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History Hoarder: Unravelling India's Present From the Days Of Yore Manu Pillai's personal quest that culminated into a passion

By Deepa Vaidya

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Manu Pillai

A literary success at 25, Manu Pillai first's book, The Ivory Throne-Chronicles of the House of Travancore, is set to be converted into a Web series.

The Sahitya Kala Yuva Puraskar 2017 awardee for historical non-fiction said, "It was of course a great honour and came out of the blue. What made it more special was that the book was a part of a very fine shortlist featuring some excellent fellow writers, and the jury was also composed of people I admire a great deal. As for success, it is better not to dwell too much on it, or to let it go to one's head."

Pillai, now 32, has been writing since his teens. "At first, it was silly little skits for class performances in school, funny poems, and so on. But then I began to seriously read history and slowly combined my interest in history with my interest in writing. By 2009, when I was 19, this led me to start off on my first project, which culminated six years later in my first book."

It's intriguing, that a millennial is fascinated by India's glorious past. So what drew him to explore India's cultural heritage?

"The interest began originally out of curiosity about my own ancestors. My grandmother would tell me stories that were vivid, colourful, and utterly fascinating. Through her I learnt to look at my own grandparents, great-grandparents, etc., as individuals who in their own time led normal human lives with ups and downs, strengths and weaknesses, and were even capable of doing one or two naughty things. We sometimes romanticise the past, whereas this approach humanised it with all its complexity. Besides, our present politics, culture, social dynamics, are all consequences of events and dynamics from the past, which means that to know even the present, one must understand the past."

However, it is surprising that he has no favourite historical figure.

Besides writing books, Pillai has been a columnist and has contributed to leading dailies. He particularly focuses on the marginalised subjects and themes.

What does success mean to Pillai now? "I don't make much of success as some kind of badge. Yes, there is satisfaction when recognised by your peers, by older scholars, and to have readers appreciate your writing and work. But success with one book is no guarantee of perennial success, one has to keep working hard. I try and do my best and try not to get complacent," he said.

Just as he is unfazed by success, Pillai is unperturbed by the fact that India's history textbooks depict the British alone or the revolutionaries, but not the princes and maharajahs.

"Maharajahs and princes when discussed are usually reduced to stereotypes about palaces, dancing girls, elephants and parties. But as I argue, they were political figures who found interesting ways to resist British imperialism, and were no pushovers under the Raj. The British tried to present them as caricatures as a part of imperial propaganda, and in postcolonial India we have largely clung on to that view. But there was more to the princes than stereotypes allow us to believe, and for a long time they were friendly with and supportive of India's nationalists, from Gandhi downwards. Given also that the princes governed 40% of the Indian subcontinent, when we speak of 'Modern Indian History', we must also bring in the princely states and their histories. Otherwise our idea of the past is incomplete."

Thinking it might hurt a little, but Pillai smiled and said, "No. None of this is personal."

He also keenly follows politics, foreign policy, and related themes and also wanted to work in these areas, before publishing his first book. With him turning a full-time writer, he likes to stay abreast of what is happening in that world as well.

And which writer is his favourite is met with the cliché, "Tough to name a single favourite, but one of my favourite books is Goat Days by Benyamin. He is a tremendous writer."

However, for Pillai's fans, the wait ends in 2024, "If all goes well."

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