“The Courtesan, The Mahatma, And The Italian Brahmin” is an anthology of edited essays on Indian history written by Manu Pillai that first appeared as part of a regular column in an Indian newspaper. These essays provide a much-needed perspective on characters and events from Indian history that are often overlooked by history-textbooks in schools and popular books on history. I found most of these essays to be both entertaining and insightful and I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in knowing more about India’s past.
The book divides the essays into two broad parts based on the corresponding time-periods: stories from before the British Raj in India and stories from the time of the British Raj. Many of these essays relate to Southern India in general and the state of Kerala in particular, which is a welcome shift in focus from the usual books on Indian history. As a fellow Malayalee, I found the essays on Kerala fascinating as I was not at all aware of most of these aspects of its history.
The essays in this book are written in an informal, non-patronizing language that I really appreciated. There is a bibliography towards the end of the book that provides more references for serious students of history (or folks who become curious to know more about a topic or person after reading about it here). I believe that the author has struck the right balance here and I wish more books on history were written like this.
The essays are short and self-contained, which makes it easy to read this book in small sittings without the fear of losing context. (I ended up reading this book over the course of the entire weird year that was 2020.) Most of the essays are about individuals, with some being hypothetical “What If?” speculations. I really enjoyed the ones on largely unknown, but quite unusual characters from our history. For example, the very first essay is about Roberto de Nobili, an Italian Jesuit missionary who ends up adopting Indian languages and its customs.
I first heard about this book via the gripping Episode #127 of The Seen And The Unseen podcast. I would highly recommend that you listen to this episode as a complement to reading this excellent book. As an aside, all episodes of that podcast featuring the author of this book were excellent and quite gripping throughout, despite their lengths. I look forward to reading other books by the same author (who is quite prolific at such a young age).