study history in a context. You cannot just straitjacket people into good and bad, according to your beliefs. Violence and the ability to capture power went hand in hand till about 100 years ago. It is important to judge a ruler or a sultan, in the context of his times, not the standards of people like us, living in a completely different era. History is always a mixed bag and cannot be compartmentalised into the binaries of good and evil.”

He adds, “This is also largely true for the rivalry among the Vijayanagar kings and the sultans in the north. There was a lot of give and take, with the kingdoms occasionally trading insults with each other and going to war with each other.”