The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin by Manu S Pillai is a rich tapestry of historical essays, myths and legends that have escaped the attention of historians—perhaps because of their ordinariness or, as is often the case with history, the nuanced characters not being on the winning side of the narrative. But the protagonists are anything but ordinary. The 60-odd essays delight us at every turn of the page as they speak of extraordinary lives that shaped the destiny of modern India with all its paradoxes.
Divided into three parts—Before the Raj, Stories from the Raj and an afterword, the book has been carefully curated from the author’s own columns in the Mint Lounge and other publications. You encounter an eclectic potpourri of characters—from an Italian Brahmin to the three-breasted deity Meenakshi, the warrior Princess; a Muslim deity in a Hindu temple; the Courtesan who became a princess; and others, blurring lines between myths, legends and facts that persisted in medieval India.
These stories are vital, not just enabling us to see glimpses of a past that have eluded us, but also to understand how we have emerged as a nation, caught between religious, caste and gender conflicts. As the author himself reiterates in the introduction: