‘In the writing of history there is a profound North-Indian bias’

The other day on Twitter a senior figure suggested I was sanitizing a tyrant. But the question is, who was not a tyrant at the time? None of the rulers of that age, Hindu or Muslim, were democrats.

Manu S Pillai’s first book, ‘The Ivory Throne,’ not only won critical acclaim but was also a commercial success. It focused on the trials and tribulations of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the last and forgotten queen of the House of Travancore. His new book ‘Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji’ is an engaging narrative, replete with riveting tales and compelling characters, that traces the less trodden history of the region from the end of the thirteenth century to the dawn of the eighteenth. In this email interview with Ajith Pillai, the author shares his thoughts on his new book and his fascination with writing history:

What is it that drew you to narrative history writing? What stirred your curiosity and fascination to re-look at the past?

I think it was the power of stories. I grew up surrounded by interesting stories, ranging from little details of my father’s life in abject poverty in rural Kerala, to the most hilarious tales of family gossip about scheming matriarchs who terrorized their husbands, and flirtatious great-uncles with heaps of illegitimate children. For me, then, history became something intimately linked to the people in it rather than history as explained through events and dates. As I grew, my interest took me to some very scholarly works, but also narrative non-fiction written with great elegance. When I saw that the two could be combined, I realized this was a wonderful way of bringing the past to those in the present. Initially, I inflicted my storytelling on friends, who suffered me for some time, but soon I realized writing was a better way of fulfilling my own urge to tell stories and also to allow people to digest it at their own pace and in their own time. It didn’t take long after that to work out what I wanted to do in the long run, and how I wanted to approach both history as well as writing.

Who are the historians and writers who have influenced you?

I tend not to have any favourites as such and keep myself open to all kinds of books. Everything I read tends to leave an impression. So, I learnt a lot from reading Phule and Ambedkar, like I found my own understanding of modern India enriched by Ramachandra Guha’s classic India After Gandhi. To my non-fiction I bring a not always obvious, understated irreverence, which is definitely a product of PG Wodehouse’s fiction. Long before I worked with Shashi Tharoor, I remember thoroughly enjoying his The Great Indian Novel, which in its inspired approach to explaining modern India through the Mahabharata led me to Aubrey Menen’s Rama Retold (one of the earliest books banned in the country, for parodying the Ramayana). As for others, there is a whole range, from colonial era writers like Shungunny Menon, Nilakanta Shastri and Jadunath Sarkar, down to Benedict Anderson, Meera Nanda, and the non-fiction of Arundhati Roy. Even if I don’t always find a book convincing, I am yet to encounter a book that hasn’t in some way helped open my mind.

It took you six years to put together your first book, The Ivory Throne, which chronicled the House of Travancore. But Rebel Sultans took you no more than two years. Was this because there was easier access to documents, records and scholarly accounts?

The Ivory Throne was my first book, and a project I started when I was nineteen. Not only was the research extensive—featuring letters, confidential reports, diaries, and material sourced from three continents—but I was also evolving my own style of writing at that time. Besides, with a principal protagonist to the tale, I was also trying to comprehend her mind, to determine who she was, and why she acted the way she did. Trying to obtain as complete a sense of the character and personality of a reticent figure who was dead long before I was born came with a certain set of challenges, added to which was the matter of making sure every statement I made was backed by archival material. With Rebel Sultans, while the motivation to ensure that the research is rock solid remained, there was no single protagonist whose mind I needed to penetrate. It is a much larger cast spread over a longer period of time. The pace of the book is brisker, and it is in an era far removed from our own, which meant the nature of the material and my approach to it was different from what I handled in my first book.

In general, I had been noting down little details about the Deccan for some time, when I travelled, or came across a building, and so on. It was in 2016 after a visit to Golconda and to the Qutb Shahi tombs around it that I thought I would do a short book on the subject. Then there was a personal factor: with The Ivory Throne, I got used to writing long 20,000-word chapters and going into various themes in the most intricate detail. I wanted now to do a different kind of book, with a different tone, and a different aim, to break out of a habit built over six years. Rebel Sultans has a simple aim—to resurrect the rich pre-Shivaji history of the Deccan in popular imagination. The 50 pages of notes can then guide interested readers towards specific details and books that explain them, but my intention was to provide an overview, a retelling of the grand story, unlike The Ivory Throne where it was not a grand narrative as much as the tale of one dynasty, its travails, and its days of glory and scandal.

There is enough written about the Moghuls—both histories and historical fiction-- but very little about the kingdoms and sultanates of the Deccan. What we have seems limited to Shivaji. Why do you think other rulers and warriors have been ignored or given scant attention?

