Hyderabad: In a candid conversation with NewsMeter, young historian Manu S Pillai opens up about several aspects, including parental pressure, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and Hyderabad.
The 30 year old author of ‘The Courtesan, the Mahatma, and the Italian Brahmin’ was in town for the Hyderabad Literary Festival (HLF) 2020.
Q: How did your parents react when you said that you wanted to work on history?
Manu: Parents will forever choose the most secure options for their kids. However, history is not a dead-end. It’s not a subject where there is any dearth of opportunities. On the contrary, it opens up to some of the most exciting career propositions. Like with any career choice, the underlying truth here also is a passion for subject. There are PhD programs. You could teach. Look at the kind of websites that are emerging now. There is this website called ‘Live History India’, because it does bring history alive. They go to the most obscure places and write those wonderful essays and photo features. It is a widely successful website as it documents wonderful places in Indian history. There is so much academic research happening. There’s so much archaeology that people are involved in.
Opportunities are always there, but it is the parents who have to realize that this won’t be a traditional, conventional career path that will provide immediate security in life. It is a very interesting life, though. After all, the world can’t do away with history.
Q: Being in Hyderabad, and after having written a book that deals with Hyderabad’s history, what’s so important about this place?
M: Hyderabad is special because I decided to do my second book ‘Rebel Sultans’ on the Deccan Sultanate.’ I was reading about it, and doing my basic research, but I didn’t think that I would do a book on it. The book idea happened because I was actually at the Golconda tombs. That’s when I was wondering, ‘My God, such spectacular tombs.’ It’s not just Hyderabad. Even Bijapur has wonderful monuments. But they are not on the mainstream tourist map. So, I thought this definitely is an area I want to work on. Whether it is the Nizam history, or the pre-Qutb Shahi history, the Mughal phase in between or the previous dynasties, all the way back to Kakatiyas and so on, you’ve got a rich source of materials, sources, stories and so on here. There are still a lot many stories to be said about the city.
Q: How did you manage to access important documents for your research?
M: It’s not difficult. Most archives are in public domain. You have both national and state archives. In fact, I’m not really sure how they categorise archives but, I feel, that in itself makes for an interesting topic. Usually, you need some academic or university credentials to justify why you need access to archives. Indian archives are often badly managed. The archives abroad are quicker to access. Increasingly with digitization, without even having to go there, you are able to get your material. The National archives in Delhi has an online portal where you can actually make a list of documents you want, pay them the relevant fees, which is not exorbitant, and you get pdfs of the documents you want without even having to go there, because the catalogues are available online. So, the world is becoming faster in that sense, and that makes research also quicker.
Q: In the context of ensuing discussions on Islamophobia and temples being destroyed in the past, how would you, as a historian, approach this question?
M: Tipu Sultan did not destroy every temple he saw. He went after temples of political significance to some enemy of his. For instance, he vowed that he would tie his horse to the flagstaff of the Ananta Padmanabha Swamy temple. This is because that temple is closely connected to the legitimacy of the Travancore Maharaja, who was the Mysore ruler’s enemy.
In northern Kerala, if you go to Irinjalakuda, there is a historical relevance of a prominent Nambudiri family, Sangamagrama Madhava. In that ‘illam’, there is a temple, where there are two ‘dwarapalakas’ (guardians), whose arms have been chopped off by the Tipu Sultan, because I believe that this family fled without paying homage to the Sultan.
Incidentally, I met Jaya Jaitley recently. She is the granddaughter of the last raja of Kollangod in Palakkad. She was telling me that Tipu Sultan made a donation to that temple. So, in the same region, Tipu Sultan’s policies depended upon how people responded to him. That’s how conquerors work. If you had surrendered, he wouldn’t have destroyed anything. But if he defeated you, he would plant his own flag there and remove whatever was there earlier.
This is not a Hindu-Muslim thing. This was always the case with kings in general. You have instances of Vijayanagara emperors going to territories of Deccan Sultans and destroying mosques, only a select few of them. Only mosques built by those enemy sultans, or mosques that are key to the legitimacy of the opponents. So, it is usually politics and religion supplying confrontations and agendas. It serves its purpose. But I don’t think religion itself motivates war. It was the other way round. War justified itself through religion.
Q: What is your opinion about CAA and NRC?
M: I think it’s completely unnecessary. You don’t need to light new flames in this country at this juncture. To me, it seems like a political exercise. It’s neither about refugees nor about illegal immigrants. That’s just an official reason. A minister had said, “aap chronology samjhiye’, and he himself had explained the chronology, and that’s sad because we’ve got so many other battles to fight. To divert our energy and resources into this is a hopelessly unnecessary. Let sleeping dogs lie, why do you want to create new battles in a country that has not gotten over scars of the earlier battles. It is a completely unnecessary provocation.