Published: 10th October 2017
Keep stretching yourself: What Sahitya Akademi Award-winner Manu Pillai learnt from his years working with Shashi Tharoor
As the winner of the 2017 Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar award, an author and as someone who served as the Chief of Staff to Dr Shashi Tharoor, Pillai sure wears many hats
As a little boy, Manu S Pillai looked forward to his yearly trips to Kerala with his family. The ancestral house where his extended family lived had so many hidden tales that intrigued his young mind. The ancient trees, groves, a ruined temple in the backyard and serpents had much to tell him and he was all ears. As the years passed, along with Manu, his thirst to know more stories also grew. It then resulted in a six-year-long research stint, after which he penned The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore, a book on Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the last queen of the Kingdom of Travancore. Incidentally, Manu’s debut novel also made him the winner of the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar award this year.
Fiction? Nope: Manu has no plans to write fiction as of now because it needs a different frame of mind
"Every rock and every pond around our ancestral house had a story somebody remembered about it. As I grew older, these tales were linked to the local way of life — to farming communities around us, various castes and groups, grand festivals, grandmothers who tamed elephants, great-uncles who landed into awkward romances, and so on. Eventually, what started as an interest in my family’s colourful history soon turned into an interest in the past of the region itself — political and social — and I found that there is so much Kerala has to tell. And finally, to bring it all together, I came across the story of the last Maharani of Travancore, and that was when I decided to write about her," says the author, who also served as Chief of Staff to Dr Shashi Tharoor, MP.
The men and women who made our history are tremendous sources of insight into human behaviour. Given the unfortunate context of our times, we also need to remind ourselves of other realities, which, in this charged din we hear, we might otherwise forget
Manu S Pillai, Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar awardee
For Manu, 'remarkable' is the perfect adjective to describe the queen. He goes on to explain why. "Kerala’s literacy rates owe much to her policy of dedicating a fifth of her revenues to education. When she came to power in the 1920s, there were no women in government service and in a matter of four years, she had brought on board hundreds of women as clerks, secretaries, and even as head of her medical department. She opened up higher education to women as she did the legal profession in her state. She refused to play communal politics and gave low-caste groups and Christians as much importance in policymaking as she did the old feudal Nair community." Despite all this, she was neglected as a queen, forgotten as an administrator, and died in obscurity in the 1980s, before the author was born, far away from the kingdom.
Even though he'd spent a good part of his time gathering details for the book, the news of the Sahitya Akademi award came as quite a shock. "I was getting into a cab to go watch Wonder Womanat the theatre when I heard the news. It was very pleasing, and I was with friends who were more thrilled than I was at that time. The award is a great honour, and looking at the list of previous recipients, I am delighted to be in such admirable company," he says humbly.
I am fairly detached as a matter of fact, so when something goes well, I am not ecstatic, and if things look a little unhappy, I am perfectly able to temper my feelings. That, I have learnt, helps insulate oneself from pressure and expectations
Manu S Pillai, author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore
Getting candid about working with Dr Tharoor, Manu says that the former taught him that "one can really achieve a great deal more if one is prepared to stretch to one’s limits, and simply work very, very hard." He adds, “He gave me my first ever job at the age of 21 and suddenly I was running a parliamentary office — giving speeches, questions for the Lok Sabha on matters of national policy, dealing with the press, with ministries and embassies, and so on. As an individual, he is exceedingly hard working and there is not a moment he wastes.”
Tweet to him at @UnamPillai