Part of it is the general politics of writing history. There is, for instance, a profound north-India bias here so that popular imagination automatically pivots everything around the north. When the Deccan appears, it is as the graveyard of the Mughals, where Aurangzeb encountered his fiercest adversary in Shivaji—everything else is peripheral. Then there is the politics around Shivaji. A remarkable figure, with a new vision, many layers, and a gripping life and career, he has been reduced to a few elementary shades for political purposes. He has become a kamadhenu of sorts for parties who all find different ways to deploy him for their own intentions. Since politics is involved, it is his story that we encounter the most, everything else languishing in its shadow. I realized that there were hundreds of books on Shivaji, and therefore I did not want to contribute to a topic where better historians have already done excellent work. Instead, I wanted to build on the work of a few historians who have dealt with the earlier history of the Deccan—ranging from HK Sherwani and PM Joshi, to Richard Eaton and Sanjay Subrahmanyam— to discover what it was that led to Shivaji, and to try and reinstate people who deserve to be much more than mere footnotes in someone else’s tale.

During war a Bahmani Sultan might destroy temples, but that did not stop from a scion of the same line to become a bhakti saint singing praises of Advaita philosophy

Historians often take extreme positions when it comes to interpreting Muslim rule in India. Some see it as a period when Hindu and Islamic cultures borrowed from each other in a mutually beneficial syncretic relationship. Others see it as the root of all evil. What is your assessment of the Muslim rulers of the Deccan?

I think we really need to take a pause and look at this subject with fresh eyes. It is inaccurate to say that Hindu-Muslim relations were completely syncretic and devoid of violence, just as it is incorrect to say that violence was its defining principle. What we see is a mix of both—then as now, life was not black and white. Politics in earlier periods was often conducted through a vocabulary of religion. So, if we take texts and literary sources at face value, we see hyperbolic statements about infidels wiped off the face of the earth, oppression by ‘Turks’, destruction of mosques by Hindu rulers, and so on. But texts were instruments of legitimization, and not objective reflections of lived reality. So, while Vijayanagar defined its self-image in Sanskritic Hindu terms, and positively identified itself as “Hindu”, it was still dealing with an Islamicate commercial network, absorbing Persian influences, employing Muslims by the thousands, and even calling its rulers “Hindu Sultans”. Similarly, while the Muslim Sultans of the Deccan defined their image in the language and imagery of Islam, they manned their state and bureaucracy with Marathas, Brahmins, and plenty of Hindus. During war a Bahmani Sultan might destroy temples, but that did not stop from a scion of the same line to become a bhakti saint singing praises of Advaita philosophy. Similarly, during his conquests Ramaraya of Vijayanagar might desecrate mosques, but he himself had begun his career in the court of a Sultan and employed Muslim generals who joined him on these campaigns. There was no irony in this for them because that was the age in which they lived—we, however, in our time, and to assuage our own anxieties, seek to interpret the past in certain ways. And so, we end up with a poor imitation of history, and draw from it justifications for present failures rather than a truly mature understanding of the circumstances in which historical figures lived and functioned.

While Vijayanagar defined its self-image in Sanskritic Hindu terms, and positively identified itself as “Hindu”, it was still dealing with an Islamicate commercial network, absorbing Persian influences, employing Muslims by the thousands, and even calling its rulers “Hindu Sultans”

There are some fascinating characters who emerge from your book. For example, there is Ibrahim II who describes himself as the son of “Guru Ganapati and Mother Saraswati” and wore a rudraksha mala. He emerges as the Akbar of the South or would that be incorrect to accord him that status? After all, as some would say, was Ibrahim II just another despot who imbibed local culture, religion, languages and promoted the arts?

They were all despots. The other day on Twitter a senior figure suggested I was sanitizing a tyrant. But the question is, who was not a tyrant at the time? None of the rulers of that age, Hindu or Muslim, were democrats. Violence and power were united through an umbilical bond, and sustaining power necessitated not the secret use of violence, but open, demonstrative violence. (And on the topic of violence in Indian history, Upinder Singh has written an excellent book.) So, a king was not merely expected to be generous, he had to be publicly generous; he was not merely expected to be rich in private, he had to showcase his wealth to sustain awe for the throne; and in his wrath also, he had to be very public in order to affirm his prerogative of determining matters of life and death. So, Ibrahim II of Bijapur—a poet, an admirer of many religions, a patron of the arts, a builder of great cities—also blinded his regent and had his brother killed when they went against him. But was he alone? What about Shivaji’s conquest of Javli, held by the Maratha More family, where he sent assassins masquerading as a diplomatic mission, one of whom stabbed the chieftain to death? Similarly, if Ibrahim II murdered his brother, so did a Vijayanagar ruler on the eve of the fall of the Sangama dynasty. In brief, they were all products of an age of autocracy — it is mischief to isolate Muslim names and issue cries of outrage, when Hindu greats of the time were also cut from the same political cloth.

The mistake the respected gentleman on Twitter made and many of us generally make is to apply today’s standards to yesterday’s rulers. They lived in a different context, in a different time, with a different understanding of justice, kingship, and indeed even the value of life. They were despots presiding over feudal structures—within that context, however, some became extraordinary figures, like Ibrahim II and Shivaji, while others were less impressive, unable to rise above the conventional authoritarianism of their time and do something more. And remember, Akbar too in the early part of his career when he was expanding the empire was ruthless. It was afterwards, once his power was entrenched that he grew more generous, developed more actively his intellectual leanings, and transformed himself from another powerful king into a truly great emperor.

