Title: The Ivory Throne
Author: Manu S Pillai
Publisher: HarperCollins India, 2015
History can be more fascinating and gripping than literary fiction. It depends on who writes it. The most boring discourses I have read are in history books written by academic historians. So when I come across good history books, I am excited. Manu S Pillai’s history of Travancore in the first half of the 20th century is an exquisite work of literature insofar as it blends history with incisive portrayal of certain characters that matter.
Queen Sethu Lakshmi Bayi who reigned from 1924 to 1931 is the heroine of this book, so to say. She towers above everybody else though her period of reign was brief and she was only a Regent Queen. The king who succeeded her was not her son. Maharaja Chithira Tirunal (r. 1931-1949) was her cousin’s son. Her cousin, Sethu Parvathi Bayi, was quite a character, a stark contrast to the Queen. The two ladies come alive in this history book as they would in a gripping novel.
Manu S Pillai’s way of narrating history is what makes this book unique. In each chapter (and there are 20 0f them), he goes back to the historical background to give the reader the required historical sense. For example, in chapter 10 where Queen Sethu Lakshmi revolutionises the status of women in society, we are first given all the necessary information about the prevailing oppressive or regressive practices such as the devadasis, the matrilineal system, and lack of female education.
Queen Sethu Lakshmi was an ideal ruler. She ensured prosperity for all the people in her kingdom. She was a queen with so much difference from the ordinary rulers of the time that even Mahatma Gandhi, who visited her in connection with the issue of the Vaikom temple entry, appreciated her simplicity. “Instead of being ushered into the presence of an over-decorated woman, sporting diamond pendants and necklaces,” Gandhi wrote, “I found myself in the presence of a modest young woman who relied not upon jewels or gaudy dress for beauty but on her own naturally well-formed features and exactness of manners.” Gandhi was impressed by the intellect of this simple queen.
The queen had to face many problems, however, especially from her own cousin who was eager to put her son on the throne and ease Sethu Lakshmi out of all powers. This is history with its usual intrigues and conspiracies and even black magic. This book reads quite like a suspense thriller in many places. But it is, at the same time, a well-researched book written by an erudite person. If you want to know in great detail about the kingdom of Travancore which later became an integral part of the state of Kerala, this is just the book.
The book doesn’t stop with Sethu Lakshmi’s loss of ‘the Ivory Throne’. It gives us an elaborate view of what happened to the lady after that. We get to know her children and grandchildren. We see how the successive generations strip themselves of royalty smoothly and gracefully. As we approach the end of the century, even the orthodox practices such as the royals marrying only within their royal clans give way to modernity and Sethu Lakshmi accepts the changes gracefully.
By the time Sethu Lakshmi comes to the end of her life in 1985, she is just another ordinary woman. There is no touch of royalty about her except in her personal manners. In Manu S Pillai’s words, “the Ivory Throne that had provoked a generation of quarrels now belonged in a sparsely visited museum.”
This history has much to teach us, much beyond the stories of some rulers, about life in general, about the nature of power, about the futility of power struggles… I loved reading this book.
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