Book Review: Manu S Pillai

Book Review: Manu S Pillai

Learn history in 60 takes in this book by Manu S Pillai

The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin

Manu S Pillai, our desi Dalrymple, gives us another round of Indian history, this time in a collection of essays touching upon one interesting character after another, some well-known, some not, one or two quite obscure. The book is a compilation of Pillai’s articles from a weekly column he wrote for a newspaper over a span of two years, yet another instance of the author ‘telling history through people’.

Early in the book there emerges a pivot-point, and that is how our history was dotted with people who refused to conform to the norms of their times, people who stuck their necks out, went out on a limb, refused to be slotted under labels of caste, community, religion, gender, politics, people who put the D in the diversity that once prevailed both in peaceful and testing times.

There is enough contemporising and comparison to form a leitmotif, starting from the very Introduction, where Pillai states that we live in times when history is polarising, emphasising that there is much in our past to enrich us. In focusing on a set of characters who thought, lived and acted out of the box of their times, he shows us that there was a time when the powers-that-be did not take immediate and punitive action against those who decided not to conform.

These are not merely portraitures or character sketches of people like the Rajput king who took some very daring pictures, the Muslim sultan with a decided fondness for Goddess Saraswati, the early V K Krishna Menon/ Annie Besant/ Sir Visvesvaraya, Meenakshi originally the Warrior Goddess of Madurai, Nangeli, the ‘woman with no breasts’, and many others or of matters like the famous sage Kabir’s decidedly misogynistic utterings, the mystery behind the nomenclature of Hyderabad. This is actually a quick journey back, the timeline being ancient India through to pre-Independence India, the characters acting as milestones. Pillai employs his easy fluid style which renders the essays most engaging.

He also indulges in a steady bit of speculation. For my money, the most compelling chapter is the one titled ‘What if Vijayanagar had Survived?’ A foray into what-if territory, it draws a picture of northern India firmly in the control of Akbar, and the south ruled by the Rayas of Vijayanagar. Pillai has these what-if threads elsewhere in the book, too: what if Dara Shukoh had survived and become emperor, what if Gandhi had lived out his full life span in a fast-changing India, what if there had been no British Raj.

Elsewhere, he wryly remarks on the naked expediencies of cultural politics, mocks that special variety of politician anxious to rename great cities of the past, tells us about inter-caste unions in 1167, profiles William (India) Jones who learned Sanskrit from a Brahmin pandit, points out that the contrarian Jyotirao Phule was the one who first went to meet the British in peasant’s garb, quite some time before Gandhi met the King of England in a loincloth. He rues how the weight of historical evidence is blithely disregarded in the popular imagination, and in one sly reference, states that nothing rouses patriarchal masculine pride more than illusions of stoic sacrifice by unreal beauties who, between managing their heavy jewels and rich skirts, spout tedious lines about valour and fortitude. The book ends with a dissertation on the one-size-fits-all nationalism credo that has gained currency today.

India, avers Pillai, has a long tradition of bright minds poking holes in some distinctly un-bright ideas. But then, he also quotes Angami Phizo: “…. the world is too distracted, too divided”. And so, while he lays out a mosaic of rich history, the author makes it clear that it is up to the reader to absorb the salient points. Or not.

As for the title, the courtesan isn’t merely one woman; she is Bhagmati who became Hyder Mahal; Joanna Nobilis, the Begum Samru; Muddupalani, the 18th century Telugu poet whose work was so overtly sensuous, the male-dominated society of the time tried to pass it off as the work of Muddu Pillai, male. The Mahatma comes up repeatedly in the book. The Italian Brahmin is Roberto de Nobili who preached the Bible wearing a cross-thread, became an expert on the Vedas and spoke fluently in Sanskrit, Telugu and Tamil.

Priya Kuriyan’s charcoal sketches complement the essays beautifully.

This book is that old clichéd thing: a must-read for history buffs. Which then begs the question, does one read all 384 pages at one sitting or dip into a few essays at a time? I’d suggest the latter, only because they settle in the mind better when read three at a time, or five in one go.