The Queen Was Not For Turn­ing

A por­trait of Rani of Jhansi not as card­board car­i­ca­ture but as woman, war­rior and lover

India Today - - LEISURE - By Kaveree Bamzai

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.

SAU­RABH Singh/www.in­di­a­to­day­im­ages.com

THE RANI OF JHANSI by Prince Michael of Greece Rupa Price: RS 295 Pages: 390

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