‘The Idea of Modern India is Democracy’

(Published in Number13, June 23 2020)

By Sajna Muneer

One of the most celebrated young historians of the country, Manu S. Pillai talks to Number13 about his writings, the idea of India; his concept of power; what he reads; and a lot more

Number13: How would you like to describe yourself; storyteller, historian or both and why?

Manu Pillai: Technically I imagine both apply. For instance, The Ivory Throne was in many ways a revisionist account of that period in Travancore history, especially in terms of court dynamics and power, with the use of archival material that had never before been published. So there was over half a decade of solid work with historical material, academic perspectives, and so on. But equally, it is a narrative history with an emphasis on telling its chief story in an attractive fashion, not least because I was trying to bring back to public prominence a forgotten, neglected historical figure. If the narrative were not appealing, the book would only have found a limited audience, and, thus, failed to achieve what I was trying to do. So, I see it as a mixture of both, with the broader goal of writing for as large an audience as possible, and not just for academics or purely for students of history.

N13: When did you exactly decide to be a historian and why?

MP: There was no moment as such. I used to read a great deal of history in my teens, and when I was about eighteen, I stumbled onto the story that would become The Ivory Throne. That took a life of its own, and for the next many years remained my principal preoccupation. In the course of my higher studies, I picked up research methods, which I then applied to this private project of mine. And by the time I finished the book— and given how well it was received, both critically and by its readers—I realised that this was precisely the kind of hard work I also enjoyed doing. It took the first half of my twenties away but was entirely worth the effort and time, having also made an original contribution to Travancore and Kerala history.

N13: When you started researching and eventually writing your first book which took over six years, weren’t you concerned about its publishing prospects? How did it happen?

Not at first because I wasn’t ready to publish. I did, in 2012, speak to a publisher, but very quickly realised the book was still half-baked and needed more work. It then took another three years to improve it. As for publishing, I sent a cold email to the then editor of HarperCollins India, the wonderful VK Karthika, late one night. The idea of sending it around 3AM was to ensure that my email would sit at the top of her inbox in the morning when she woke up. And I knew that as a publisher, she was probably bombarded with manuscripts. So, I put some thought into drafting a compelling email, and sending only the first six pages of my manuscript. By the time I checked my own inbox before noon the next day, she had replied and asked for the complete manuscript. This was, however, a case of good luck and good timing. I have heard from friends of publishing journeys that were not easy at all.

N13: I’m sure you have heard this quote attributed to Voltaire, “History is nothing but a pack of tricks that we play upon the dead.” Is this true about writing history?

MP: It is funny that, quoted this way, it sounds like Voltaire was making a grand, holier-than-thou statement, when in fact he himself was capable of a selective reading of history and historical material to justify his philosophical and political ideas. But that aside, all history is written from the position of hindsight, and therefore naturally features imperfections. That is why it is always an evolving field—evolving on the basis of fresh evidence that was not available before, on the grounds of new perspectives, and so on. The difference is that some people venture into history deliberately to conjure up “tricks”, while more serious scholars use methods that reduce the scope for misreading and error to the minimum. Some imbue history with passion and anger and self-righteousness; others attempt to view it dispassionately, objectively, and do not go out of their way to bend it to their preconceptions.

Nobody can claim they have found “the truth” about the past: we are always viewing the past from a prism of our own, and this has its pitfalls. That is why history books are always revised by new books; the work done by early twentieth century historians, for example, is challenged by twenty-first century counterparts. This does not diminish what the earlier generation did—it merely builds on that, deploys new evidence, points out limitations, and reanalyses things with greater clarity. It is not so much a matter of tricks as much as evolution.

N13: Your first book tracked the life of a female Maharaja of Kerala. In a society and a market that goes after male royals and heroes, this indeed was an unusual pick. What were you thinking?

MP: I am not sure such a generalisation can be made about the market or our society—the very fact that the book did as well as it did, including commercially, is, I think, evidence that readers are interested in stories such as The Ivory Throne tells. If there is a section that prefers a certain kind of male dominated narrative, it is the publishing industry, perhaps, and those who control visible public opinion (usually men), who continue to propound the theory that male heroes, male concerns, and male history are what will “work”. This is increasingly challenged now, because more and more books are proving that there is an audience for good writing, no matter its theme or subject. And even with male history, the fact that greater numbers of women are retelling these, bringing new perspectives into play, is making a significant difference. Like in every field, there is a certain orthodoxy in what gets published and what people think will sell—a certain tendency to try and play it safe and be predictable. But equally, there is growing evidence that this orthodoxy does not have its finger on the pulse, and that so-called “offbeat” books can capture the market and demonstrate that they too belong in the mainstream.

N13: You’ve written so much about the lives of the ruling class, don’t you think the lives of ‘subjects’ are fascinating and worth writing about?

MP: Power is something that interests me as a concept, because all of human history, viewed one way, is about who owns power, and who is denied access to it. Royalty, for example, is interesting not because they lived in pretty palaces but because of what that palace represents: the palace is a visual reminder of power. Rulers have always not only ensured their grip over power, but also constructed elaborate protocols, and methods of legitimisation to justify that grip.

So, in Travancore, the very detailed court etiquette (that every time the rani was seen, her servants had to bow exactly seven times), the artificially ornate language (brushing teeth was called “cleaning of the royal pearls”), the dedication of the state to a deity (which allowed the rajahs to justify violent conquest and pre-empt criticism by parking god in front of their name): all of this is can be read as strategies for holding on to power. In Rebel Sultans, similarly, I speak of how Islamic rulers often associated themselves publicly with Sufi saints. This may have had something to do with piety, but often it was about constructing legitimacy—by showing people that the ruler had the approval and support of an influential spiritual figure. And this has lessons for our time too—what we today call public relations strategies for politicians existed for kings and queens a thousand years ago, in a different form.

