Vignettes from India’s past

(Published in Mid-Day, July 14 2019)

By Jane Borges

If there’s one thing that we should credit historian-writer Manu S Pillai with, it’s his knack for telling a good story. His third book, The Courtesan, The Mahatma and The Italian Brahmin (Context, Westland), a compilation of essays of men and women from India’s past, is different, because unlike Pillai’s previous books—The Ivory Throne and Rebel Sultans—that stretch the narrative of significant events in history, this one keeps them short and sweet. That’s only more reason, for you to be dipping into these essays, all of which are incredible, not just because of Pillai’s choice of vignettes, but also his voice—it’s that of a storyteller, as much as it is of a historian. Why wouldn’t you listen?

The book is split into three parts —Before The Raj, From The Raj and the Afterword, where he shares with us ‘An Essay For Our Times’.  Here, he speaks of the vision of Hinduism and that of nationalism, and how it “has mutated into a one-size-fits-all variant, which is at odds with the history of tradition of the country”.

There is the 15th century Italian Brahmin of Madurai, Roberto de Nobili, the inspiration for Pillai’s title, and whose story the book opens with, which we found most amusing. Here, we learn how de Nobili preached the Bible to the otherwise, close-minded Brahmins, and succeeded in his mission to convert them, by supporting the “veritable caste system”. He became the Hindu to save the Hindus. In his essay on the Mahatma—What If The Mahatma Had Lives?—he asks questions, sometimes too many, but he supplements them with answers and in the current polarised environment, it becomes a fitting essay to end the second part of the book.

This is a book that serves you well, and you can pick it where you last left it. No disruptions, at all.