The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore by Manu S. Pillai
A multitude of books have been written about the historical past of India. Most are centred around the Indian independence struggle- describing the 200-year long British Raj over India and the efforts of Mahatma Gandhi to emancipate the country from the clutches of British rule. However, few books have been written about South Indian history and fewer still have been written about the women who figure large in South Indian history.
The Ivory Throne is the debut novel of the very young yet very accomplished Indian writer Manu S. Pillai. Incorporating both the elements mentioned previously and with around 700 pages, it is a thoroughly researched narration of an intensely dramatic family feud and power struggle between two cousins- Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and Maharani Sethu Parvathy Bayi- of the Royal House of Travancore.
The timeline of the book is rather irregular. Nevertheless, it is easy to follow. Beginning with Vasco da Gama’s quest and discovery of Malabar, the author goes on to mention the myth behind the formation of Kerala- Parasuraman, the sixth incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, hurling the battle-axe from Gokarna, a temple town in South India. Pillai then goes on to detail the rise of the extremely ambitious ruler of Travancore, Martanda Varma.
From the Vaikom Satyagraha to the construction of the Cochin Harbour to the Temple Entry Proclamation and to the end of matriliny and introduction of Victorian ideals with the advent of British rule in Kerala, this book takes the reader on a riveting journey, providing historical insights into not just Travancore of the 1900s but the whole of Kerala.
The spotlight of the book, however, shines on Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi the quiet, dignified Regent of Travancore and her 7-year reign. Adopted into the royal family when she was just 5 years old, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi has been described all throughout the book as the epitome of simplicity. She was the complete opposite of her more outspoken, daring cousin, Sethu Parvathi Bayi.
The power play between both cousins has been described brilliantly by the author. Sethu Parvathi Bayi resorted to all sorts of tactics- black magic, murder, politics and mind games- in order to secure absolute power over Travancore and take over the Ivory Throne. To every aspect of palace occurrences, the author has added a dash of mystery and a sprinkling of drama. What stood out among all this is Lakshmi Bayi’s sheer resilience, her refusal to let any sort of attack, be it on her character or on her rule, bring her down.
Another important theme which serves as a playing field for both cousins is that of communalism in Kerala. While Lakshmi Bayi was a staunch supporter of all religions and their gradual upliftment, her cousin built the pillars of her rule with the help of the Nair community who were strongly classist. Especially in this part of the book, it appears as though Pillai was trying to squeeze in a lot of information. Although the whole issue is intrinsic to the Kerala of 1900s, it is quite dry and difficult to plough through.
The last few chapters are pretty fast paced. They tell the events of the imminent fall of the once famed and revered Ivory Throne as nationalist sentiments arose in the early 1940s. Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, realising that her presence in Travancore served no purpose anymore, moved away to Bangalore to settle down with her children, her exit marking the end of the “Golden Age of Travancore.” Pillai almost laments the end of Lakshmi Bayi’s reign saying that as the years went by, she was pushed into the side-lines with her status being reduced to that of a commoner. The descendants of the two warring factions of the Travancore Royal Family eventually moved past their differences, carving out sophisticated lives of their own.
What truly amazes the reader about the book is how much thought went into creating each chapter, writing each line and quoting the right people at the right time. Pillai has displayed remarkable skills of penmanship through this book. For a twenty-six-year-old to come out with such an exceptionally well-written historical account as his debut novel is no minor feat. From the reader’s end, there can only be praise for the book and admiration for the author. Looking forward to more writing from this talented young writer!