Even in the colonial era, for instance, one of the reasons the Raj built so many imposing structures in India was not just to have beautiful buildings, but to create visual markers of their power and magnificence. The grandeur of the building was a symbol of the strength of the British—in some ways a subtle warning to the “natives” to never challenge the Raj. So, any study of power is also a study of how “the people” are kept in check. As for telling stories of “the people” themselves, in my book, The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin, I cover many voices of dissent: bhakti saints who challenged many injustices of caste, women who flouted the norm and questioned patriarchal power, people who stood up to religious orthodoxy, and even those who took up arms against the people who held them in subjugation.

But I approach all these topics through that basic research interest of how power functions, and how people and societies negotiate power dynamics. Even a study of “subjects”, then, will seek to view them from that perspective: as challengers of power brokers, as creators of new systems of power, and as forces that, when combined, enjoyed their own might and authority, capable of unseating even the most intimidating prince or dictator.

N13: In Rebel Sultans, you have given a graphic description of Tughluq. A ruler who’s largely known for his foolish decisions comes out as both foolish and extremely ruthless. Do you see Tughluqs or shades of Tughlaqs in modern-day leaders?

MP: The great advantage of democracy is that to an unprecedented level, it has moved political disputes—which earlier were settled violently—into institutions where weapons are replaced with debate and verbal quarrels. Democratic institutions allow for the transfer of power peacefully within states and create a framework where everyday ruthlessness is no longer essential. (Of course, between states there is still scope for war and bloodshed, but even so, the creation of the United States and associated global networks was to bring in institutions to avoid violence and settle disputes in forums of debate and through consensus.)

This is quite different from two centuries ago, when violence and power went hand in hand: a person who had power had to be able to demonstrate the capacity to use it violently in order to retain that power. The British, on the one hand, claimed they were in India to “civilise” Indians; and yet they had a fairly barbaric practice of executing rebels by blowing out of cannons, tearing them to pieces. In Travancore, when Velu Thampi Dalawa was challenged once by a mutinous group, he had one of their leaders ripped apart by elephants. Marthanda Varma sold the women and children of the families of recalcitrant nobles to fisherfolk: it was to demote them in caste and end any prospect of those houses reclaiming power again. Tipu Sultan’s violence during his Malabar conquest is also much discussed.

So, ruthlessness is not at all an unusual thing in history—in fact it was so common, that when we find people who managed to rise beyond it, we treat them as remarkable exceptions. Akbar the Great, for example. He was ruthless in the early part of his career when securing power. But once it was secure, he rose above it to a great extent. As for foolishness—well, then as today, there were always political figures who are foolish. One thing that binds the present to history is that common feature: human stupidity.

N13: India is undergoing massive socio-political changes in the past few years. There’s a contest for the idea of India in the political realm. Where do you stand in this contest? What’s your idea of India?

MP: I think the idea of modern India is democracy. Some argue that a 70-year-old Constitution is nothing compared to the great ocean that is India’s civilisational history. But while such an argument has emotional appeal and can be used politically, it does not supply means for the functioning of a modern nation state. Or if it can, nobody has yet produced a convincing model. So leaving that aside, our modern existence depends on a sober set of rules, as defined in the Constitution, which allow diversity to endure, for people to agree to disagree, and sets a framework within which we are free to quarrel and debate and champion rival ideologies. It is when some elements try to thwart this—i.e. pay lip service to the Constitution, while hollowing it out in practice—that we run into trouble. They seek to use freedoms provided in this book of values and rules to dismantle those very freedoms for others.

In my view, a large, diverse, populous country like India—where we have people who look different, eat different things, dress differently, speak so many languages—can only function on that basic principle of “live and let live”. Any “one size fits all” formula will spark disaster. That clichéd line we all parroted in school, “Unity in Diversity”, is a cliché precisely because it has worked. We must remain that way: capable of sustaining both diversity and unity. That is what makes India, India.

N13: What are you working on now?

MP: The one superstition I entertain in my life is to never talk about something before it is done and finished. So, whatever it is I am working on will be unveiled when I finish.

N13: What are you reading now?

MP: I am revisiting an old book called The Scandal of Empire by Nicholas Dirks.

N13: Who are your icons or models in narrative non-fiction?

MP: I don’t know if I can name all the names that matter, because each influences you in different ways. And sometimes more than a person or writer, it is a specific book. That is, a writer may achieve something in a book, and never repeat that in other books, which means the influence is really from that specific book rather than the writer as a person. Still, there are far too many to list, frankly, including from authors I do not think I would like as individuals. Anything that is well crafted, thought provoking (even if the thoughts it provokes are uncomfortable), and urges one to reflect is a healthy influence.

N13: You come from Kerala, a state which has not produced too many English writers in recent times, especially in nonfiction. What’s stopping youngsters here?

MP: Kerala has very bright writers of fiction, but perhaps you are right in that English language narrative non-fiction seems to present a smaller pool. As to why this is the case: I haven’t a clue. This is specific to young writers, of course, because among an earlier generation there are many who have produced very good works of nonfiction.

N13: Your writing is so mellifluous that in places it reminds us of reading a historical novel. Do you have plans to write fiction?

MP: Yes, but not anytime soon.