Two young women- really young women- are on the cover of the book. If you take just the faces out and put them in a class photo, you'd be looking at the faraway gazes of two girls, who'd rather be away at a playground. But then this is a picture from many many decades ago, when in place of uniform skirts and tops, the girls wrapped long mundus around them and wore their hair into high topknots. Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and Sethu Parvathi Bayi sit there, waiting to be uncovered in the 700 pages that the book runs into. They are the principal characters in The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore written by Manu S. Pillai after six years of research.
If you are the prejudiced type, you might have easily decided the author is an old man, another history buff. But once you learn Manu is just 25, was born in Kerala, had gone to college in Pune and London, worked with Dr Shashi Tharoor and at the House of Lords, you pick up an imaginary pair of scissors and cut your prejudices into little pieces.
Manu was born in Mavelikkara, he says in an e-mail interview, "by a complete accident, because my parents have been in Pune for decades." And it's in Mavelikkara that both the Sethu sisters were born, nearly a century before Manu. It is also there that his love for history begins. "Every summer we'd come to visit my grandparents, and sitting in their old house, gorging on mangoes and jackfruit, I first got into Kerala history- old stories about our family, about the ruined temple in the backyard, about various traditions concerning goddesses and village heroes. I picked up from there and got interested in Kerala history at a broader level."
Even at a young age, he enjoyed being around older people, wanting to do things they did. The more he picked up history, the more he loved it. Some of it surprised him, some excited him, but everything kept him going. "There's a lot of power politics in history. The very fact that every new government in this country goes out first to review history books and change the syllabus in schools, shows how political history is." And now he has written history that could surprise and excite others.
Sexual freedom was also remarkable so that while polygamy was happily recognised in other parts of India, in Kerala, women were allowed polyandry. Nair women could, if they wished, entertain more than one husband and, in the event of difficulties, were free to divorce without any social stigma. Widowhood was no catastrophic disaster and they were effectively at par with men when it came to sexual rights, with complete autonomy over their bodies.
"The status of women is just the tip of the iceberg. Did you know there were thousands of Chinese soldiers who lived in Calicut, and who left behind a half Chinese half-Malayali community called Chinna Kribala? You and I probably have Chinese blood somewhere in our veins," Manu says.
But what really got him to write the book is the fascination he felt for Sethu Lakshmi Bayi. "Why did she leave Kerala after ruling over millions here? Why did she give up palaces and riches and choose obscurity in Bangalore? Why was she written out of history? The Ivory Throne investigates Travancore and its history using her life story, and the court drama around her, as its foundation."
He had conducted extensive research through the archives of London, Kerala, and Delhi, went through libraries of three continents, and recorded many interviews. It's all been a lot of work, and one day he hopes to return to fiction, which he used to write in teenage. Today, he tells you he is dropping the 'unemployed writer' card, because he is living out of a suitcase. "Since October and for the foreseeable future-- I am moving around with the book to do launches in various cities (Thiruvananthapuram on January 29), with my battered red suitcase for company!"