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A queen’s gambit

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on April 12, 2021

Novel act: Divakaruni’s narrative is divided into four sections: Girl, Bride, Queen and Rebel   -  THE HINDU

In her novel based on the life of Rani Jindan Kaur, author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni crafts a hero for the modern-day reader

* This is a protagonist that a millennial/Gen Z readership can get behind

* The Last Queen, for the most part, is a literary page-turner, a deeply satisfying historical novel that crackles with the pace and the vivaciousness of top-tier genre fiction

* I won’t be surprised to see an enterprising streaming executive bringing this story on screen soon

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Wise act: Rani Jindan Kaur learns how to project her strength and use kindness like a knife - WIKIPEDIA   -  WIKIPEDIA

 

In a high-stakes emotional scene towards the beginning of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s new novel The Last Queen (based on the life of Rani Jindan Kaur, the youngest queen of Maharaja Ranjit Singh [1780-1839], who held the British at bay for the early part of the 19th century), we see young Jindan, the royal kennel keeper’s teenage daughter, returning to her father’s hovel of a house. It’s a big moment, for she has just spent a day on horseback alongside the Maharaja (called the “Sarkar” by Jindan and most others). Her cruel, petty father Manna wants her to seduce the Sarkar, become his concubine so that he can finally pay off his gambling debts. And so he makes a lascivious suggestion to the Sarkar’s face, adding that Jindan is a virgin — upon which the king finally snaps.

The Last Queen / Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni / HarperCollins / Ficton / ₹599

 

“The Sarkar’s voice stops me, cracking like a whip.

‘Have you no shame, Manna, talking about your own daughter as though she’s a bazaar dancer?’

He must have made a gesture of dismissal because Manna slinks into the house. I start to follow him, but the sarkar calls my name. I can’t bear to look at him now that everything’s ruined. But he’s the king. I must obey.”

The beauty of this scene is it manages to unpack so much emotion with extreme brevity. Manna is clearly desperate for the Sarkar to be seduced by his daughter — his craven nature cannot comprehend any other kind of relationship between them. The Sarkar is clearly enamoured of this young girl who dares to disagree with him aloud, whose sweet nature has already won over his famous (and famously tempestuous) horse Laila. And then there’s Jindan herself, who’s only just coming to terms with the fact that she’s falling in love with a man as old as her father. She too wants the Sarkar to like her, just “not in the disgusting physical way Manna wants”.

Divakaruni is far too smart and experienced an author to ‘retro-fit’ the scene according to 21st century liberal sensibilities (which would rightly frown upon any union between a 50-something man and a teenager, no matter how loving or compassionate). And yet, she pays close attention to the question of Jindan’s agency and her quickly developing a sense of freedom and rebellion. This is, therefore, a protagonist that a millennial/Gen Z readership can get behind.

The Last Queen, for the most part, is a literary page-turner, a deeply satisfying historical novel that crackles with the pace and the vivaciousness of top-tier genre fiction. Maharani Jind Kaur (1817-1863), popularly known as Rani Jindan, was the mother of Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire (in modern-day Punjab, both Indian and Pakistani provinces). In 1845-46, while Rani Jindan was Regent to the throne and young Duleep (1838-1893) was Emperor, the Sikh Empire fought the British in the first Anglo-Sikh War, at the end of which the queen was exiled.

The narrative is divided into four sections: Girl, Bride, Queen and Rebel. By the time we hit the ‘Bride’ section, the breathless pace of the first 80-odd pages reduces a little bit, reflecting Jindan’s cautious approach in her new life (in the face of such a drastic change in circumstances, most of us would take some time to adjust). But the pace picks up again once the spectre of the inevitable British invasion rears its ugly head.

She learns how to project strength as a ruler — the wise ruler never provokes war, after all, but is always prepared for it all the same. She also learns how to use kindness like a knife, how to dress up spite as etiquette and compassion — essential skills for premiers and diplomats alike. Late in the book, she is on the eve of meeting her son Duleep after a long time, at a hotel in Calcutta that has been chosen by the British. Upon arrival she learns that the British have booked her the hotel’s best suite, something she wasn’t expecting to see. See how quickly she reins in her aggression and finds the exactly right response:

“My first instinct is to retort, As well they should, having snatched away my palace, my wealth, my kingdom, my freedom and my son. But I remember what Rani Guddan taught me long ago: Let your enemies think they’ve won. So I merely say shukriya and tell Maahi to give baksheesh to the porters bringing my trunks.”

What Divakaruni does successfully with Jindan here — namely, craft a hero for modern-day readers using the bare bones of centuries-old lives — happens to be a very busy section of pop culture right now. Look at the TV zeitgeist: Bridgerton and Medici followed Game of Thrones which itself followed The Borgias. Each of these stories tries, with varying degrees of success, to tell us a pre-modern story in an allusive, postmodern way. Game of Thrones used anachronistic vocabulary while Bridgerton used orchestral versions of 21st-century chartbusters (by Maroon 5 and Taylor Swift et al) as background music.

Divakaruni pulls off a novelist’s version of this narrative trick with The Last Queen. So much so that I won’t be surprised to see an enterprising streaming executive bringing this story on screen soon.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer

Published on April 12, 2021

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