Writer Manu S. Pillai views the past through the lens of women

(Published in The Hindu, July 03 2019)

By Abhinaya Harigovind

Peeling away black and white historical narratives of heroes and villains in sensational battles, writer Manu S. Pillai tells stories of characters in Indian history who went against the grain of established norms.

“Why have we never tried to view the past through the lens of women? What can we learn if we did?” asked Mr. Pillai, who was in the city to launch his latest book, The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin, a collection of historical anecdotes and essays. The courtesans in the book, who founded drama companies and became wealthy allies of the East India Company, answer his question. The India that comes alive through their eyes is very different from the hackneyed narratives we are used to. They were all accomplished, creatively inclined women, even if they were not stereotypical, conservative models of womanhood,” he said.

The omission of women from historical narratives manifested in different ways. When Muddupalani, an 18th century poet, wrote about sensuality and desire, men tried to pass her poetry off as that of a man. “They could not stomach that a woman had written about desire, but could allow it if they could pretend it was a man,” Mr. Pillai said.

Some essays, like the one on Savarkar, draw from archival and parliamentary papers. Others are based on memoirs and translations of literature. “In a society where caste played such an important role, records privilege histories of some groups over others since only privileged groups were able to keep records. How many Ezhava women or even men appear in records at all? Their histories survive in folklore, songs and traditions and much of it is lost,” he said, on the need to rely on multiple sources to make sense of the past.

Both of Mr. Pillai’s earlier books are historical narratives. He cautions against allowing history to become an instrument of politics. “The historian has to be cautious while claiming copyright on ‘truth’ as history will change with new perspectives and evidence. Historians have a responsibility to place things in context. Their job is not to sit in judgement over the past, it is to understand the past on its own terms.”

The Mahatma he refers to in the title is 19th century social reformer Jyotiba Phule. “He is the grandson of a gardener and the son of a greengrocer, who obtained an English education and posed troubling questions to proponents of the caste system. Today we have forgotten that radicalism. In our textbooks we garland him as a mahatma without thinking along the lines he wanted us to think,” he said.