Author-historian Manu S Pillai has written four popular history books: The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore (2015), Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji (2018), The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History (2019), and most recently, False Allies: India’s Maharajahs in the Age of Ravi Varma (2021).
In 2017, he won the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar. He is currently working towards a PhD at King’s College, London. At the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2022, Pillai spoke to Scroll.in about his books and the challenges of writing history. Excerpts from the interview:
How well do you think readers in India take to popular history as a genre? Do you think it could soon become as popular as literary fiction?
I don’t think of it in terms of a contest between literary fiction and popular history – they serve different purposes, even if not always different audiences. That the latter genre has carved out a strong space is clear from publishers’ feedback. I am told that non-fiction in general, and popular history specifically, have been doing exceedingly well for the last many years.
I see the appetite growing in the medium term. History is constantly debated in public today, and more and more people are keen to learn about it. It isn’t possible for everyone to digest academic texts, so well-researched popular history fills an important gap. Indeed, academics in India have also begun to write more accessible books for this reason – something that is long overdue.
For history to appeal to the common reader, the historian has to be a skilled storyteller. For you, who comes first – Manu Pillai the historian or the storyteller? Which role do you enjoy more?
They go hand in hand. The way I try to do my books is to stay meticulous when it comes to research – which in a sense is reflected in how the “notes” section in my books tends to take up sometimes a third of its printed length – while keeping my language and narrative style uncluttered and unencumbered by jargon. I enjoy both aspects immensely.
Research is a process that takes years, and demands patience, attention to detail, and a willingness to keep challenging your own predetermined ideas. In a way, it helps one grow as an individual also. The storytelling comes in when you present your findings to the world – that is a different challenge, with its own exciting moments, which require a different side of your mind to step up. Having written four books now – two relatively “light” and two more stout and detailed – I find the process rewarding personally as well as intellectually.
How do you make the dense bits of history accessible to your readers? How can an author make history readable?
I don’t believe there is any need to dumb things down or to oversimplify the past. The past in all its complexity can be explained to readers, including those who may not be familiar with history, if the language is accessible and the writer has a style and voice that stands out.
But this is not easy: making history, with all its nuances and details, readable, and indeed, enjoyable, is more difficult than people sometimes think.
It is often said that a writer is as good as the books they read. What are your favourite books in popular history? What other genres do you enjoy reading?
I read all kinds of books, including by writers from across the political and intellectual spectrum. The greater portion of my reading revolves around non-fiction, because this is important for my own work; leisure time, though increasingly rare now, is devoted to fiction.
In terms of popular history, though I always struggle to list favourites, one series I recommend a great deal, including to young readers forming a tentative curiosity about Indian history, is the work of Abraham Eraly – a hugely underrated but gifted writer of historical non-fiction, who passed away some years ago.
Outside of the curriculum, what role do history books play in shaping ideas? How much liberty is granted to historians for the portrayal of history in today’s environment of political divisiveness?
Historians can’t take liberties with facts; there can be disagreements on interpretation and analysis, but not on facts. There is a tendency now to even challenge hard facts and reinvent history, especially on social media. But that I think is part of a general epidemic of fake news and disinformation, and not limited to history as such. The historian’s role largely remains what it was earlier: to keep their head down and try and do good work with honesty.
One thing that has changed, however, is that historians do need to make an effort to communicate that good work to audiences outside of seminar halls and academic settings. The world is driven more and more now by general access to information and people do not always consume this in formal institutions and settings – it is up to us to ensure that good history is not limited to formal institutions in this changed world, but has the means to reach that growing segment of interested individuals outside as well.
As a historian, do you feel we repeat history very often?
History does not repeat itself. But because it is often made by human beings and human societies, by economic trends and flows, structures of power, and other such dynamics, we may sometimes recognise patterns from the past. In a larger sense, human beings always try to construct meanings for their existence, for the state of the world, and for everything else, to make better sense of the present.
