The Business Standard (13 July 2017)

Historical non-fiction can cut through political agendas: Author Manu S. Pillai

By Somrita Ghosh

This 26-year-old writer has recently been bestowed the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Purashkar 2017 for his English book “The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore” — and he says that “historical non-fiction” will never lose its relevance as it brings out the truest version of events by filtering out political biases.

“History has often been distorted and given different interpretations by political organisations to promote various agendas. My aspiration is to write history with commitment to the facts and without a political axe to grind,” Manu S. Pillai told IANS in an email interview.

He said that different political dispensations have different interpretations of the same events — which is intended to fuel misguided sentiments. This has always been the case, where past becomes fodder in the hands of some to promote various agendas.

The author forayed into literature last year with “….Travancore”, which narrates the saga of Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the regent and forgotten queen of the erstwhile Kingdom of Travancore.

“It is entirely a matter of interest and inclination,” Pillai said of his decision to write historical non-fiction.

He claims not to have a romantic bone in his body, and the thought of writing a romantic novel has never crossed his mind. It has always been history that attracted him and thus the genre was a “perfectly natural choice”.

“Besides, I don’t think one begins a book based on what is in fashion at a given moment in ‘the market’ for books. One writes to satisfy a different motivation, irrespective of what others are doing,” he said.

Pillai found Lakshmi Bayi to be a forward-thinking and remarkable ruler whose contribution helped shape what is now modern Kerala, and was keen on taking her story to the readers.

“Sethu Lakshmi Bayi was a striking personality: Queen at five, ruler of millions by 30, brushed aside in her 40s and 50s, and then in her 60s she renounced her royal background, gave up her palaces and riches, dying in near-obscurity far away from the land she once ruled. The book also tells readers a history of three centuries and of modernity in Kerala,” he noted.

Pillai also said that he was just 19 when he began his research, and the book is a result of six long years of hard work. As is evident, the author had to conduct thorough research prior to writing.

“The backbone of the book is material collected from the British archives and from libraries and newspaper repositories in London, Oxford and Southampton. Some information was gathered from the US and from documents like personal letters, anecdotal information collected through interviews and books from various archives in India,” Pillai recalled.

The fact that Pillai’s writing has earned him much critical acclaim at a young age has not put any pressure on him. Rather, he considers that the appreciation has provided him greater confidence in his writing, and his ability to be more inventive.

“One book may do well and receive a great deal of acclaim, which, however, is no guarantee that you will succeed with your next effort. Each is a journey on its own and must carve its own place. I think I am sufficiently detached to not feel pressure,” he maintained.

He has left many readers and critics appreciative of the depth of his knowledge of history, skill in accumulating an ocean of information, flair for writing and the fact that he did all this at the age of 25. But the author maintained that age can never be relevant unless output aspires to meet certain standards.

“In my case, what was necessary was a lot of research — material from three continents gathered over six years — and the ability to digest large quantities of information and to put this together in a readable narrative form. I think I have acquitted myself fairly well as far as these two points are concerned,” Pillai contended.

Any plan to foray into the fictional world? “Non-fiction for the time being. The last time I wrote fiction was 10 years ago when I was in my teens! Don’t know when I will return to it,” he said.

Source: Business Standard