Manu S Pillai and Dr Shashi Tharoor

Updated: Jan 05, 2020, 08:13 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

'His infinite energy has stayed with me' | 'He has in many ways been a surrogate son'

Manu S Pillai and Shashi Tharoor. Pic/ Vishal Kale
Manu S Pillai and Shashi Tharoor. Pic/ Vishal Kale

Manu S Pillai

Writer and historian, Pillai won the 2017 Yuva Sahitya Akademi Award for his debut book, The Ivory Throne.His third non-fiction, The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History, released in 2019

I was 18 when I read his India: From Midnight to the Millennium, which led me quickly to more of his books. I remember being quite struck by how he had managed a distinguished UN career alongside a successful life as a writer. But no, not then, nor when he won his first election in 2009 did I think I would work with him. That happened quite by chance.

I had finished my studies in London in August 2011 and was wondering what to do next. I was already working on my first book, The Ivory Throne, and knew I would need to find a job in Delhi so that I could access the National Archives. But to be more exact, it was at London airport that I first saw Dr Tharoor. He was boarding a flight to Delhi and I was on the other side, queuing up for Mumbai. And that's when I thought, "Why not send him an email and ask if there is an opening at his office?" So, on the last day of August, I checked his website, wrote to his former private secretary, Sandeep Chakravorty (now Consul General in New York), who in turn forwarded my email to Dr Tharoor. I didn't have much of a CV then—no internships, no summer jobs, nothing—but Dr Tharoor replied the next morning. Funnily enough, more than my CV, it was the way I had drafted my email that he liked, and he agreed to take me on as an intern.

I worked with him for a year, then for his 2014 election campaign, and then in 2015 and 2016-17. I began as something resembling a general assistant, and ended up as chief of staff—a title invented as the team grew and more talented people began to join. I'm 29 now, and I do sometimes wonder where eight years went.

People are often impressed by his speeches, his clarity of expression, his books and overall personality. But I think what has stayed with me all through is his infinite energy and appetite for work. Since I had no place to stay in Delhi, he gave me space in one of the several outhouses at his official residence, and I remember looking from my window and finding the light in his study on even at 2 am, and sometimes later. And that more than anything, left an impression. As I said, I was also working on my own book, and seeing him every night at his desk kept me motivated to hammer away on my own laptop.

In 2014, when he was fighting the elections, the odds were stacked against him. The press was unkind, there was personal tragedy he had to cope with. People were saying the nastiest things, to which he could not respond; there was a genuine anxiety about how things would turn out. And yet, every morning by 6 am, when I reported at his flat in Thiruvananthapuram, he'd be up and already in meetings.

Not once did I see him express any personal discomfort. More importantly, I have rarely seen him lose his temper. The only time he caused his team stress, ironically, was when, between all the heat and tension of the campaign, he glimpsed a bit of cricket on a television somewhere: the elections were thrown to the wind and for several precious minutes, he would refuse to move, while the rest of us ran around in a panic wondering how to unglue him from his favourite sport.

We stay in regular touch. After I left the office in 2017, following my latest stint, we chatted on the margins of an event in Kochi, and then again in Germany. But I think after all this time, the intervals don't matter much—he knows what I have been up to, and I am still on the office WhatsApp group, with the result that whenever we meet, there is always a lot to discuss.

Dr Shashi Tharoor

Serving his third term as MP from Thiruvananthapuram, Dr Tharoor is also a former international diplomat and 2019 Sahitya Akademi award winner for An Era of Darkness

He was just 21 [when we met]. My first impressions were of someone evidently smart, well-spoken, well-educated—but also with a maturity of bearing and personality well beyond his years. The fact that he was a Malayalam-speaker was also a factor; I had none in the Delhi office and I was an MP
from Kerala.

His performance from day one was hugely impressive. He was able to do far more than any intern ever had, and do it better than much of my regular staff. I tested him by asking him to draft emails for me—something I had never allowed anyone else to do before him—and he was flawless. He won my trust very quickly and I decided to "regularise" him on my staff.

Manu is fairly private about what he is doing in his personal time, and I am one of those people who respects privacy and doesn't presume to ask. I knew he read a lot of history, was researching the life of the last Senior Maharani of Travancore, an interest that took him to Bengaluru once in a while, but he didn't particularly seek advice and I didn't offer it when it was not solicited. Like my own sons, I think Manu is sensitive to the risk of being perceived as somehow growing in my shade—and I want to make it clear that his accomplishments are entirely his own. I did not even see the manuscript of The Ivory Throne until after HarperCollins had set it in print and sent him the proofs.

Yes, of course, I have [read all his books]. I like them all, but my favourite remains the first book, The Ivory Throne, for a number of reasons. First, the scale of ambition and the level of accomplishment is remarkable, especially in so young a historian. Second, because despite my somewhat paternal interest in Manu and my faith in his work, I was quite unprepared for its excellence. I remember sitting down one night after dinner to read it, thinking I will read the first few pages and skim the rest before going to bed, just to get a sense of the book: it was a heftier tone than I had bargained for and I had a busy morning the next day. Two hundred enthralling pages later, it was past bedtime and I couldn't put the book down—I kept reading till I had finished it about 4 am. This is the third and fourth reason: there isn't a better, more readable history of Travancore available in English, and Manu makes history come alive through the fluidity and richness of his prose. His is history-writing at its most evocative, with an eye for the telling detail and an ear for the amusing anecdote. He's a joy to read and he will bring the joy of historical narrative to thousands of otherwise jaded people who think history is a dry subject.

I'm proud he has asked me to launch each of his books in Delhi and I'm happy to do so.

He has grown enormously in stature, success and critical acclaim and I am very proud of him. I hope he is not embarrassed to hear me say that he has in many ways been a surrogate son to me—with both of my own twins settled in the US and leading their own professional lives, I turned to Manu for the professional and personal support and loyalty I might have expected from [and extended to] a third son had I had one. It has been amply fulfilled: on two occasions when Manu's successor was seriously incapacitated—once by a major illness and once, soon after, in an auto-rickshaw accident—Manu bailed me out by deferring his own work and filling the breach until she had recovered. I feel lucky he's in my life and he knows he will always have my blessings as he goes on to ever-more spectacular successes.

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