History is multifaceted and always presents a fascinating and complex universe of the time it records.
By Bidita Sen
To sum up in a sentence, The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin is a rich store of historical anecdotes strung together to make for an absorbing read. Manu S Pillai has selected his characters from the various layers of India’s past, bringing to life appealing and unconventional historical figures.
History is multifaceted and always presents a fascinating and complex universe of the time it records. Pillai uses masterful expressions to help tedious facts shed their monotony of detail. Nationalism, politics, religion and shrewd and skewed power struggles see dramatic representations in the book. Courtesans, rulers, soldiers, kings, begums and even saints — none are free from vileness. The strongest of profiles in history, who otherwise are known to inhabit moral high grounds, have been shown to consign virtue to oblivion at the slightest affliction of self-interest. The schemers are uncovered in the most righteous of characters, their narrow designs and interests exposed with utmost crudity.
Simultaneously, Pillai is overtly sympathetic to characters who defied established norms. He takes great care in delineating characters like poet-saint Kabir. In case of Jodhabai, he tags an adage to the title Jodhabai, “More Than Akbar’s Wife”. Jodhabai, says Pillai, relying on the research of scholar Ellison B Findly, “was one of the four seniormost figures at the court and the only woman to hold a military rank of 12,000 cavalry, entitling her to the right to issue firmans of her own…” The matriarch wielded considerable power, unlike her popular image of the submissive, devout Hindu wife of emperor Akbar. She was also the owner of Rahimi, touted to be the largest Indian vessel in the Red Sea those days.
Through the story of courtesan Muddupalani, a Telugu poet of the 18th century, Pillai again reinforces that history has always cloaked women in the dust of obscurity. Narratives of historically important women have always met with omission to the extent that even in the 19th century, those who actually appreciated Muddupalani’s Raadhika Saanthvanam, did so only to assume that those lines came from the poetic genius of a man named Muddu Pillai. The author writes of the foibles and hypocrisies of the great past by dedicating an essay on the parody of the caste system. For instance, a king falls head over heels in love with a woman who turns out to be an ‘untouchable’.
Plucking the most quirky episodes from the lives of significantly instrumental figures of history, Pillai’s writing encompasses a wide spectrum of time and phase to include Queen Victoria, Wajid Ali Shah, Meerabai and even Mahatma Gandhi. Pillai’s narrative subtlety and refinement make the well-documented fragments complete in themselves. But the essays never stop short of piquing readers’ interest to know more about the overt frivolities of those who are widely read about. The book highlights the importance of an age-old principal: context. Pillai has tried to establish the context in which the events have occurred and has iterated the need to understand it for a complete perception of time.
The avarice for power unites men across time. Rulers exerted power to wield their might over the masses even at the expense of violence, that too publicly. Tipu Sultan serves well as an example of this. He fought the British, if that makes him a patriot, he desecrated temples in the lands he conquered – that which makes him a tyrant at the same time. Principles and morality had little influence on the rationale of these kings, writes Pillai. The book is divided into three broad sections — Part One: Before The Raj, Part Two: Stories From The Raj and Part
Three: Afterword. An interesting takeaway from the first part is The Tale of Two Shakuntalas. Readers encounter exquisite information where Goethe encounters Shakuntala. The German philosopher had a lifelong passion for Kalidas’s epic heroine. Pillai writes, “ …the play encapsulates a moment when the powerful woman of the epic makes way for a new ideal — an ideal that was embraced by Western audiences in Goethe’s day…”
The sketch on the introduction of the railways from the second part of the book is a vital piece of information. The What If part in the second half is a bit far-fetched to imagine and react to.
His speculative essay on, if Gandhi had lived till the age of 125, how would he have reacted to Babri Masjid and the Emergency plays on your imagination but becomes a bit tiresome. It only leads to wishful hypothesis and not any concrete interpretation.
But, this doesn’t undermine the importance of the passages dedicated to the contrast between Gandhi and Nehru or Gandhi and Periyar — truly absorbing and appealing to the analytical recesses of the brain. What If The Mahatma Had Lived? finds a strained parallel in a recent piece by author Ramchandra Guha on the unilateral abrogation of Article 370. He has stated that had Gandhi been alive, he would have been horrified that the government had ignored the wishes of the people of Kashmir while scrapping the very provision that had linked this unique state with the mainland.