The Story Teller
Boyish looking intellectual, Manu S Pillai, is the author of the critically acclaimed and award-winning bestseller The Ivory Throne. This alumnus of the prestigious King’s College, London, who holds a Master’s degree in International Relations, was just 25 when the book was released in 2015. Manu, who is the former Chief of Staff to Indian MP, Dr. Shashi Tharoor, has worked at the House of Lords in Britain, and with the BBC on their Incarnations History series.
The Ivory Throne, is Manu’s first book. This colossal endeavour, that runs into around 700 pages, was written over a period of six years and researched in three continents. The book narrates the intricate social and political history of Kerala, through the life and times of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the last Maharani of the erstwhile Kingdom of Travancore. The book won the 2016 Tata Prize for best first work of non-fiction and the 2017 Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar. Manu, who is based in London and currently working on his next book, is also a columnist in several publications. The Kerala Explorer conducted an exclusive interview with him to get to know him better.
You have depicted a beautiful story of a Maharani and her family in your book. Tell us about your family. Who are all there? What were your childhood influences? Also, have nature and environment ever played any significant role in your becoming a writer? I grew up in Pune where my parents run an education foundation, and I have a sister who is a Bombay-based entrepreneur. The influences from each of them were different—my father grew up in a village, the son of an illiterate farmer, who through sheer personal tenacity obtained an education and launched himself onto his career. My mother grew up in far greater comfort but is a lesson in determination, tackling her own challenges in life with great dignity. My sister is an immensely strong woman, and it was she who introduced me to the world of books and reading, while also, being this protective force in my life (despite our constant squabbling!). I was, frankly, the least interesting of the family—besides running around aimlessly and getting into complicated situations, I don’t think I demonstrated any particular talent as a child. There was a time when my parents were convinced I was some kind of musical prodigy—I learnt to play the piano, the sitar, and some years of Carnatic music—but that didn’t really go anywhere.
“I was, frankly, the least interesting of the family—besides running around aimlessly and getting into complicated situations, I don’t think I demonstrated any particular talent as a child.”
In terms of nature and the environment, yes certainly. Growing up, my earliest memories of Pune are of its ancient, looming banyan trees, most of which are now sadly gone, and quiet streets with charming bungalows. The city had an unusual aesthetic appeal. But it was always Kerala that was a source of wonder. Every summer during our holidays my schoolboy’s world was transformed into something much older, much more beautiful in Kerala.
My mother’s ancestral home has been the place where her family lived for centuries. There was history in every little pebble there. There was a kavu for the serpents, a number of ponds (kulams), a kavu where dependents of the family used to perform their rituals—and I remember fascinating stories about blood rituals—and acres and acres of gardens and fields. My grandmother can still point out trees her great-grandfather planted, and the whole landscape was lush and full of life, beauty, and history. It certainly left an impression on me.
The research for the book took six years and it was surely a long journey. Did you ever feel tired and think of ditching the plan at any point in time? I never realistically thought I would give up on the book; but, there were moments when I needed to place a distance between my writing and myself. Some of it was simply because I was overwhelmed—my day jobs were fairly demanding, which left only nights to write, and after months and months of plodding, it is only natural that one would have to grapple with a degree of frustration. I think the longest spell when I didn’t touch the book was about six months, but even then, I kept doing my research and collecting information. Any major project like this tends to take a toll—on your time, on your patience, on your mind, on your relationships, and life itself. But it was, on the whole, a rewarding experience.
How was your experience working with Lord Karan Faridoon Bilimoria, the renowned British-Indian entreprneur? How was it different from working with Dr Shashi Tharoor? What did you learn from both these people? What was it like working with a boss, who is also an author? I have known Dr Tharoor since 2011. I was on my way back after my first stint in London as a student, and saw him at the airport and thought, “Aah, perhaps I should write to him for an internship.” So I sent him an email. The next morning I had a response, and a month later, I was not interning, but running his parliamentary office in Delhi.
It was a busy phase but very interesting—there were speeches to do, parliamentary questions, and more. I had to deal with diplomats, ministries, and the press; as well as with ordinary constituents who came to the MP with their problems. More than anything else, Dr Tharoor’s strongest quality is his capacity to work hard—for me this observation helped develop a greater sense of commitment to my own writing and book. I learnt that it was possible to have a professional career as well as to write.
Lord Karan Bilimoria was a wonderful person to work with and a genuinely warm human being. By the time I met him, he had established a well-known business and survived a major crisis where he nearly lost everything he had worked for. But, he not only beat the odds, but did so with great dignity while retaining an infectious sense of optimism. For me, it was not his achievements in the wider world that were interesting as much as how, as an individual, he negotiated the challenges in his way. There is always more to learn from individual experiences than there is from a ‘success story.’ Success, whatever that word means, is a fickle beast. What is interesting is the journey around it—we have a series of choices at every turn, and the choices we make, define who we become.
