Tête-à-tête with Manu Pillai, author of “The Ivory Throne”
Words by Vaibhav Photographs by Various Sources
For many of us ‘history’ is a subject in school and what we would read and learn in academic books and classroom sessions. But Travancore as revealed by 25-yearold Manu S Pillai tells an intriguing story. This young writer’s debut book ‘The Ivory Throne’ portrays the former royal state through the life story of the last queen of erstwhile Travancore state – Sethu Lakshmi Bayi. Also known as Senior Maharani, she ruled Travancore as a regent for seven years from 1924, and the feud between her ambitious sister and herself is the heart of Pillai’s book. The life of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi is also the story of a progressive matrilineal system, which is unique about the state.
What was the inspiration behind ‘The Ivory Throne’?
The phenomenal story of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi. She was installed as Maharani of Travancore at the age of five, fought political battles at court in her teens, ruled over millions with exemplary ability in her thirties, lost power before forty, and in her fifties and sixties, after Independence, renounced her titles and departed from Kerala. She died in Bangalore in obscurity. The arc of her life was absolutely gripping, especially since she lived in a thrilling world of power, politics, wealth, palace intrigues and more. There was glamour and greatness, as well as tragedy and sacrifice. I wanted to tell the story of Kerala. And in the rise and fall of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, I found the perfect platform to wed history to the journey of a remarkable human being whose tale had not been yet told.
How did you prepare, and how were you able to achieve this feat?
It took me six years and research in three continents; in archives and libraries in the US, England, as well as here in India. I also interviewed members of the Maharani’s family and had access to all her personal papers. During this time I also finished my education in London, worked in Delhi with Shashi Tharoor, returned to England to work at the House of Lords, and with the BBC. Typically, my day-job ended before dinner, and after a quick bite, I would stay up till 3AM working on my writing. While I now have the satisfaction of a very well-received and commercially successful first book, I must confess it demolished my social life! I am a very outgoing person and I was 19 when I started writing, so it took a great deal of inner determination to keep at it despite other inviting distractions. But that’s the thing—when a story grips you, it assumes a life of its own and everything else is surrendered to that story.
What was your biggest challenge in writing this book?
Kerala is a really fascinating historical landscape and yet there have been no books written in an accessible, engaging style. Academic historians sometimes tend to dry out even the most engrossing facets of our past. My intention from the start was to ensure that while my research was solid, the narrative would not read like a textbook. So, through four drafts, I made the story as sharp as I could, and peppered it with legend and folklore, humour and detail, and packed in some really memorable characters— warrior queens, scheming Englishmen, mercenaries, adventurers, invaders and so on. India in general has such tremendous stories, and I’d like to make these stories accessible to a wider audience. Methods of research have to be rigorous, but style makes all the difference in capturing the attention of the reader.
What drew you to the relationship between Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and Sethu Parvathi Bayi?
I am fascinated by the construction of power, and how people respond to power. In Travancore, these sisters grew up together and actually complemented one another’s personalities. For instance, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi was a regal establishment figure who opened doors to women in public life through government policy; Sethu Parvathi Bayi was a rebel who championed birth control and other radical causes. Both women were extraordinary but in different styles. Together they could have achieved even greater things than they did, but a contest for power, then as today, drove a wedge between them. And in the end one of the sisters ‘lost’ and the other ‘won’. Of course human beings are vastly more complex and I am reducing the story here to a basic plot, but this underlying tension between two sisters who were catapulted into authority, which then destroyed their personal bond, was of great interest to me.
What’s the most touching episode in this historical revisit?
I think when Sethu Lakshmi Bayi leaves her palace in 1957. She was raised to be a queen, but in the end she gave it all up, and after praying at the gates of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, she never, ever came back to the land she once ruled. For the last 25 years of her life she lived as a recluse in Bangalore, and when she died, she had little to call her own. The woman whom millions once revered, who received gun salutes and interacted with Gandhi and Tagore, and most importantly, who served her people with dedication, died as a ‘nobody’ and was cremated in a public crematorium surrounded only by immediate relations. There was, I thought, great tragedy and injustice in that.
What is your next project?
[Laughs] I lost the entire first half of my twenties to writing this book. It is now in its third print after it was released in December, but I am enjoying my break. I write for newspapers and magazines, but I have no intention of starting my next project till late next summer. I know exactly what I want to do but prefer not talking about it yet. For the time being, however, I am enjoying being out in the sun and back to having a social life with merry people for company, rather than parking myself in archives and libraries continents away!