The Queen Was Not For Turning
A portrait of Rani of Jhansi not as cardboard caricature but as woman, warrior and lover
Khoob ladi mardani. She fought like a man. For generations, school children in India have grown up with the cardboard warrior of Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s inspiring poem. Her widowhood, her kingdom torn from her by the evil Lord Dalhousie, her valiant fight against General Rose. It’s the stuff of legends and the whiff of myth. Prince Michael of Greece, another dispossessed royal, has taken the fragments of the real woman who has briefly made an appearance in stray memoirs and constructed a riveting historical novel.
Here is Lakshmibai, a young Maratha woman married against her will to the old Raja of Jhansi with a taste for cross dressing, forced to adopt a child to prevent annexation, addicted to opium, attracted to other men. And here are a string of her lovers. There is the India-loving Roger Giffard, a junior lawyer with the East India Company, with whom she rides out dressed as a boy, practices her English, and whom she once saves dramatically from a snake bite, shooting the cobra in the head and then sucking out the venom. There is Firoz Shah, the Great Moghul’s beautiful nephew, whom she seduces. And there is also the Afghan mercenary, the blue-eyed, fair-haired Akbar Khan, who challenges her in love and in war. Yet she is no slave to her emotions. When her longtime advisor Diwan Naransin offers her his body for amusement (“Let me offer you the pleasures this love could give you”), she turns him down.
This Rani is no wilting wallflower, watching the events of her life unfold and ruing her fate. When she is attracted to Firoz Shah, she has no hesitation in telling him she desires him. As she fights along Akbar Khan, the relationship grows from queen and soldier to friends and eventually passionate lovers. This is no grieving widow, locked in her tower, devoted only to her son, dedicated only to the welfare of her people. This is a thoroughly modern heroine, plunging into relationships, going feet first into battle, thinking nothing of riding along her childhood friend Nana Saheb as he wages war against the British in the name of the Great Moghul.
The time and place are beautifully detailed. The Englishman’s lower caste mistress Kiraun, who first finds out about the sepoy revolt through her clients. The restraint under which Lakshmibai has to conduct her private life as a widow, constantly under the scrutiny of her courtiers and her staff. The venality of several Indian royals, which is often papered over in textbooks. And the growing brutality of the English who will stop at nothing to keep the jewel in their crown (along with many of its jewels).
It will all end in tears. We know that from history and folklore. But in Prince Michael’s extraordinary work of historical research and imaginative fiction, Lakshmibai is a free bird, like the watercolours Roger paints for her. She sets the ground rules early. When her aunt wants her to shave her head and go on a pilgrimage to Benaras after being widowed, she says emphatically: “I’m a widow, but I am also a mother, and I am a queen. I am free.” When her son Damodar looks back at the palace the British force her to leave, she pulls him back in the howdah seat: “Look forward. The past is gone.”
And that is the essence of the novel. It is of the old India stirring to life for the first time in centuries, realising that a mere 45,522 Englishmen are masters of a 150 million people. It is of a new kind
of woman emerging, who can love a people as much she loves her children, who can discard the purdah and still keep her dignity. It is of a new kind of leader coming of age, who can meticulously plan a revolution, using every means possible, from agents provocateur to amateur theatre to writings on the wall.
Think of it as a bodice ripper with brains, just like the beautiful and brave Rani. A woman who can carry a cleavage as beautifully as she can wield a sword. She thinks nothing of plunging a dagger into a sepoy to save the life of her beloved Englishman, and equally of informing the British in Jhansi that they will soon be slaughtered. Living honourably, she dies not so much a martyr as a legend. As her lover Akbar Khan tells her: “Commanding an army with that kind of skill and efficiency is not given to everyone. When did you acquire the discipline to evaluate a situation, the self assurance to make decisions, the imagination to dream up traps for the enemy?” Indeed, when did she go from being a suffering widow to warrior queen? Read The Rani of Jhansi to find out.
THE RANI OF JHANSI by Prince Michael of Greece Rupa Price: RS 295 Pages: 390