The Courtesan, The Mahatma and The Italian Brahmin by Manu S. Pillai
The Courtesan, The Mahatma and The Italian Brahmin by Manu S. Pillai

Author: Manu S. Pillai

Publisher: Context

Publishing Date: 24th June 2019

Pages: 394 pages

Language: English

Country: India

Rating: 5/5

One of the most wonderful things about Manu S. Pillai‘s books is the impeccable prose. History is already interesting but Pillai has the knack of giving history a contemporary relevance. Pillai’s latest is The Courtesan, The Mahatma and The Italian Brahmin, a collection of essays about Indian history. This is a fascinating book with a lot of interesting essays.

The Courtesan, The Mahatma and The Italian Brahmin is divided into three parts:

  • Part One: Before the Raj. The essays are diverse and most likely not in historical sequence. Some of the essays I liked in this part are

i) The Italian Brahmin of Madurai: This essay talks about a Italian missionary who came to India in 1623 to convert Hindus into Christianity. He became a Hindu to save the Hindus.

ii)The Lost Begum of Ahmednagar: This one is about Khunza Humayun, the begum of Hussain Nizam Shah, the Nizam of Ahmednagar. She is a lesser known figure in Indian history, but during her lifetime she wielded considerable amount of power.

iii) Vararuchi’s Children and the Mappilas of Malabar: This is an interesting essays about the Muslims in Malabar, their origins and way of life.

  • Part Two: Stories from the Raj. This part has essays on lesser known historical figures and events and thus, proved to be a very informative read. Some of the essays which I liked were:

i) The Phules and their Fight: Jotiba and Savitribai Phule are quite well-known in Maharashtra. They started the first girls school in Pune amidst a lot of opposition. They had to face several obstacle and even death threats in their fight for education. Not only this, the Phules also started a shelter for unwed mothers.

ii) The Ammachies of Travancore: The State of Travancore is known for its matrilineal system of succession. The royal family consisted of man, sister and her children. The wife of the maharaja was not his queen- she was only the consort. There was a maharani but it was either the maharaja’s sister or his niece. It was she who produced the heir to the throne through a male consort of her own.

iii) The Seamstress and the Mathematician: This essay is about Srinivas Ramanujan and Janaki, his wife. It explores their life and Ramanujan’s achievements.

  • Part Three: Afterword

This part contains only one essay named ‘An Essay for our Times’. Here the author talks about the loss of pluralism and how religious nationalism has grown in our country.


I liked the ‘speculative essays’ in this book. To name a few:

  1. What if Vijaynagar has survived?
  2. What if there was no British Rule?
  3. What if the Mahatma had lived?

I found these essays interesting and loved how the author speculated about these events. The Courtesan, The Mahatma and The Italian Brahmin introduced me to quite a lot lesser known figure like Roberto de Nobili (the Italian Brahmin), a Maratha Prince Shahuji who challenged cast and morality in his play called ‘Sati Dan Suramu’, Periyar, the anti-Gandhi.

This book also throws light on British men and women who made significant contributions to India like Sir Arthur Cotton, who irrigated vast stretches of land in the Godavari basin, William Jones who translated Shakuntala into English and founded the Asiatic Society.

The essays are short and Pillai’s prose is impeccable. For those who don’t enjoy reading long historical narratives, this book is for you. I also recommend this book for readers who like reading non-fiction.

Reading these essays is like taking a trip down India’s memory. There are men and women, whose lives are filled with action and drama at every nook and cranny. Learn about the advent of railways, discover the lavish lifestyle of Wajid Ali Shah or immerse yourself in the story of the photographer maharaja of Jaipur. The Courtesan, The Mahatma and The Italian Brahmin is a fascinating retelling of Indian history.

I recommend this book to readers who want to start reading history. This book is a good place to start.