The Ivory Throne by Manu Pillai
Presenter: Shanti Menon
We are told that this huge volume is a very easy and pleasant read. The history of
the state of Travancore in Kerala is covered from the arrival of Vasco de Gama, i.e.
15 century to 1980.
Shanti brings out the complex relationship between two queens / sisters of this royal
family, their very different personalities and how they navigate their personal and
political lives through Kerala’s matrilineal society. To us this society seems familiar
on one level but completely unknown on the other.
The book, she says, is very nuanced, also bringing out caste hierarchy, the
Namboodri (Brahmin)-Nair relations and how those below Nairs could not enter
temples. Shanti informs us how having daughters was important but sons more so.
At times this matri and patrilineal can become difficult to understand in spite of
Shanti’s insider view. Also included are references to black magic, curses, which
were all part of that period. The focus is on the elder sister Laxmi Bayi who brought
in progressive reforms but had to leave unceremoniously, unloved and unsung and
whose last days were spent like a prisoner in a lonely room.
The presentation could have been even more interesting if the presenter had had the
time to flesh out examples of what made it an interesting great book. Still, in the
limited time available she did an excellent job of selection of content to focus on,
keeping her talk cogent and coherent. Her mentions of all the content she could not
touch upon only made it even more attractive a proposition to acquire the book and
read it in full!
- Mukul Ahmed