10 Must-Read History Books, Recommended by Manu S Pillai

Manu S Pillai's book recommendations

As a reader, one likes to experiment with various genres. In non-fiction too, one area that was oft-ignored in India was History. Indian history is fascinating, and several young authors are bringing out books on kings, queens and dynasties that the readers of today find appealing. 

One such author is Manu S Pillai, who has written four books and is a noted historian. Apart from his research, Manu also finds time to read other books on history. 

Here are 10 History books recommended by Manu S Pillai:

1. Gem in the Lotus: The Seeding of Indian Civilisation by Abraham Eraly

Gem in the Lotus: The Seeding of Indian Civilisation by Abraham Eraly
Gem in the Lotus: The Seeding of Indian Civilisation by Abraham Eraly

This book is regarded as a comprehensive and compelling portrait of ancient India. Eraly explores all significant milestones from the Indus Valley civilisation to the Vedic Aryan culture to the beginnings of Jainism & Buddhism and ends with the Mauryan Empire.

In an interview with Scroll, Manu recommends the work of Abraham Eraly to young readers. He recommends starting Eraly’s work with Gem in the Lotus.

“One series I recommend a great deal, including to young readers forming a tentative curiosity about Indian history, is the work of Abraham Eraly – a hugely underrated but gifted writer of historical non-fiction, who passed away some years ago,” said Manu to Scroll.

2. Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine by Kavitha Rao

Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India's First Women in Medicine by Kavitha Rao
Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women in Medicine by Kavitha Rao

This book chronicles the tales of the first women doctors in India, who had to wage many battles to achieve their dreams. Kavitha Rao uncovers the story of six women who defied odds in the 1860s to 1930s to pave the way for the doctors of today. Anandibai Joshi, regarded as India’s first woman doctor flouted caste rules when she crossed an ocean to study. Rukhmabai Raut divorced her husband and studied to be a doctor; Kadambini Ganguly, took care of eight children while she worked, to child widow Haimabati Sen, who overcame poverty and hardship.

Manu calls this one of the best books he’s read.

3. White Mughals by William Dalrymple

White Mughals by William Dalrymple
White Mughals by William Dalrymple

White Mughals is a love story set in 1798, in Hyderabad, of James Achilles Kirkpatrick, a British Resident, and Kahir un-Nissa, the great-niece of the Nizam’s Prime Minister and a descendant of the Prophet. Through this love story, Dalrymple gives us a picture of the political and cultural life of India in the 18th century, during British rule.

In a Twitter interaction, Manu credits White Mughals for his interest in history. “I picked up my interest (in history) not so much through textbooks but WD’s White Mughals and book on 1957,” tweeted Manu. 

4. Akbar: The Great Mughal by Ira Mukhoty

Akbar: The Great Mughal by Ira Mukhoty
Akbar: The Great Mughal by Ira Mukhoty

This book traces Abu’l Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar, the third Mughal emperor. During his reign, the Mughal Empire was one of the wealthiest in the world and covered much of the Indian subcontinent. Mukhoty covers Akbar’s life and the Mughal empire under him, in detail. She takes us through his ambitions, mistakes, bravery, military genius, empathy for his subjects, and efforts to reform the governance of his empire. 

In several interviews, Manu has recommended this book. He says that the perspective women authors bring about while writing history is fascinating, and something that was missing for too long.

“A much heavier volume, also on an Indian emperor and written with great charm, in this she brings to light little details to portray this celebrated king and his human eccentricities as much as his political achievements,” said Manu to the Hindu.

5. Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent by Pranay Lal

Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent by Pranay Lal
Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent by Pranay Lal

Indica traces the evolution and natural history of the Indian subcontinent. It speaks about the oldest rocks in Karnataka, to the reptiles, dinosaurs, mammals, and plants. It shows us how every piece of rock and inch of soil is a virtual museum, and how, over billions of years, millions of spectacular creatures have reproduced, walked, and lived over and under it.

Manu recommends this book and says that it’s one that he often gifts people.

