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The game of the Ivory Throne

Uttaran Das Gupta 

The tragic death of Rohith Vemula has yet again acutely arrested the focus of the nation on the ubiquitous issue of caste. Not a day passes when we do not hear of another Dalit being killed, or denied basic human rights such as water from a communal well, or the use of the public road, in some part of the country or the other. The fight against it, which seems so endless even now, has been going on for at least two centuries, if not longer.

One of the relatively successful battles against casteism was in Kerala, once reportedly described by Swami Vivekananda as "a lunatic asylum". A rather elaborate description of what is now known as the Vaikom Satyagraha can be found in Manu Pillai's debut book. Though it is one of the many "chronicles" of the royal house of Travancore that the BBC journalist narrates in his debut non-fiction book, the history of the movement makes it peculiarly topical and poignant.

Describing the mind-boggling rituals around caste, Mr Pillai writes: "...the peasant caste of Pulayas had to keep a distance of 90 feet from the Brahmins and 64 feet from Nairs. ...They had no place in the village councils, no entry to temples, no access to markets, or any other locations of socio-political importance. They were practically invisible non-entities in a deeply hierarchical society."

With the arrival of Western education and the zeitgeist of modern time, one of the "lower" castes, Ezhavas, began demanding more rights, including government jobs and freer access to public spaces. The Congress, committed in the fight against untouchability led by Mahatma Gandhi, gave its support to their struggle, and the focus of the movement became the town of Vaikom, 180 km north of Thiruvananthapuram. Traditionally, the roads to the famous Mahadeva temple were reserved for the higher castes during the Ashtami festival of October-November.

On 30 March 1924, anti-untouchability protesters began demanding the abolition of this reprehensible tradition. With the blessings of Mahatma Gandhi, the satyagraha soon became a thorn for those on the throne of the then princely state of Travancore. It was also the first of the many tribulations that would challenge the last senior rani (queen) - and arguably the heroine of Mr Pillai's book - Sethu Lakshmi Bayi.

As Mr Pillai informs us, at the time of Independence, there were around 600 princely states in India, most of them no more than "postage principalities", mismanaged and often bankrupt, and the hereditary rulers of which were neither capable nor interested in negotiating the tricky terrain of statesmanship. The most amusing, albeit fictional, description of the Indian royalty, or whatever was left of it as the new nation state and democracy overtook them, can be found in Mulk Raj Anand's The Private Life of an Indian Prince (1953).

The state of Travancore was different in two significant ways. First, it was one of the larger states, with an area of nearly 20,000 square kilometres and a population of six million. Its ruler had the right to a 21-gun salute in his dominion. More importantly, it was possibly the only matrilineal state in the subcontinent. So the struggle between its two last matriarchs - Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and her sister Sethu Parvathi Bayi, the junior rani - to gain the upper hand in the affairs of the kingdom is a fascinating subject that Mr Pillai has chosen.

It brings to mind the famous court case of the Bhawal zamindari in east Bengal, where an ash-smeared sanyasi laid claim to the property of the second kumar of the estate in 1921 - 12 years after he had reportedly died. The history of the extraordinary legal case is narrated in Partha Chatterjee's A Princely Imposter? (2002).

Mr Pillai's book is no novel, nor is it a breezy read. A detailed work of history, it quotes extensively from the private letters of the members of the royal household, official documents of both the colonial and post-Independence governments, and an endless number of books listed in the bibliography at the end. At nearly 700 pages, it demands time and interest from readers when writers are routinely told about their eroding attention span. The achievement of the book matches its ambition; the research, admiringly thorough, never trips the narrative.

A researcher for the BBC and having worked on the "Incarnations" history series, Mr Pillai is no stranger to transforming the bare bones of historical notes into narrative gold. His episodic, anecdotal style never lets the story sag through the many digressions, tracing the history of Travancore, through its many rulers over the centuries, the intricate details of its politics and society in the 19th and 20th centuries, the court intrigues and the sweep of history.

Read this book to find out who comes out top in the house of Travancore, but also for the thousands of other, shorter stories that its enormous - and at times unwieldy - frame captures. You will not regret the many hours you commit: It's an absolute delight.


Chronicles of the House of Travancore
Manu S Pillai
694 pages; Rs 699

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First Published: Thu, February 04 2016. 21:31 IST