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Monday, December 06, 2021

Manu S Pillai: ‘I am drawn to the untold stories’

The author on history, the ideological spectrum of his readers and the importance of messaging in a democracy.

Written by Vishnu Varma |
Updated: February 2, 2020 11:26:21 am
Author Manu S Pillai, Author Manu S Pillai books, Author Manu S Pillai anti-CAA protests, Author Manu S Pillai Kerala Literature Festival I am drawn to stories that are not regularly told, the ones that are neglected, says author Manu S Pillai. (Photo: DC Books)

At the age of 25, Manu S Pillai burst onto the literary scene with The Ivory Throne (2015) a 700-page tome about Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the forgotten queen of Travancore who ruled the kingdom between 1924 and 1931. The book’s layered and rich anecdotal narrative won him the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar in 2017. Since then, Pillai has added two more books to his name — Rebel Sultans (2018) and The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin (2019). On the sidelines of the Kerala Literature Festival in Kozhikode, Pillai spoke about writing, the importance of talking to all sides and the rare unity of the anti-CAA protests.


You started writing when you were quite young. You are not yet 30 and you have three books of popular history out. Was this always planned?

Like all children who seem to have an interest in writing and with over-enthusiastic parents who say, ‘Go follow your passion’, I wrote some atrocious poetry when I was 12-13. I wrote a teen novel that was completely plagiarised. More seriously, I was 19-20 when I discovered the topic for my first book and that triggered its own interest. A lot of the places I went to was because I needed to be there for my research. When I needed the London archives, I aimed for a Master’s in London. I came to work in Delhi because I needed to use the archives here and in Kerala. Everything was tailored around the book in that half-decade.

How do you choose the subjects for your books?

I am drawn to stories that are not regularly told, the ones that are neglected. The first book was about a Travancore queen who was essentially footnoted and forgotten. The second book was about the history of the Deccan from the 13th century to the 18th, because everyone talked about the Marathas and the Mughals and I said, ‘Hold on! This is a fascinating universe in its own right, even without the Marathas and the Mughals’. It deserves a storyteller on its own.

Is the writing process a difficult one? Do you write for long hours?

By the time I finished my first book, I had lost 12 kg. Because all I did was write from the morning till about 9 or 10 in the night. I sat in my room for a month to prepare the first draft.

Have you ever wondered about the ideological spectrum of your readers?

When I wrote my first book, I thought the average age of readers would be 80-90. There were readers of that age, but equally, so many young people were reading. It was a great boost of confidence. There are youth who pick up a 700-page book by an obscure writer on an obscure topic and priced at Rs 699, and they are willing to read.

In terms of political leanings, I think a lot of leftist and left-leaning laypeople do read my books, but so do the people on the right. I haven’t had any issues partly because I keep channels open. I talk to people on the right also. I recently reviewed Vikram Sampath’s book, Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past, 1883-1924, in which I say a certain number of things, breaking it down to his phases of life. Whatever be my personal views, when reviewing a book my job is not to sit in judgement on whether he was a good or bad man. My job is to see whether the book was well-researched, the archives are touched upon, whether the sources have been critically analysed by the writer etc. These are the things I base my judgement on.

History also gets politicised and people expect you to take sides. I find it very uncomfortable. A work should stand on its own feet but expecting the historian to make obvious which way his personal leanings are is harmful in the long term. It puts wind in the sails of people who talk of ultra-leftist cliques or Marxist cliques. There are no such cliques.

Across India today, people of all social, educational and political backgrounds are protesting against the contentious citizenship law. Did these spontaneous protests surprise you?

None of us in college even looked at the preamble to the Constitution. Now it’s on placards and the young are owning it. Even the architects of the legislation didn’t expect such protests. I think they expected a few opposition parties to make some noise as they did with Article 370 in Kashmir. These protests are organic and spreading on their own. That’s remarkable.

Kerala has been at the forefront of these protests. It became the first state to move a resolution in the Assembly and even file a plea in the Supreme Court against the CAA. How do you see that?

Some people say these are optics. But optics matter. It’s about narratives and how you change public sentiment. I think the Kerala government’s attitude has been constructive. A democratically-elected Assembly has passed a largely bipartisan resolution, with the exception of the lone BJP member. It sends a message. Messaging is what made a man prime minister in this country. He understood communication well. If the Kerala government is doing a communication job, we need to welcome it.

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