Anthology Reviews

‘The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin’ review: Look back in wonder

It is an exciting time for popular writing on Indian history in English; there are more books being published than ever on the subject. One of the young flag bearers of this is Manu Pillai. His new book — The Courtesan, The Mahatma and The Italian Brahmin — as the title indicates, is an eclectic collection of essays on interesting episodes from Indian history. Most of these essays have appeared before in a shorter form in Pillai’s popular weekly column in Mint Lounge and other dailies such as The Hindu and the Hindustan Times. The book is divided into three parts: Before the Raj, Stories from the Raj and Afterword.

The non-conformists

The first part of the book features protagonists who refused to conform with oppressive practices of their times and challenged the status quo. The book begins with the fascinating story of Roberto de Nobili who declares ‘I will become a Hindu to save Hindus’ in a quest to achieve his missionary goal of converting Brahmins and is followed up with the story of the mischievous Maratha king of Thanjavur who wrote a satirical play featuring a Brahmin priest and a lower caste woman challenging upper caste beliefs. These two essays create a great curiosity and set the stage for an intriguing ride through Indian history.

There are also essays featuring the stories of Bhakti saints which highlight the pioneering nature of their work while pointing out the contradictions in their armoury such as the anti-women couplets of Kabir, the upper caste privilege of Basava which possibly allowed him to be a contrarian and the submissive nature of Chokhamela’s devotion. A few essays also examine how historical events have grown into local legends which (possibly) have led to the misinterpretation of the actual event such as the stories of Nangeli and the naming of Hyderabad.

The first part also features some extraordinary women such as the fearless courtesan Muddupalani, Akbar’s wife and a warrior Jodhabai, the all-conquering Madurai Meenakshi, and the brave Begum Khunza Humayun in addition to the intimate portraits of Jahangir, Ibrahim Adil Shah II and Alauddin Khilji. These portraits could have been more interesting if they had focused on an even lesser known aspect of these Sultans, for instance, the patronage of Amir Khusrau’s poetry in Alauddin Khilji’s court could have introduced a completely new facet of the man to an audience whose recent memory of him is formed by the uncharitable portrayal in a Hindi movie.

The essay on the syncretic history of the Mappilas of Malabar with their own Ramayana ‘featuring Ravana as a sultan; Surpanakha’s proposition to Rama in this version seeks sanction from the Sharia’ and the story of the Tulukka Nachiyar (Tughlaq Princess) who falls in love with a Hindu god and is ‘commemorated in Srirangam in a painting on the wall’ provide a great glimpse of the multicultural history of South India. Interestingly, the essay on Tulukka Nachiyar also discusses at length how fabrication of such myths has helped ‘politics navigate the awkward corners in which its protagonists land themselves.’

Throughout the book, as the author writes in the introduction, there is an attempt to contemporise the past, and to emphasise on India’s diversity. This works for the most part except in the essays on Shivaji, and Sultans and Padshahs where Pillai seems to try too hard to make the point about the multicultural nature of the times, and hence, repetition creeps in.

Lesser-known characters

The essays in the second part are more well-rounded and introduce us to some of the lesser known characters from Colonial India such as the Indophile William ‘Asiatic’ Jones, the modern Hindi pioneer Harishchandra, the determined queen Malika Kishwar, the brave Savitri who challenged the male sexual entitlement in the Namboothiri clan, the enterprising Chidambaram Pillai from Tuticorin, Janaki the wife of Ramanujan, irrigation champion Sir Arthur Cotton and Naga rebel leader Angami Zapu Phuzo. The essay on Malika Kishwar is particularly enjoyable with the writer weaving in the story of his travels to Paris to find her grave in a famous cemetery.

The portrait of the eccentric Wajid Ali Shah reveals hilarious details such as his attempts to divorce the remaining 27 wives (after divorcing 50 earlier) in one go, much to the chagrin of the British whose efforts to stop him forced the Nawab to respond, ‘But the women are old and ugly!’ and when asked who should take care of them, quick came his reply ‘The Government’. The bloody account of the rebellion and its aftermath in 19th century Vellore and the story of the attempted demolition of a temple in Ayodha bring to the fore two lesser known episodes in Indian history, the first of which, Pillai says, had the potential to be the first war of Independence if not for the silly mistakes committed by the rebels and the second one should have been a lesson to the state on how to quell attempts by extremists (irrespective of religion) to damage any religious structure.

The two essays featuring Savarkar help us understand his politics and its manifestation in the current times much better. Apart from these intriguing stories, Pillai also indulges in some speculation: ‘What if Vijayanagara had survived?’ explores the possibility of a more balanced power equation with Mughals in the North and Rayas in the South, ‘What if there was no British Raj?’ dreams of a more diverse India sans Victorian moralities, and ‘What if the Mahatma had Lived?’ questions if anyone would have paid heed to Gandhi and his ideals of village life, religiosity and non-violence in post-independence India.

‘Unity in diversity’

Part three’s ‘An Essay For Our Times’ is a detailed meditation on nationalism where Pillai pits the two prominent ideas: our founding fathers’ ‘unity in diversity’ and the Hindu Mahasabha’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ against each other, and after making convincing arguments declares: ‘To re-engineer this mature, long-standing policy in black and white today will only prove calamitous, showing that far from making India great again, what one will end up doing is breaking India.’

For the most part, Pillai’s prose is crisp, fluid and makes for an entertaining read. Priya Kurian’s wonderfully detailed charcoal sketches allow you to pause and ponder while you digest the thrilling stories in every essay. Pillai’s research mainly refers to secondary sources in English of accomplished academic scholars and hence might be construed as limited especially when he writes on folklore and legends. Having said that, the essays are crafted cleverly and leave the reader with enough questions which hopefully will make him/her pursue further reading (the bibliography at the end of the book will help).

The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin; Manu S. Pillai, Context/Westland, ₹599.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2021 10:21:41 AM |

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