Manu S Pillai won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar in 2017 for his debut non-fiction – The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore. This magnificent tome has been read and discussed widely across both history and literary circles ever since.
But today’s recommendation is his delightfully brisk 2019 anthology titled The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History. Unlike his other books, this collection presents a series of essays that also tells India’s story but through short and compelling unconnected chapters.
It can be the perfect travel companion for those who aren’t particularly ardent readers of history. While thoroughly researched historical accounts are pleasurable in their own right, these episodic glimpses into our past – featuring tales as varied as about a warrior princess with a penchant for music, an Englishman engineer who’s remembered more as a local saviour than a representative of British rule, a Maratha prince who caricatured caste, a forgotten devadasi-turned-begum, and a Muslim deity inside a temple for Hindus, among others – can serve as the ideal point of entry for those not habituated with longform history.
The usual suspects such as Lord Curzon, Robert Clive, Queen Victoria, Alauddin Khilji, Raja Rammohun Roy, Gandhi, and Savarkar also make an appearance.
Pillai’s greatest strength is that he makes history both engaging and humorous, peppering his narrative with playful anecdotes, thus making it more accessible for the general reader. The volume is also a beauty to hold and flip through with stunning, often whimsical, black-and-white illustrations by Priya Kuriyan, bringing this unique yesteryear world to life.
In a chapter on the Kamasutra, Pillai writes, “in the overall analysis of the work one feels partly surprised, partly amused, but always interested”. That’s a befitting description of his own book too.