“The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History” by Manu S Pillai

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Manu S Pillai, the acclaimed author of a monumental historical study, The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore (2015), presents himself here in a somewhat lighter vein, with a series of essays on interesting personalities, known and unknown, from Indian history both before and during British rule.

The essay, as it was originally conceived by Michel de Montaigne in 1580 (and a little later in England by Francis Bacon), is an “attempt” or “try” (essai), a usually personal response to something or someone of interest to its writer. Pillai does this with people from Indian history,


an offering that seeks to reflect the fascinating, layered, splendidly complex universe that is Indian history, at a time when life itself is projected in tedious shades of black and white


as he explains in his introduction. The subjects will often be unfamiliar to western readers, and indeed many Indian readers, too, which makes the book invaluable to anyone who would like to sample Indian history and be led to examining aspects of it in more detail. The essays are a taste of the wide-ranging fascination of India’s story, and through them a rich world unfolds; for non-Indians it’s a journey into the unknown (for the most part, anyway) and for Indians, too, Pillai’s essays may kindle a renewal of interest in their own diverse, exhilarating and exciting past, as well as providing a window into the present.

The Indians in the book are for the most part far more interesting than the foreigner.

The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History, Manu S Pillai (Context, June 2019)
The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History, Manu S Pillai (Context, June 2019)

Pillai concludes his book with a piece entitled “An Essay for Our Times”, which, paradoxically, reflects on why he writes about the past, and which might also have served for an introduction. The reason is quite simple: modern India, in some sense an artificial construct, grew out of a multiplicity of languages and cultures, all of which are still flourishing today. People who live there are often multi-identitied or multi-lingual; as Pillai tells us


there may be children who speak English during their lessons, Malayalam or Meiteilon[1]a Tibetan language spoken in north-eastern India at home with their parents, and Hindi with friends while playing gully cricket.


And that’s not all; “there might be extra lessons,” he says, “in Sanskrit or German or French.” What the creation of “India” did was to put people who spoke many different languages, worshipped different gods, had different customs or social values, and wore different clothes together in one place (a platform in 1885) and suggest that they could forge a common identity.

They already, in that year, had a shared experience, that of opposition to British rule, but even that presented Indians with a partial solution to one problem, the shared use of English as a neutral common language, in spite of being the language of the oppressors. And in the end, as Indians understood that adopting any major native language (Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Telugu or Malayalam for example) would not work, and heterogeneity more or less remained. Diversity, albeit under one roof, was seen as a good thing; Pillai quotes Shashi Tharoor, the politician and author of The Great Indian Novel, as observing that India


resembled a thali or platter with ‘a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls … they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast.’


Pillai has presented us here with a fascinating historical thali, a celebration of differences but also a reminder that the ingredients are all on the same platter, the Indian subcontinent. We have an incredible olla podrida of Hindus, Marathas, Muslims, Buddhists, Mughal emperors and princes, prostitutes, warriors, rajahs, brahmins, untouchables, railways, football, photography, regionalism, mysticism, nationalism, religions and a woman with no breasts.

The people Pillai writes about also include foreigners, although here Pillai could have introduced some lesser-known figures than Lord Curzon, Queen Victoria, Annie Besant, and Robert Clive. He does, however, include Sir William Jones, “India’s bridge to the west”, as Pillai rightly calls him, whose name has been largely forgotten except by professors of Sanskrit, and the “Italian brahmin” of the title, Roberto de Nobili. Choice of subjects is, of course, a personal matter, but it would be good to know what Pillai makes of people like Warren Hastings, Sarojini Naidu, Subhas Chandra Bose, Jiddu Krishnamurti or even Thomas Coryate, the man who walked across India in 1615-17.

The Indians in the book are for the most part far more interesting than the foreigners; this might be because of their relative unfamiliarity to western readers, but on the whole it’s because they are an astonishingly fascinating and varied group of people, whose stories Pillai tells deftly and passionately, painting a vast canvas of rich, varied colors and shifting realities. He shows us exactly how this kind of diversity gave strength, not weakness, to the creation of the modern state of India. In his concluding essay, Pillai praises the makers of India for rejecting “black and white” nationalism, a “rigid political beast,” and opting instead for “a more malleable reflection of the land’s multiple realities”, truly e pluribus unum, but not a simple-minded melting-pot which denied the multiplicity of those realities and of the people who occupied them.

Pillai doesn’t forget Indian women, who are shown to have been just as interesting as the men.

Pillai writes in an easy-going and quite informal style, which parallel the original intentions of Montaigne in his essays, and like those of his great French predecessor, the essays also point to some of his own beliefs and ideas about India particularly as they are summed up in the concluding essay. As Pillai puts it in his short introduction, “there is much in our past to enrich us, and a great deal that can explain who we are.”

Even more importantly, he also notes that it can help Indians understand “what choices must be made as we confront grave crossroads in our own time.” Studying the past makes us consider a variety of experiences and ways of looking at the world, as well as perhaps re-evaluating the way we see and judge historical people. Lord Curzon, for example, may well have been an instrument of imperialism, but few did more than him to promote the ancient monuments of India, and Sir William Jones pioneered the study of Sanskrit literature. These positive actions led to a realization that India was a great civilization with its own significant culture, and to some extent may have prompted the Raj to a greater understanding of what the sub-continent was.

Pillai doesn’t forget Indian women, who are shown to have been just as interesting as the men. Westerners may know the story of the heroic Lakhsmi Bai, the rani of Jhansi who fought the British, but they likely don’t know about the politically powerful Khunza Humayun, known as “the lost Begum of Ahmednagar”, or Begum Samru, who married a German thug and murderer, went with him on his military exploits, and after his death commanded all his troops and became de facto ruler of the state of Sardhana. There are essays on “A forgotten Indian Queen in Paris”, “The Seamstress and the Mathematician” and “The Gramophone Queen of India”, just to name a few of my own favourites.


Pillai has designed this book not for reading chapter by chapter, but to dip into (and out of), and although it is not especially academic, it’s typically well-researched and there’s an extensive bibliography to prove it.

Pillai himself acknowledges that this book isn’t like his previous productions, which required “sustained immersion”, but a new format for him, and one he came to enjoy very much. The writing reflects Pillai’s enjoyment and enthusiasm, but this book also serves to illustrate India’s diversity and at the same time how the past can give people wisdom and show them how to live, and that ultimately India can, if it chooses, “assert proudly a patriotism that rises over and above other feelings”, but at the same time “without clashing with individual and group identities.”

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.

Notes   [ + ]

1. a Tibetan language spoken in north-eastern India