Manu S Pillai was Chief of Staff to Dr Shashi Tharoor MP, supporting him in his role as Chairman of the External Affairs Committee in Parliament. Manu is also a writer: his first book, The Ivory Throne (2015) won him the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, and his new book Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji has just been released. He is also a weekly columnist at Mint Lounge, and has written for publications like The Hindu, Hindustan Times, Times of India, Open Magazine, and so on.
Network Capital staff interviewed him after the release of his new book.
1. What do you do? What is your latest project all about?
If I had to put it in one line, I’d say I’m a writer and public policy professional. The writing is heavily oriented towards history, society, culture, and connected themes—I have two books out, and write a regular newspaper column. The public policy side, on the other hand, is tied to my work with Dr Shashi Tharoor MP, as his Chief of Staff until August 2017; to his 2014 election campaign when I handled the press, social media and so on; and other attendant work in the Lok Sabha, in various stints since 2011. In a sense, I have tried to keep one foot in the world of ideas, books, writing, and the journey of our society on a higher plane; and the other foot negotiates a more immediate environment of policy, NGOs, political constituents, diplomacy, elections, parliament, and more. The latter kept me on my toes all day—no day was the same, and there was a certain thrill in the chaos that envelops an MP’s office—while the former allowed me, in the solitary hours of the evening, to believe that I was also making a contribution of an intellectual nature, something that would endure for years to come.
This is also the endeavour with my latest book, Rebel Sultans, which resurrects a fascinating chapter from India’s history. We are taught history to pass exams, in the most monotonous fashion. But the reality is that we have a remarkable past, one that can challenge many of our present prejudices, and lend wisdom that can be applied in everyday politics. In an age when identity wars are on the ascendant, for example, it would be useful to remind ourselves of the “Hindu Sultans” of Vijayanagar, the Muslim ruler of Bijapur who worshipped Hindu gods, and other such stories from centuries ago—like us, people then too had to grapple with a diverse society with diverse interests, and we can learn from their methods, as well as their successes and failures. My new book, then, is an effort in trying to lend context in an age of black and white differences, and to do so in an engaging fashion. I want young Indians—professionals, layreaders, people who have an interest in the country—to be able to connect with our past in all its breathtaking majesty. History is not an alien country, not when approached the right way, and it can speak to us in the present. So I have wedded myself to the past, even as I live firmly in the present and seek to help address its challenges.
2. Why do you do what you do?
I write because I must tell stories—of people, of events, of phenomena, of society itself. And I keep myself active in public policy and the political space because I also hope one day to directly involve myself in electoral politics. I would be insincere to offer a grand guiding principle, because the reality is that it is as simple as this. The two go hand in hand for me. And I have found that my constant engagement with history often supplies me with a perspective on current affairs that is interesting, and (at the risk of sounding immodest!) different from the mainstream. So far I have only gained by trying to unite these two interests in one life, and at the very least I think it will enrich the years I have ahead.
3. What is the one thing you believe to be true but others rarely agree with you on?
I rarely tend to “outrage” about anything, and while I am not sentimental or prone to romanticising life, I do feel people do not give enough of a chance to optimism. When I worked with Dr Tharoor there were painful stories I would come across, tales of pure misery. But it really puts things in perspective when you see people prevailing against the most harrowing odds. So I have learnt not to complain (which is a form of luxury), but to look at the bigger picture. And this, oddly, is something many people seem not to want to do. To look at the bigger picture is, in some ways, to break out of your comfort zone, to shatter your preconceptions, and to challenge your sense of security. But by doing so we can grow as people, and address issues we face with greater maturity. So on a number of issues, I can refuse to buy the narrow interpretation—there is always another way, one that is wiser even if it does not instantly appeal.
4. Which failure or apparent failure set you up for success?
Success and failure are alternate steps in a very long journey, really, so every day there will be something I am disappointed about. And when there is something to be happy about, I ensure I don’t go overboard with delight. I suppose real success is the capacity to take everything in proportion, with your feet firmly on the ground, not allowing yourself to be swayed from your larger goals by fleeting professional or personal glories. Moderation helps digest failure, even as it prevents success from going to your head. As does cultivating pragmatism.
5. What is the best investment you have made in yourself?
Allowing myself that basic confidence to be guided by common-sense. Common-sense and a tendency to try and be as objective as possible have really served me well, far more than any other investment I could have made consciously to improve myself.
6. Has your career been planned or a function of serendipity?
I do have a long-term plan, and a yearly plan. I set goals for each year, and work hard to achieve them. Much of my life, then, is approached in a systematic manner. I spent six years writing my first book for example. It was six years of very hard work, spent collecting material from archives and libraries in three continents, even while staying on top of the ball in a very demanding work environment in Delhi. Managing time was my principal formula. But serendipity has its role too. When I worked with Lord Bilimoria at the House of Lords in London, he used to have this favourite saying that success is where hard work meets good luck. You cannot control luck, but you can plan and do your best to realise the other half of the equation.
7. What is the role of mentors in your life?
It varies from person to person. Some benefit immensely from being mentored actively. My own preference is to observe closely, distil, and draw my own lessons. We are all different people, so while we can derive lessons from others, we have to find our own path in applying them to our lives and circumstances. So I am rarely “inspired” by anybody. But I am often “interested” in people and their journeys. From different people I can absorb different lessons, all of which can help light my own way ahead.
8. What advice would you give to your 18 year old self?
To cherish those hours of sleep—now at 28, I barely get any.
9. What next?
There is a book I intend to start writing soon—perhaps my most ambitious yet—and that is what I will be doing. I also hope to participate in Dr Tharoor’s 2019 election campaign, and if all goes well, I will have done a draft of my next book by then. That way the election will be a break from writing and a taste again of the “real world”. And when I go back to my manuscript, it will be with fresh eyes, and a mind reinvigorated by the hustle and bustle that is every election season in India.