As a result, we often look to the past for explanations, and perhaps that is why people sometimes believe history repeats itself. Many of the larger questions we ask ourselves have, after all, also been asked by people in the past. So the belief in this idea is understandable.
You used to be the chief of staff to Shashi Tharoor. What have you learned by working closely with him?
He is a very, very hard worker. I have always admired the kind of work he puts in, and the hours he burns to manage a political career, both in and out of parliament; speaking engagements around the world; writing; family commitments, and so on. It is possible only because he has discipline.
Dr Tharoor gave me my first job when I was 21 and I will always be grateful for the exposure it provided to how he manages time.
In False Allies, you track painter Raja Ravi Varma on his travels through the five princely states of Travancore, Pudukkottai, Baroda, Mysore, and Mewar. The accounts from which of these kingdoms are most interesting to you, and why?
Each state presents a unique situation. Travancore in the south developed a bureaucracy on the British model, even if to stave off British intervention; Udaipur in Rajputana, on the other hand, had a ruler who was pointedly against Western institutions and models – he wore his Rajput status with pride, and refused to entertain even the English language. Pudukkottai is fascinating because its royal family were Kallars, deemed a “criminal tribe” by the Raj, who faced not only pressures to modernise, but also to Sanskritise. With Baroda and Mysore I cover legal battles that emerged between the Raj and the princes, as well as stories of industrialisation, patronage of nationalism, and so on.
In other words, every state is remarkable, so it is tough to pick a favourite. What I am convinced about is that there is a great deal to study in princely India, and historians have not yet given that side of modern Indian history its due.
After The Ivory Throne, you revisit the Travancore kingdom in False Allies too. What is it about the kingdom that fascinates you so much?
I have been working on Travancore since 2009 and continue to study it for my ongoing PhD. Part of the interest stems from the fact that my ancestors come from there, and as someone who did not grow up in Kerala, I harboured a curiosity about the place.
The other aspect is that even this small sliver of territory on the coast has so much to offer – one can peel the layers around Hindu kingship, the birth of communism, state formation, economic history, social reform, gender, and a good deal more through a focus on this single area. I suspect my interest in it will continue for many more years.
Rebel Sultans brings us a period in history when Hindu and Muslim rulers were comfortable with adapting to the other culture. Why don’t we see that kind of broad-mindedness anymore?
Rulers even now adapt, just in different conditions – this may be based on motivations of power, and sometimes due to ideology. Much in the past also hinged on realities of a type that we have today surmounted in great measure through technology. For instance, a conqueror simply did not have the state capacity to penetrate every village and every hamlet even to collect taxes; inevitably he would have to come to terms with existing, older structures and institutions, creating a balance and compromise. Today, in some respects, people do not need to do that, though I will be careful not to overstate this point.
As for what you call broad-mindedness, I think it exists even now on the ground. We may not always see it, and the din and noise of social media and the actions of a few may cloud it, but it is there. People back in history were more than the sum of their religious identities; the same can be said of people today also.
The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin brings us stories of some of the most interesting characters of Indian history. Who according to you, even though misunderstood, is the most fascinating of all?
I am often fascinated by colonial figures in India because of how they communicate the complexities and contradictions of that age. Colonialism was, on the one hand, a hideous process, the scars of which still remain. It penetrated our soil but in great measure, our minds. And yet, given how complex India was (and remains), it played out differently at different times, in different regions, and in different contexts.
A colonial figure, like Lord Curzon, viewed one way is a villain who ordered the partition of Bengal; viewed another way, he commands respect for the time and money he invested in preserving India’s monuments. Arthur Cotton was an imperialist and convinced about the white man’s ‘civilising mission’; but he also developed canals and irrigation facilities across a whole swathe of south India, despite lack of support from his own superiors—local farmers garland his statues on his birthday even now.
Stories like this are a reminder that every aspect of history has very many layers. We may sometimes seek simple answers from history, when in reality it tends to open up new questions. That is what makes it fascinating.