“Writers must make an effort to persuade readers to pick up books”

tells Manu S Pillai, who is the author of the award-winning book The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore (HarperCollins India, 2015), Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji (Juggernaut, 2018), and most recently The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History (Context, 2019).

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Formerly Chief of Staff to Dr Shashi Tharoor MP, Manu S Pillai has in the past worked at the House of Lords in Britain, with Lord Karan Bilimoria CBE DL, and with the BBC on their Incarnations history series, assisting Dr Sunil Khilnani. Written over six years and researched in three continents, Manu’s first book, The Ivory Throne won the 2016 Tata Prize for best first work of non-fiction and the 2017 Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar.

How I became a writer…

Manu S Pillai

“It wasn’t really a plan, though I did write from my teens, and enjoyed doing so. Writing only became more serious when, married to my interest in history, I began work on my first book, The Ivory Throne, in 2009. That was a six year long process, not only in terms of research and its groundwork, but also in learning to write better, through trial and error. And it was chiefly the success of the book, which was published just before 2016, that made me look at writing as a lifelong proposition,” tells Manu.

“From an historian and researcher to an author… well I think just the wealth of stories in our country motivated me. Not only are we culturally storytellers of great wit and originality (even though some these days love to censor, “purify”, and limit creativity for their own insecurities), the sheer riches we have in terms of history and its tales is truly fascinating. I have written three books now but am deeply conscious that this is still just a scratch on the surface of what is an ocean of knowledge accumulated over time in this land,” he adds.

Inspiring authors…

On asking about the authors who have inspired him, Manu replies, “There is no single inspiration as such, and I have been nourished over the years by a diverse number of writers, ranging from PG Wodehouse, who remains one of my favourites, and Aubrey Menen, to serious academics like Meera Nanda and J Devika, whose work challenges the intellect. In terms of popular history, William Dalrymple ranks high, and in fiction, there is magnificent writing coming out of our country: Benyamin, KR Meera, Amrita Mahale, and others.”

Journey as an author…

“My journey as an author has been promising and happy so far, and I have little to complain about. While I have heard of difficult publishing journeys from fellow writers, I have, fortunately, not had to face it myself. Karthika VK, my first publisher when she was at HarperCollins, took a huge risk with my book, given that it was a 700-page volume on an obscure topic by an unknown writer. And I remain very grateful to her and HarperCollins for that,” tells Manu.

Role of imagination to weave different historical facts and events…

“Actually, I don’t need to use my imagination at all, because history is full of stories that are at once startling, violent, hilarious, horrifying, and much else. From the Kamasutra to the Arthashastra, read in the right perspective, they are much more than we think they are. Oral traditions too offer so much that a historian merely has to pick the ingredients from here and present it—it will be compelling even without the addition of the writer’s imagination or sense of humour. The stories are all there, and we merely need to find them,” shares Manu.

Research: an integral part of books…

“For The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore, I used archives in Delhi, Kerala, Bangalore, and elsewhere in India, travelling even to towns like Nagercoil for interviews and meetings with people who knew the protagonist of the book. Then there was material from the archives in London and the libraries there, as well as in Oxford, Southampton, not to speak of in Berkeley in America. It was all tremendous fun and a time of great learning,” he says.

On asking about the inspiration behind Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji, The Courtesan, The Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History, Manu replies, “I grew up in Pune, so the story of the Deccan was always around me. It was, to be clear, dominated by Shivaji, but every now and then information from a pre-Shivaji age would appear in brief glimpses. I wanted to explore that. Better scholars had studied the Maratha period, so my interest was to go to the less-investigated pre-Maratha age of the Shia sultanates with their Persianate court culture. And if The Ivory Throne was a tribute to my Malayali family heritage, Rebel Sultans was a tribute to the land in which I grew up.”

Favourite character in your books…

“It is always the women. We imagine historical women a certain way, but the kind of women one actually encounters in the record were far more fascinating and real, and less monochromatic. From Baiza Bai, the Scindia queen of the 19th century who was also one of the great bankers of the 19th century, to Janabai, who composed Bhakti poetry centuries before, studying the women of history also challenges many tropes and a lot of received wisdom—and the whole point of history and research is to challenge preconceived notions about the past as well as your own mind,” he tells.

Hardest part of writing a book…

“It is towards the final drafts of any manuscript that I think a very critical stage is reached, in that the writer must read his or her own work from the perspective of a reader, and ask a number of questions: I may like this paragraph, but will it appeal to the reader? Will the reader feel the urge to turn the page and keep going? Trying to cut out yourself and to approach your writing with an objective eye can sometimes be challenging,” ha shares.

On target audience…

“I consciously try and mould my writing to appeal to as many readers as possible. Writing is, after all, communication of ideas and stories and much else. And I’d like to communicate to the largest possible audience there is, who read in the English language. I do hope I can woo more young people towards books in general, and history in particular,” tells Manu.

On translations…

“Translation is booming in India now, and somewhat belatedly, the English language universe has woken up to the reality that some of the best writing, ideas, and original work being done in the country is in our regional languages, rather than in English. So regional-to-English is really a gift to the English language. And yes, I would love for my work to be translated into more Indian languages,” says Manu.

As of now, Manu’s books are available in Marathi, Malayalam, Tamil, and Kannada.

Awards and recognitions…

“Awards and recognition are certainly encouraging, but best taken with a pinch of salt so as to keep one’s feet firmly on the ground. I have seen many who produced a great book and won acclaim, but failed thereafter to recreate that magic. It is inevitable, perhaps, for all writers, but being aware of that eventuality helps keep one rooted to one’s work, and not get carried away by acclaim and publicity,” he shares.

Book to screen…

His book Ivory Throne is being made into a series by Arka Mediaworks. “I have faith that they will do a very good job of recreating the book on screen,” adds Manu.

Motivating people read for pleasure…

“I think storytelling is key. We cannot write and expect to be read—writers must make an effort to persuade readers to pick up books. I know this is easier said than done, and many will disagree, but in an age of information and communication with so many options, we have to fight the competition,” concludes Manu.

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