Review: The Ivory Throne

This was first published in Mint Lounge. With thanks to Sumana Mukherjee and Shashi Tharoor, whose tweet and retweet respectively persuaded so many to read the review. I hope the review convinces the readers to buy The Ivory Throne too.

There are some stories, which despite being factual, could begin with “Once upon a time”. Manu S. Pillai’s meticulously researched account of the royal family of Travancore is one of them. There is a good maharani and a bad one, a prince who is also a pawn, a scheming minister, black magic, magnificent palaces, love at first sight, hidden treasure, a mysterious curse. The tales that filigree The Ivory Throne are full of drama and intrigue, but Pillai gives scandal respectability by packing his book with research.

Pillai spent years scouring archives, newspapers and journals and conducting interviews, as evidenced by the 105 pages of notes and nine-page bibliography. From the complicated workings of Kerala’s pre-colonial matrilineal system to the daily rituals of Travancore’s princesses and the growth of the coir industry, the wealth of information crammed into this book is bewildering. If Mastermind did a special episode on Travancore, all you would have to read to max it is The Ivory Throne.

Pillai’s book spans five generations and more than three centuries. He takes us back to the blood-spattered rise of Martanda Varma, who, in order to revive the dilapidated glory of the Kupaka dynasty, cheerfully slaughtered his own family and 42 noble houses of Travancore. While none of his successors were quite as flamboyantly violent, every generation faced its share of intrigue. Pillai provides a comprehensive overview of this history. In the process of managing all the strands, he sometimes struggles with his focus, which is on two duelling sisters whose contest played a critical part in how the kingdom of Travancore transformed into Kerala.

Pillai’s heroine is Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, granddaughter of the legendary artist Raja Ravi Varma. Technically speaking, even though she ruled from 1924-31, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi was only a regent, never the queen of Travancore. Yet, as Pillai makes amply clear in more than 500 pages, this senior maharani was the original queen of hearts. Dignified, reserved, resilient and capable, she handled everything that her family, the British government and the universe threw in her direction with grace. Pillai’s praise for Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, whether as a child or a ruler or a retired royal, is lavish. His commitment to establishing her goodness is so complete that you can feel how grudgingly he points out the less palatable aspects of her character, like the way she held on to caste distinctions until her very last years.

Although Pillai stresses upon Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s simplicity, she and her husband, Rama Varma, lived a life of royal privilege. Some of us have fixed deposits; Rama Varma had “cabinets full of jars of gems, arranged by type and colour; pink diamonds in one, blue diamonds in the next, rubies in the third and so on”. Of course, this didn’t cocoon them from disappointment and misfortune, not the least of which was the fact that the excellent work Sethu Lakshmi Bayi did remained largely unrecognized. The Ivory Throne redresses that issue.

Pillai’s research suggests that Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s arch-nemesis was her cousin, the junior maharani, Sethu Parvathi Bayi, whose son would inherit the throne after Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s regency. Bold, unafraid of flouting convention and tenacious, the junior maharani is quickly established as the black to Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s white. The set-up feels a little Disney-esque and at times lacks the sensitivity that Pillai exhibits elsewhere. There is very good reason for the lack of nuance: The family of the junior maharani didn’t talk to Pillai because it was convinced this book would “blacken” her reputation.

Pillai writes in his author’s note that he’s committed to objectivity, and of this there can be no doubt. He presents historical documents in The Ivory Throne striving to keep personal opinion out of the narrative. However, it’s also true that for almost every misfortune that befalls Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the historian narrator’s finger points at the junior maharani. We’re reminded that the junior maharani is jealous, scheming, and has none of her cousin’s grace. Pillai hints at tantalizing details about Sethu Parvathi Bayi, like her espousal of feminism and opposition to the caste system. However, possibly because there was no one to help him flesh out her character, most of the junior maharani’s appearances are through descriptions by people who evidently disliked her.

One of the particularly interesting transitions Pillai writes about is how the British pushed matriliny out and replaced it with Victorian patriarchy. The ideal woman became one who obeyed, rather than one who commanded. The feminine character was generalized as incapable, weak-willed, yet dangerous in its ability to seduce men. Pillai notes that this blinkered perspective proved fatal for a number of accomplished Indian women of that era, but considering how he casts Sethu Parvathi Bayi in The Ivory Throne, one can’t help but wonder if he isn’t guilty of the same problem.

On the one hand, we’re told Sethu Parvathi Bayi was dominated and brainwashed by her cantankerous mother. On the other, she is supposed to have been strong-willed and headstrong even as a child. Pillai either didn’t notice or chose not to explore this contradiction; and this continues into her adult exploits.

Letters (mostly written by British officials) are quoted in which the writers insist Sethu Parvathi Bayi made the maharaja (her son and Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s successor) and the dewan of Travancore take terrible, unpopular decisions. The accusations are vague because by virtue of her having no actual authority, it was probably impossible to prove her interference. Yet she is the real villain of the piece, we’re told. Even the dewan, who was so hated that there was an uprising against him in 1946 that led to the massacre of more than 1,000 people, apparently acted under the junior maharani’s direction.

Similarly, the maharaja’s weaknesses and vanities are attributed to him being under his mother’s thumb. It doesn’t strike either Pillai or his sources that if these two men were indeed as intelligent as they’re supposed to have been when not in the junior maharani’s presence, then surely they should have been able to act independently? Sethu Parvathi Bayi neither had any say nor did she find favour with the colonial British. So why would the maharaja and the dewan (who had the reputation of being one of the craftiest lawyers in British India) toe her line? Pillai also doesn’t point out that much of the praise for Sethu Lakshmi Bayi is because she conforms to the docile and submissive Victorian ideal for women.

There’s a lot of information and scandal nestled in the polite, formal sentences of The Ivory Throne and this is both the book’s greatest strength and weakness. Swamped by facts and figures, Pillai struggles to pace and structure this tale in a way that provides historical detail without slackening the tension that’s essential to a juicy tell-all. It takes a while for the family drama to become compelling and some of the most dramatic episodes come near the end of the book, while the earlier sections contain fascinating tangents that are nevertheless distractions. For instance, there’s a particularly eerie story concerning an oracular message about a queen’s curse that is chilling and may well have been a far more powerful beginning than the trivia-rich history of Vasco de Gama’s expedition to India. That said, to have so many stories that the teller struggles to juggle them isn’t really a failing as much as readerly greed and the want of a good editor. Especially when you keep in mind that Pillai is only 25 and this is his first book, The Ivory Throne is a magnificent effort.

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