This is a review of the book, The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin, by Manu S. Pillai.
The book is a compilation of 60 diverse essays from Indian History. Almost all the essays have mostly quirky trivia as a common thread between them. They’re broadly arranged as “Before the Raj” and “Stories from the Raj” (maybe because the stories have little else in common?). The essays begin by reminding the reader of the conventional views held on the topic, Manu S. Pillai then goes on to alter that view, and finally ends with a shrewd comment or dry observation.
His observations, though, are outrightly critical of the school of thought subscribed by the right wing junta of India today. He does not make any apologetic disclaimer to that effect. For example, the afterword reads as an opinion piece in a newspaper, cautioning against a majoritarian dispensation. In addition to this risky enterprise, his essays on the women whose roles have been blatantly ignored by our textbooks stand out for quietly trying to supplement, and change, the story of India’s past. That said, the essays are not prejudiced as far as yours truly could tell, and have more than a hint of scholarship throughout.
My favorite essays were the ones on the mistakenly aggrandised historical figures. For example, there’s the story of Nangeli, who cut off her breasts in anger against the tax collectors, in a rebellion against caste and feudalism that suppressed those at the underbelly of society. But today she’s seen as a virtuous goddess who stood for “womanly honor”. Such heroes, Pillai clarifies, were ordinary people whose messages and ideas have been distorted to suit the narrative of the historians of the day.
That said, I thought the essays could have been better edited. For one, the writing style differs across the essays. Some are written colloquially, and some others as if for the District Gazette. It’s distracting when binge reading! Also, why were the essays sequenced the way they were? Chronology? Dramatic effect? Themes? I don’t know.
The illustrations in the book are excellent! No less. Every one of them is exquisite, and perfectly fits the essay. If I may say so, it was the better part of some essays! The featured image for this review is an illustration from the book (credits due to Priya Kuriyan).
While the book kind of wavers and stumbles here and there, by being a collection of unmoored stories, it has its positives, aplenty, ranging from the sheer research put into the essays and the effort it must have taken to compress the grand stories into such short and crisp essays.
Most significantly, the book excels by being a bold contrarian point of view on many historical figures and happenings. And, as the writer himself doesn’t miss an opportunity to say, that’s important in this age and space.
With that hope, I hope more such offbeat history books come forth. Mind you, not fictionalized poor stories or propaganda garbed as a history lessons. We need to discuss our history more, in order to not let any single narrative lead the way. And Manu S Pillai’s book is a step in that direction.
3.5/5, maybe more!