The irony is that Shivaji himself had great admiration for Malik Ambar—in the Sivabharata he commissioned in the 1670s, high praise is heaped on the African general. And yes, it was he who, with his Maratha associates, including Shivaji’s grandfather, Maloji, developed guerilla warfare against the Mughals, a strategy Shivaji perfected 

Your book makes one compare the Deccan rulers with the Moghuls. How different or similar were the two?

There were a number of differences. Many of the Deccan’s rulers were Shia Muslims, while the Mughals were Sunnis (although they took Shia brides and had plenty of Shia noblemen). This sectarian difference, in fact, became the excuse for Aurangzeb’s conquests where he justified his expansionism in the name of religion, as a campaign against ‘heretic’ kings and so on. Then there was the difference of power. There is no doubt that the Mughals were the stronger party, but they were rulers without much of coastal presence. The Deccan states had a long tradition of international commerce through their seaports and sought the favour and friendship of the Persian Shah, not the Mughals. Though they were smaller states, their investment in trade made them very wealthy and strong. The Deccan was also perhaps unique in the numbers of Africans it attracted into military service, though the northern empires also had some African warriors (Razia Sultan was murdered in Delhi in the thirteenth century partly on account of her affection for a black general). But there were also plenty of parallels—just as the Mughals integrated into local society by absorbing local traditions, marrying Rajput princesses, and so on, the Deccan’s Sultans drew inspiration from Hindu traditions, and wedded themselves to Maratha brides.

Malik Ambar, an African slave who rose up the ranks to attain a prince-like status is another character that stands out in your book. His army, the book notes, had a sizeable share of Marathas and it is Ambar who first introduced guerilla attacks against the slow-moving Moghul army. This was a tactic which was later adopted by Shivaji. Why has this fact been kept out of history text books?

I don’t think it was kept out as a deliberate policy. I think it was simply a case of Shivaji being given so much emphasis that those before him were ignored. The irony is that Shivaji himself had great admiration for Malik Ambar—in the Sivabharata he commissioned in the 1670s, high praise is heaped on the African general. And yes, it was he who, with his Maratha associates (including Shivaji’s grandfather, Maloji) developed guerilla warfare against the Mughals, a strategy Shivaji perfected. As for why Malik Ambar was left out of history, it is the same reason so many other rich, complex characters and fascinating stories find no place in textbooks. We are such a massive country, with such countless diversities, that the authors of 100-page school textbooks perhaps do the convenient thing by reducing history to its bare bones, with a smattering of dates and battles, and an emphasis only on a few personalities. Otherwise they might be overwhelmed. I think in addition to official textbooks that give an overall (albeit limited) picture, schoolchildren should also be given access every year to a specific book that goes into a specific subject in all its complexity, so that they realise that history is not merely a sequence of dates and events, but also the tale of human beings like us, who in different times negotiated similar situations, and helped create the world that all of us have inherited, with its flaws as well as strengths.

Do you think the way history is written in India must change to make it more engaging and reader-friendly?

Yes. There is some astonishingly good work emerging in academia year after year. Unfortunately, these remain limited to the seminar circuit and academic circles. What we need is writers who can bridge the world of the reader with the world of the scholar. In other words, stay true to research that is of a high standard but explain the results in an engaging, accessible style, so that the reader is not so much observing an alien past but melting into the period and visualizing that universe. There is definitely an appetite for this. When I wrote The Ivory Throne, I was an unheard-of 25-year-old who had out of the blue produced a 700-pager on a little-known kingdom, with a forgotten protagonist. I know that some in my publisher’s team had reservations about saleability etc. But the book not only won critical acclaim and awards, but also did exceedingly well commercially—thanks to my editor VK Karthika’s faith in its potential. Which means, there were people who were interested in picking up a book by a nobody, in making the effort to read 700 pages, and to enjoy the story it contained for the sake of it. Readership for narrative history is only growing. William Dalrymple set it off in a big way in the last decade, and as I read his books growing up, I realized that this was an excellent way of telling history, so that the appeal of the subject multiplies.

Some of the narratives that emerge from your book makes for compelling cinema and can inspire works of fiction. Do you see that happen like it has with the Moghuls?

I hope so! The characters could easily fit into a drama series, or a film, and certainly a number of works of historical fiction. Whether it is Chand Bibi and her mother Khunza Humayun, whether it is those brave Maratha women who blocked the path of Alauddin Khilji when he first invaded the Deccan, whether it is Ibrahim II of Bijapur, or even someone like Ramaraya of Vijayanagar, in whose time that city was destroyed, there is plenty of material that can be developed in various forms.

Finally, what will be your next book or project?

I am somewhat superstitious and have formed a habit of talking about a project only after it is finished. So, I’ll answer this question in 2020, if all goes well!

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