How did your friends and family react when they came to know that you have become a big author? Hah! I don’t think I am a ‘big author,’ nor do I necessarily desire to be termed one. Naturally there was a degree of pride and happiness in how everyone responded, but nothing over the top or excessive. My family hasn’t even read the book, and I don’t think many of my friends have either. I quite prefer that. They know me at a different level, and in a far more intimate fashion. The author of the book is a different creature altogether! That creature belongs in interviews and book discussions—in private I’d like to evolve in a different way, unaffected by other factors such as the book and the world’s responses to it.
How are you socially? How do you maintain the stardom now? Heavens, please don’t use words like stardom! I am socially as I always was. I enjoy being around people and have quite a few very interesting friends, many from my college days as well as from my life in Delhi. So socially I have been lucky to always had very good company. I receive heaps of messages from people who have read the book, which is always delightful. The only time I was surprised was when I was walking down a street in London looking for a spatula and a lady, originally from Guruvayur, stopped me and asked if I was the author of The Ivory Throne!
What does travelling mean to you? What mode of transportation thrills you? Travelling is to open one’s eyes and to discard prejudice and preconceptions, enjoying beauty, art, history, and food. I do enjoy travelling but I must confess I cannot travel without a degree of comfort. A friend of mine walked the entire stretch of Nepal, for instance, which I cannot do, though I am curious if I would be able to make myself do something similar someday. As of now, I prefer to arrive at a chosen spot in the most convenient manner, and then to set out experiencing the place. My last holiday was in Florence some months ago—I flew in from Munich, where I had a conference, and stayed in my friend’s lovely flat. And for the next four days all I did was to walk—up hills, through galleries, across the river, through gardens, and so on, besides sampling wine and food. I also met an abstract painter who lived in a sixteenth century house, full of Renaissance art, who gave me a lesson in local history. I had no clue, for instance, that the only reason Florence remains home to so much art is because a woman, Anna Maria Luisa de Medici, willed it so. I was supposed to go to Moscow in September but unfortunately that fell through. I have a close friend in Ecuador I hope to visit next year, and plans to go to North Africa in April 2018 if I finish certain tasks I have set myself by then.
Every time you see someone read your book or write about your book what do you feel, apart from happiness? A healthy curiosity as to what they make of it!
Has travelling influenced you ever in life? Has travelling played a role in bringing out the book? Yes indeed! For most of those six years, there was a lot of zipping back and forth between India and London. Within India, I had to go interview people in Chennai, study old documents in Trivandrum, and photograph paintings in Bangalore. In the UK, I chased up auction houses trying to locate old diaries, travelled to lovely little places to trace family members of characters in my book, and so on. It was all great fun, and even exciting.
In 2014, I took a train journey to Nagercoil to meet with a nephew of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, my protagonist. He is based in Canada but was in Nagercoil to see family. I still remember coming out of the railway station and being struck by the endless patterns of colour in the old part of that town—reds, yellows, blues, greens. It was beautiful.
What are your other hobbies? I really can’t think of anything. Instead of hobbies, what I have are aspirations—a hope, for instance, that one day I will be able to cook, or that one day I will have time again to resurrect my interest in music. I also do wish I had greater success in learning French—I am an abject failure when it comes to foreign languages. I scraped through Class 12 with a 35/100 in German! I was a good student of Sanskrit though, which I learnt privately as a child. Unfortunately, as with my piano lessons, I remember nothing today
“ Success, whatever that word means, is a fickle beast. What is interesting is the journey around it— we have a series of choices at every turn, and the choices we make define who we become.”
If you were to name your autobiography, what would you name it? The Evolution and Decay of an Inconstant Mind.
Kerala being your vacation home, which place do you love the most? Any destinations that have stayed close to your heart? Alleppey district, where my ancestral home lies, and Calicut, for its remarkable past.
Were you always interested in writing or is there something that inspired you to write? There was nothing in particular and I can’t remember when I first wrote. I do remember that my first train wreck of a novel was when I was in my early teens—my poor father and sister pretended they were interested in the story and encouraged me to write more! I did always love listening to stories and there was a naturally corollary in wanting, therefore, to also tell stories.
As an author, which is that one book or movie which inspired you the most? There are too many books to name, frankly. As for movies, every time someone asks me this question, what comes to mind is Empire of the Sun. I don’t know why, but the fact that it is the first name that emerges means it certainly left an impression on me—the challenges of a young boy in a world besieged by war
What is Manu S Pillai in one word? Resolute.
Where do you see yourself ten years down the lane? I tend to go year by year—in ten years, I have no clue where I will be!
“ Dr Tharoor’s strongest quality is his capacity to work hard—for me this observation helped develop a greater sense of commitment to my own writing and book. I learnt that it was possible to have a professional career as well as to write.”