The title of Manu S. Pillai's latest book ‘The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin’ (2019) so much intrigued me that I placed orders for a copy without really knowing what it was all about. It has however turned out to be an eclectic collection of some astonishing nuggets of Indian history.
The extraordinary narrative style of the author brings the characters and episodes from history very much alive to the reader. The contents of the book have been sourced by Pillai from primary archival material, as also from secondary sources, chiefly books.
Most of the essays though have appeared before in the weekly magazine Mint Lounge, where the young author has for long been a widely-read columnist. The stories presented in the book do justice to its enigmatic title. There are fascinating tales about not one but six courtesans who impacted the course of history in some way or the other.
The most famous story relates to Begum Samru, a ravishingly beautiful dancing girl of Delhi, who spent her youth by the side of her German mercenary paramour Walter Reinhardt, inherited his jagir of Sardhana near Meerut, ruled the principality with aplomb, scandalously converted to Catholicism, and later joined a Frenchman in a doomed marriage.
There's also the story of the founding romance of the city of Hyderabad. Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, the ruler of Golconda, was so enamoured by the exceptional beauty of Bhagmati, a whore, which having married her he decided to name his new urban project Bhagnagar. Later, when Bhagmati was styled Hyder Mahal, the city became Hyderabad. There's then the story of Muddupalani, a courtesan in the court of Pratapsimha (1739-63) of Thanjavur, who declared modesty as a shroud for the timid and composed a whole epic in Telugu bursting with eroticism.
At the turn of the 20th century, the brahminical elite of Kerala was scandalized by a rebellious Namboothiri woman named Savitri who challenged male sexual entitlement by sleeping with sixty-six men other than her own. She was excommunicated alright, but with her she took sixty-six men, their reputations, and their patriarchal pride.
These were women who refused to conform with oppressive practices of their times and bravely challenged the status quo. The author highlights in the book the contribution of these unsung female participants in Indian history.
And, while depicting heroines among the unchaste, he also portrays the lives of the saintly Meerabai, the sagacious Jodhabai, the valorous Manikarnika, and the iconoclast Annie Besant, among many others.The Mahatma of the book's title is quite possibly Jyotiba Phule who, along with his wife Savitribai, had promoted radical reform in orthodox Pune by establishing schools for girls and untouchables.
Phule lambasted brahminical orthodoxy and when the Brahmins claimed that they were high because they were born from Brahma's mouth, he promptly enquired if the creator also menstrurated from that area ! Well before the more famous Mahatma went to meet the King of England in loincloth, Jyotiba Phule had horrified his interlocutors in London by arriving to dine with Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught, clothed in peasant's attire and adorning a torn shawl.
The book is chock-a-block with quirky tales underlining human eccentricities. It begins with the story of the Italian Roberto de Nobili, who came to be known as the 'Italian Brahmin'. The Jesuit de Nobili, who was tasked with conversions in Madurai, himself converted into a Hindu with a desire to make the gospel more attractive to the common people.
This fascinating social experiment saw the man discarding his Jesuit's cassock for the saffron robe of the Sanyasi and by the time he died, de Nobili's flock numbered well over four thousand Hindu converts, mainly Brahmins.
The book will prove to be standalone for sure when the bizzare and the wacky of Indian history is taken into account.
There're intriguing stories of the Ezhava woman with no breasts to the Madurai goddess with three; of the Maratha prince Shahuji Bhonsle who parodied caste by organising hugely entertaining dramas; and of the wealthy tawaif who sang for the gramophone.The endearing eccentricities of Jahangir, Dara Shukoh and Wajid Ali Shah have been described most delightfully, besides.
Aside from the retelling of these intriguing stories, Pillai also indulges in some scholarly speculations. ‘What if Vijayanagara had survived?’ examines the possibilities of a more balanced power equation in India with the Mughals in the North and the Rayas in the South. ‘What if there was no British Raj?’ imagines a more diverse India without Victorian moralities.
And, ‘What if the Mahatma had Lived?’ ponders whether anyone would have paid heed to its greatest leader and his ideals in the Nehruvian-Socialist scheme of things, and whether Gandhi would have been sidelined along some variant of the present-day Margdarshak Mandal??
Pillai writes in impeccable prose that indeed makes for an exhilarating read. My ten on ten for this exquisite book !
(The review has been done by Ajay K Singh, who is a Joint Secretary rank Officer in the Government of Jharkhand. Singh is a bibliophile having a voracious appetite for reading)