When someone as well-read and erudite as Dr Shashi Tharoor has a freewheeling conversation with a history writer famously being touted as India’s William Dalrymple, the evening is anything but lacklustre. On Thursday, critically acclaimed author Manu S Pillai released his third book, The Courtesan, The Mahatma and The Italian Brahmin, in Delhi, amidst some thought-provoking talk, crisp wit and humour by the ever so charming Tharoor.
The book, with incisively nuanced writings from the lives of well-known, historically instrumental figures, carves out a path that gives a glimpse into a realm of victories and foibles that is India’s history.
As the evening progressed at the Indian Habitat Centre, Tharoor who confessed to being a fanboy of writings of “India’s Willie” (he endearing addresses Dalrymple as), indulged in a riveting discussion on the short stories in the book, the characters, India’s history and the brewing nationalism. Dr Tharoor weaved in the political state of the country as he heaped praise on Pillai for being an heir to the history he writes.
He said, “History today is a contested territory in our country right now. All of us are heirs to history and Manu beautifully reminds us that through his books. A great problem with history is when you approach it with what you want it to say. It is okay for an argument but not for a narrative. We should approach history with a sense of openness.”
Pillai, meanwhile, floored the audience when he attributed his desire to become a history writer to his grandmother. Recalling his childhood days rather adoringly, he said his grandma used to narrate family gossip that had scandalous tones of extra marital affairs, illegitimate children and multiple marriages. Pillai said that these discussions taught him that “our elders were humans just like us.
They had affairs, they had sex and they lived absolutely normal lives like us. Through my books, I want to bust the idea that culture is something that needs to be boxed and placed on a pristine, exalted pedestal. It is always breathing through people and their quirks.”
Extending the exchange of banter between the two, the moderator Devapriya Roy initiated a rapid fire round ala Koffee With Karan that ensued much wit and charm from Dr Tharoor and Pillai. Asked on who he would choose as the best historical character for Twitter, Dr Tharoor, prompted mentioned Mahatma Gandhi. “Gandhiji would have been the best because he delivered himself with perfect wisdom in less than 140 characters.
‘Work is Worship’ for example or ‘My Life is My Message’. I often wonder why someone didn’t set up his account as Mahatma Gandhi and start tweeting one of his lines,” he humoured the audience. “Those were the days when twitter allowed only 140 characters. Now that it’s increased to 280, the challenge is much less but you could keep this going for few years with the amount of knowledge he had to impart. That’s how effective he was with the one liners,” he laughed.