A statue of Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi.
A statue of Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi.
Some people are so impoverished all they have is gold. We, however, have pride.”
This one sentence by the protagonist aptly sums up the tone The Last Queen of India adopts throughout its length. In her sixth novel, American author Michelle Moran lays her eyes on the Indian kingdom of Jhansi, and lucidly tells us the story of Rani Lakshmibai (who has conveniently been abbreviated to Rani Lakshmi) through the eyes of Sita, her warrior guard or Durgavasi. Rani Lakshmibai shines bright in the annals of Indian history as the brave queen who single-handedly took on the task to face the British head on after her empire was annexed due to the Doctrine of Lapse. But if you pick up this book thinking it’s a historical chronicle of the tussle between Jhansi and its tormentors, you’d be mistaken. This book, essentially in its heart, tells the story of the erstwhile womenfolk and the relations among them.
The book opens in the city of Barwa Sagar and takes us beyond the enclosed walls of the Bhosale family where nine-year-old Sita falls into the clutches of her crafty grandmother’s evil designs after her mother succumbs to death during her second childbirth. The idea of getting two granddaughters married off (with band, baaja and dowry) horrifies Dadi who wastes no time in taking Sita to the nearest temple in a bid to offer her to the priest as a Devdasi (temple prostitute). But Sita’s silent appeals convinces her speech- and hearing-impaired father of some foul play and he instantly declares that his daughter will now be trained in weapons and arms to make her suitable for a role in the elite panel of Rani Lakshmibai’s trusted bodyguards.
After a rigorous training of seven years by her father and neighbour Shivaji, Sita finally wins her place in the Rani’s prestigious Durga Dal and the scene of action shifts to Jhansi from Barwa Sagar.
Thereafter, the plot is based in the royal palace whose magnificence and grandeur allures Sita to no end. The colourful silk angarkhas and dazzling metallic jewellery, the grand palatial chambers and lavish style of life enamour the small-town girl. She befriends Dalit girl Jhalkari, earns the wrath and jealousy of fellow Durgavasi Kahini, strikes up an intellectual camaraderie (that later blossoms into romance) with Arjun, captain of the Raja’s guards. Lettered in Shakespeare and Rumi and the only Durgavasi to be armed with the knowledge of English, Sita soon becomes the Rani’s right hand, who’s regularly summoned to her chamber to write/translate messages sent to/by the British. This unique quality in 19th century India also sends her (along with 11 others) on a journey to London for an audience with Queen Victoria requesting her the restoration of Jhansi.
The kingdom, which was once thriving and brimming with happiness, soon is dealt with severe blows that shatter the peace and silence the laughter around. Rani’s infant son Damodar falls victim to a serious illness and Raja Gangadhar follows suit in no time (both of which are later discovered to be the handiwork of a palace traitor). In an act that stuns all, Rani Lakshmi refuses to commit Sati and adopts a son Anand to provide a male heir to the throne and save the kingdom from being annexed by the British: “What Jhansi needs now is a leader, not a martyr! There are people standing in front of me today who will condemn me for not entering the flames. But what woman has ever changed her husband’s fate by joining him on his pyre And what woman has ever built a stronger kingdom by disappearing from it ”
Michelle Moran has taken too much on her plate and in explaining some of the finer details of the erstwhile Hindu purdah system and Dalit woes, she has essentially left out what should be at the heart of such a book: political energy. It dwells too much into Sita’s life and her backstory — her childhood, her loving relationship with her father, protective instinct for her sister and animosity towards her shrewd and cunning grandmother. Even after she enters the royal palace, her interactions are mostly with Jhalkari, Kahini and Arjun. The Queen, who should have commanded a lion’s share of the narrative, is somehow relegated to the background. Her dealings with Sita are mostly on a professional level and that deprives the readers of a sneak peek into the emotional upheavals the Rani is going through. Even towards the end, when the action overtakes the plot, the Rani and Sita’s paths are shown to diverge.
Moran has a strong command over her language — she tells her tale in simple and lucid English that is enough to evoke the interest of reader looking for a “story” in the backdrop of “history”. She has a decent understanding of the prevalent social customs and gender structure which comes across neatly in this book. But what is absent for the large part in this tale is drama, and that, I feel, is an essentially ingredient of a historical fiction. Sita’s story could have been based anywhere in colonial India: the significance or uniqueness of Jhansi as the only possible backdrop is not emphasised upon. Even with the characters, some are neatly fleshed out, whereas many others, including the Rani and Raja (with his “effeminate” ways and penchant for theatre), lack detail and shades. You’d expect a little more insight into the character after whom the book is named, even though she might not be the protagonist. Rani Lakshmibai’s character is sketched out half-heartedly, and even though Sita is a compelling and likeable narrator, who never fails to tug at our heartstrings, the Rani remains a distant showpiece, about whom we never get to know anything more than what history books normally tell us.