The young and dashing newest author on the block, Manu S Pillai describes himself as a “jack-of-all-trades and master of none.” From picking up the nuances of Carnatic and Hindustani music as a child, to mastering the sitar and piano, and what he calls ‘a brief flirtation with the guitar’ later on in life, Pillai has tried it all, but insists he remembers none of it now. “My only constant has been reading and writing, so it would be safest to stick to them,” he begins, when asked about what interests him. But his lack of ‘colourful’ persuasions aside, Pillai’s life thus far has been a series of contrasting and exciting experiences, all of which have perhaps helped him with his debut book, The Ivory Throne. In the city to launch the book, a social and political history of Kerala told through the life and times of two feuding queens, Pillai takes us back to how it all began.
“The idea evolved over time, really. Every summer we’d visit my grandparents in Kerala. And there, inelegantly gorging on mangoes and jackfruit, I would listen to stories about ferocious great-aunts, magisterial grand uncles, the stories behind the ruined temple in our backyard and other wide-ranging ancestral gossip. Soon I was gripped by Kerala — its history of trading with the Romans, of the matrilineal system which allowed my great-great grandmother to be a divorcee in the 1880s without the slightest hint of stigma, and so on. Looking back, that’s when the seeds were sown,” recalls the author, whose book has already gone into reprint just four weeks into its launch.
Barely 25 years old, Pillai was born in a little town called Mavelikkara in Kerala but grew up Pune. “Ironically, Mavelikkara is where both the protagonist and antagonist of my book were born a century before,” he reveals. Currently based out of a suitcase, the author’s work life in the past five years is quite impressive, what with having completed stints as the parliamentary aide of Shashi Tharoor and Lord Bilimoria at The House of Lords. “Dr Tharoor was excellent to work with. He even facilitated my access to archives in India. Lord Bilimoria, was exceedingly kind too. In 2013, I wanted to leave to focus on my writing. But he asked me to stay, and allowed me two weeks off every month to write, all while paying me a respectable salary!” he tells us.
Taking the focus back to his book, he says that it recounts the tale of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and Sethu Parvathi Bayi, two sisters at loggerheads with each other. The book took him about six years to complete and Pillai shares what finally pushed him to take the first step. “At 19, I came across the private papers of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the last female Maharajah (not merely ‘Maharani’) of Travancore in a volume her granddaughter had compiled. It was fascinating. She had accomplished much as a ruler, but lost in the political battle against her sister and rival, Sethu Parvathi Bayi. So she was written out of history and died in obscurity in the 1980s. There was, I felt, a compelling story to be told here. And the result is The Ivory Throne,” he explains.
Relating what it was really like working on the book, Pillai says, “It was rewarding, certainly, but it demolished my social life!” Talking about Bengaluru, Pillai shares that it forms a huge part of his novel. “The royal family, I describe in the book, moved to Bengaluru and have become one of the ‘old families’ of the city. I visit several times a year because of how fond I am of the city and its relaxed, welcoming vibe, despite the nightmarish traffic,” he says, in conclusion....