“Indica has beautiful illustrations and is very charmingly produced,” Manu told Chalchitra Talks.

6.​ The Language of History by Audrey Truschke

The Language of History by Audrey Truschke
The Language of History by Audrey Truschke

The Language of History analyses an overlooked history of the Indo-Muslim or Indo-Persian rule written in Sanskrit. These Sanskrit texts were written sometime in the 1190s to 1721. This book spans the Mughal rule and Delhi Sultanate and Muslim rule in the south.

This was one of Manu’s top reads of 2021. 

7. ​Kabir, Kabir by Purushottam Agrawal

Kabir, Kabir by Purushottam Agrawal
Kabir, Kabir by Purushottam Agrawal

In The Life and Work of the Early Modern Poet-Philosopher Kabir, Agrawal presents readers with a new interpretation of Kabir. The book talks about the nation’s past and present as seen through Kabir’s life and poetry. In this rare appraisal of Kabir’s writings and his life, Purushottam Agarwal approaches this timeless poet-revolutionary with little preconceptions, presenting him the way the poet wanted to be seen, rather than what his followers and fans wanted to see in him.

This was also one of Manu’s top reads of 2021

8. Gandhi’s Assassin: The Making Of Nathuram Godse And His Idea Of India by Dhirendra K Jha

Gandhi's Assassin: The Making Of Nathuram Godse And His Idea Of India by Dhirendra K Jha
Gandhi’s Assassin: The Making Of Nathuram Godse by Dhirendra K Jha

This book traces Nathuram Godse’s early life. Drawing from previously unpublished archival material, Jha challenges the sanitization of Gandhi’s assassination and offers a stunning view of the making of independent India. It speaks about Godse’s journey that led to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi,

Manu said that this book was on his list in an interview with Chalchitra Talks.

9. Furrows in a Field: The Unexplored Life of HD Deve Gowda by Sugata Srinivasaraju

Furrows in a Field: The Unexplored Life of HD Deve Gowda by Sugata Srinivasaraju
Furrows in a Field: The Unexplored Life of HD Deve Gowda by Sugata Srinivasaraju

This book traces the life of HD Deve Gowda, who became Prime Minister in 1996, and served in that position for less than a year. He’s been in politics for almost seven decades. He started at the very bottom, as a member of the Holenarasipur Taluk Development Board and reached the very top as India’s eleventh prime minister. Even 25 years after he stepped down as prime minister, he has remained relevant in Indian politics. He is a self-made man and started his journey from scratch.

Manu recommends this book for political history.

“This is a great book about the life of Deve Gowda. I was a child when he became Prime Minister, and his elevation made for interesting adult conversations. He achieved a great deal in 11 months as PM,” said Manu to Chalchitra Talks.

10. The Decline of Nair Dominance by Robin Jeffrey

The Decline of Nair Dominance by Robin Jeffrey
The Decline of Nair Dominance by Robin Jeffrey

This book speaks about society and politics in Travancore from 1847-1908. It tells the story of how a long-standing matrilineal society started crumbling. Anyone who has walked the streets of Trivandrum, or pondered the remarkable social achievements of the Kerala model of development, will find in this book a vivid evocation of a time in history and an essential foundation for their understanding of God’s own country.

In a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA), when a Redditor asked Manu for a book to understand 20th century Kerala history, Manu recommended this book. He called it one of the best of the 19th-20th century.

Sources

Edited by Yoshita Rao; Feature Image Courtesy Manu S Pillai’s Instagram

‘Manu Pillai, Author And Historian, Shares His Top 5 Reads Of 2021’ Published on 04 January, 2022 Courtesy The Times of India
‘Writer Manu S Pillai’s lockdown reading list for you’ by Saraswathy Nagarajan for The Hindu, Published on 08 April, 2020
‘Making history enjoyable is more difficult than people sometimes think: Manu S Pillai’ by Sayari Debnath for Scroll, Published on 26 March, 2022
Chalchitra Talks

Author: Aaron Ryan