Book readings inevitably turn out to be dull affairs attended by the usual suspects ranging from the dewy-eyed ingénue who finds the author "so cute" to the barking mad uncle who has to be escorted from the hall by security during the Q &A session. Your humble correspondent has been-there-done-that way too often which is why I hemmed and hawed when my cousin invited me to join her at the E Hotel in Chennai for the launch of Manu Pillai's intriguingly titled, "The Courtesan, The Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin."
It pays to be an optimist; I'm glad I went because it turned out to be an interesting, amusing and elevating experience. Pillai was employed by Lord Billimoria, the maker of Cobra beer, and judging by some of his more scathing observations, he has drunk deep from the cup of life. Since he also worked for Shashi Tharoor, he is also to be commended for his discernment: he could so easily have swallowed a dictionary instead of an inspiring draft of Cobra venom.
"We live in times when history is polarizing. It has become to some an instrument of vengeance, for grievances imagined or real". So just like Joe McCarthy found a red under every bed, the bigot sees Islamic 'tyrants' from Kashmir to Velankanni as though they had a copyright on violence, while Hindu rulers were virtuous beings. The truth as we know, is far more complicated since medieval rulers, be it a Shivaji or a Tipu Sultan, ruthlessly used violence to exercise power unfettered by the shackles of the Geneva Convention.
Tipu bravely fought the British while he captured and enslaved thousands of Mangalorean Christians and Coorgs. At the same time, he was a practical man who employed many such 'infidels' as ministers and functionaries in his court. So what is history's verdict: hero or violent oppressor? "Context is what helps us comprehend this and shows us how it is not a case of either-or. On the contrary, he was all of this at once." Pillai urges us to analyse, question and impartially scrutinize the evidence before drawing a conclusion.
Before we pride ourselves on our rich history or make fantastical claims about Vedic test-tube babies, we need to cultivate self-awareness. It is crucial to acknowledge the context of past deeds and misdeeds which becomes the prism through which they are viewed. For example, Mahmud of Ghor issued gold with the image of godess Lakshmi because he was a pragmatist, prepared to risk haraam for cash flow.
Most readers are intimidated by history with few takers for weighty tomes in clunky prose filled with dates of battles. For this reason alone, this book should be made mandatory reading: Pillai wears his learning lightly and his prose style is exquisite. His previous books on the Travancore royal family and Sultans of the Deccan will appeal more to history buffs and serious scholars but this collection , filled with crisp narratives sprawled across multiple periods, is a curator's delight packed with hot button topics and fascinating themes. Jeffrey Bernard described the practice of publishing old newspaper columns in book form as "money for old rope" which is quite true but Pillai manages to depict a grand panorama of Indian history without dumbing down the narrative.
The author's passion for his subject is evident on every page: from the indignities suffered by the low-born Chokhamela to the Tullaka Nachiyar Muslim princess who is worshipped to this day in two south Indian temples. Remember this was way before #MeToo called out society's hypocrisy in matters of sexuality and power.
"Pride should not eclipse the realities of feudalism, caste, class, and other dynamics that shaped society," says Pillai. When asked by one young woman how he coped with right wing uncles trolling him on social media, the author responded that they bothered him far less than millenials who considered themselves "learned" simply because they looked up Googlebooks on their smartphones. At the risk of sounding like a voice in the wilderness, this is precisely the sort of maturity we need from our rulers instead of cosmetic tinkering with the economy and the Constitution. This is a book that should be read by every true patriot: you have nothing to lose but your hang-ups....