The story of a Punjabi queen with politics, nostalgia and courage at the centre
The 1845 Battle of Ferozeshah, part of the first Anglo-Sikh War, which is chronicled through the protagonist's eyes in the book
By Ritika Sharma
In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch remarks that “we never really understand a person until we consider things from their point of view, until we climb inside their skin and walk around in it”. Perhaps, this is what Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni intends when she retells stories of the past from women’s perspective.
Divakaruni has narrated the lives of mythical characters of Sita and Draupadi with diligence in the past. In her latest novel, The Last Queen, she writes the travails of a relatively recent queen, Punjab’s Jindan Kaur. While we have a rich literature on the warrior men from Punjab of the 19th century, women have not got a fair deal. Divakaruni corrects the anomaly as she focuses on the favourite and last queen of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who displayed the traits of both her husband and his son Daleep Singh. While Ranjit was a fierce braveheart, the son was a gullible man trapped in the machinations of British.
Jindan was a rare queen who manoeuvred through politics of the zenana, stood up to the onslaught of British colonisation and lived as an exiled freedom fighter before going to England in her later years to reclaim her son. The Last Queen maps her journey as she confronted the British while braving two daunting tasks — staying relevant for the king lest she plummet the zenana’s hierarchical ladder, and securing her son’s heritage from the onslaught of Britain’s colonisation of India.
Though several women form the pivot around which revolves the narrative, at no point does it turn against men. In Ranjit Singh, the author has presented a ruler, a husband and, most importantly, a teacher for Jindan who not only inducts her into royalty but also in statecraft. He was a ruler who was not insecure of buttressing his queen’s growth beyond the quotidian affairs. Their relationship itself makes Jindan’s life a relevant read for our times. It would help our patriarchal society to take cues from history.
Women from across the hierarchical order of the zenana, ranging from maids like Mangla, to queens like Rani Guddan, Chand Kaur and Pathani, who were denied their share in history, find their rightful place in the book and epitomise resilience and grit. Most importantly, their interwoven episodes reinforce the idea of women supporting women to flourish.
The book is a novelist’s account of history. Many seminal events like the Anglo- Sikh War and the peace treaties, annexation of Punjab, the infamous policies of Lord Dalhousie and the revolt of 1857 are chronicled through the protagonist’s eyes. Then there are characters like the shrewd wazir Dhian Singh, a Dogra with allegiance not only to Punjab but also a strong affiliation to his community. Through such juxtaposed loyalties the novel underlines the erratic and complex realities of dynastic rules. Divakaruni also excels in the creative description of battles — both of the mind and the sword — that are fought in different battlegrounds, with vacillating supporters and rivals. As the novel recreates some striking visuals of the Anglo-Sikh wars and the Revolt of 1857, it also reminds us that such contestations were not merely for the lands or resources. The ulterior motives for such contestations and the resulting colonisation were to elicit sustained faith and admiration from the Indians for all things English.
The novel turns poignant during Jindan’s reunion with her son Daleep wherein it unravels the impact of colonisation not only on Indians but also on the expatriates in England. Herein, the historical account metamorphoses into a coming-of-age novel, with Jindan as a reflective and contemplative mother treading an emotional minefield with her son who is now a converted Christian ensconced in England. Her resilience to rescue Daleep from the clutches of the English’s deceit contributes most significantly to the artistic merit of this work and makes it the fulcrum on which rests this book’s worth. A story of politics, nostalgia and courage, The Last Queen retrieves Rani Jindan from the forgotten annals of history.
Ritika Sharma is academic resource officer, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla
The Last Queen Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni HarperCollins Pp 372, Rs 599