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Interview: Manu S. Pillai - Weaving New Stories into Indian Political History

Updated: Jun 23, 2023

"Time management and discipline are the keys to success. You can achieve your goals if you understand your limits, use your strength, and not let your weakness come in your way," says Manu S Pillai, a writer, and historian, who by the age of 32 has authored four popular books on history.

Born in 1990 in Mavelikkara, Kerala, and raised in Pune, Pillai says his grandmother sparked in him his interest in history, with her unique way of storytelling which sees the characters dispassionately as individuals, even when they were members of the family.

Though he grew up in a city far away from Kerala, the occasional visit to his hometown piqued his interest in the history of Travancore. And later, the story of a lone female character in the royal family history of Travancore inspired him to write his debut book Ivory Throne: The Chronicles of the House of Travancore. Sethu Lakshmi Bai, who ruled as a regent in modern Travancore and lived with her royal family for 55 years before giving up her royalty, was the protagonist of the story. Pillai says he felt such a strong political figure as her should get the recognition she deserved and he decided to bring her to light.

In ARPO Conversations, Pillai says he treated the protagonist with sympathy, did not venerate the royalty, and tried to be concise while describing the power structure of the rural family - how they achieved power, sustained it, and finally lost it.

Watch the interview

Published by Harper Collins India, the book on the last but forgotten queen of the House of Travancore won the Tata Lit Live Prize for best first work of non-fiction in 2016 and the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar in 2017. It had become a bestseller not only for the uniqueness of the story and the tremendous research involved but also for the fact the author was only 25 then, and it was his first book.

Pillai graduated in Economics from Fergusson College and earned his Master's degree in International Relations and Ph.D. in History from King’s College, London. Earlier, he worked as the Chief of Staff to Dr. Shashi Tharoor MP and at the House of Lords in Britain with Lord Karan Bilimoria CBE DL. He worked hand-in-hand with Dr. Sunil Khilnani for BBC on their history series known as Incarnations.

Considering the tremendous research behind each of his books, the money he earned from one book goes into the research work of the next book, he says. Amidst researching and planning for the next book, he still manages to ‘keep one foot’ in International affairs by attending seminars, meetings, and conferences.

On False Allies- India’s Maharajas in the Age of Ravi Varma

Pillai says he chose colonial and post-colonial history due to his fascination for the modern period.

“There was so much going on during that period, especially the shaping of contemporary politics, today’s communalism, state formation, bureaucratization, and military changes. A lot of cultural mixing happened after the arrival of the British. How colonialism and imperialism colonized Indian minds fascinated him, and he viewed them as cultural experiences,” he says.

Manu Pillai gathers his research materials from both India and abroad. He remarked on how organized the categorization of the archives in Europe is, making the retrieval effortless and prompt. On the contrary, the experience in India was daunting, he adds, as even after hours of waiting, the information you get is that some files are missing.

Pillai says the reason he chose Raja Ravi Varma as the connecting thread in the story False Allies: India’s Maharajahs in the Age of Ravi Varma was famous artists, being also royalty, could enter any royal court as he wished.

Ravi Varma has painted the royals of Travancore, Pudukottai, Mysore, Rajputana, and Hyderabad - the five prominent princely states. These are the states False Allies feature.

Manu Pillai is also the author of Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji in 2018 and The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History in 2019.


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