Book Review: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s ‘The Last Queen’

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By Jindagi Kumari 

“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” – Chinua Achebe

The epigraph in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s novel, The Last Queen (2021) reminds one of Dan Brown’s lines in The Da Vinci Code: “History is always written by the winners” and “…history is always a one-sided account.” Both Achebe and Brown seem to question the process of formulating history for its complicity with the powerful. Divakaruni’s present novel aims to address this fallacy of history by engaging imaginatively and empathetically with the tales of “the loser”, particularly a woman ignored and relegated to subsidiary a position by history. In The Last Queen, Divakaruni breathes life into the story of the forgotten queen, Jindan Kaur, the youngest wife of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the illustrious ruler who built the powerful Sikh empire in the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Venturesome

Divakaruni plots The Last Queen with Jindan at the centre of the narrative because Jindan’s life and persona offer many “inspiring” and extraordinary facets. Jindan rose to become the “favourite” wife of Ranjit Singh, and later, the queen regent, from the position of the daughter of the royal kennel keeper. Her charm, however, is not limited to these few accidental and fairy tale episodes. Rather, it is nurtured by her individuality, decisions, and responses to unprecedented and trying situations in her life. Jindan survives royal conspiracies, rivalries among the successors to the throne, murders of several of Ranjit Singh’s heirs, and house arrests (to protect her son Dalip Singh). In the process, she transitions into a queen who could strategize and influence. Courage is Jindan’s strong suit, and it marks all her relationships, whether with Ranjit Singh, the nobles in the Lahore court, the Khalsa (army), the people or the British.

“Correcting” the “gendered gaze” of history

The Last Queen stirs as a thoughtful attempt to right the wrongs of history. While history celebrates Ranjit Singh’s well-deserved achievements (his unification of the scattered Sikh misls into a sovereign state of Punjab, his constant, and successful, effort to protect it from Afghan invaders), it maligns Jindan as “promiscuous”, “Messalina of Punjab” and a “She-devil” (313). As protagonist narrator, Jindan gets a chance to speak up against the unfair and treacherous British: “My blood boils when I see the British agent Lawrence, strolling around the fortress as though he owns it” (273).

Jindan is assertive, bold, and free-thinking. She is aware of her personal aspirations, stately duties, and injustices against women in general. As a young widow, she acknowledges her desire for the courtier, Lal Singh, and interrogates the accepted female behaviour: “I’m parched for love” (237) and “…should I be sentenced to loneliness just because I wish to protect my son?” (242).

Jindan is repelled by the practice of sati. When Guddan, one of Ranjit Singh’s wives, wishes to exercise her “divine right to become a sati”, Jindan finds herself at odds: “Am I the only one who thinks this is horrifying?” (167).

Even as a young girl in her village, Gujranwala, Jindan demonstrates her fighting spirit and confronts boys stalking her on the way to school: “I collected rocks in my schoolbag, …when their catcalls made me lose my temper, I threw them at the boys…I hit the leader’s head. There was blood” (21).

During Ranjit Singh’s fatal sickness she decides to be with him despite the advice of the Wajir: “I throw back my veil, shocking him. ‘Wajir ji, you know the Sarkar needs me. Is some outdated custom more important than that? I glare till he agrees.”

The history of Jindan’s time, written largely by the British historians or European travellers, presents the queen in a negative light. Shyam Bhatia in the article “Jindan’s Pride” writes:

The greedy British forces … started a propaganda campaign describing her as …prostitute, seductress and the ‘Messalina of the Punjab’, a reference to the promiscuous third wife of Roman Emperor Claudius. The…British implemented a policy of divide and rule, playing off Rani Jindan against the Supreme Council of the Khalsa and the coterie of powerful Sikh generals…

Divakaruni’s The Last Queen is a riveting rebuttal to the “… outsiders’ (the British), …looters’” (263) version of Jindan as an unkind mother and a “mad” (302) woman. In the novel, Jindan not just “appear(s)” (John Berger, Ways of Seeing) but also counters the slander propagated by the dominant, historical male gaze: “Respected durbar, my character has been wrongfully blackened by certain personages who wish to exile me from court” (249).

She is not “the beautiful object of contemplation” but a woman who orders construction of Ranjit Singh’s samadhi, motivates the army, rebels against the British (1860-63), undertakes asylum under Raja Jung Bahadur of Nepal, waits (for decades) to meet her exiled son, and instills in his anglicized self the lost pride of Shikism.

From King to Queen: Reinstating the “Domestic space”

The novel has four parts; “Girl”, “Bride”, “Queen”, and “Rebel”, each of which embosses the female spirit and power, the personal, the maternal, and the everyday of the historical and royal household. Sicknesses and caregiving, infatuations, maternal instincts, patriotism, bravery, and patience are concerns as important as “victory celebrations”, expeditions, battles, and diplomatic alliances. Ranjit Singh’s persona as “Sher-e-Punjab”, an exquisite soldier and a leader, is given additional dimension of a “doting husband” and a typical father: “Once or twice his eye fills with tears. I wipe them away quickly. He wouldn’t want his courtiers to see the Lion of Punjab weeping like an ordinary father” (164).

In reading The Last Queen, one feels treated as a companion and confidante of the uninhibited and vulnerable protagonist who shares her life, decisions, desires, flaws, in a voice that is as spontaneous as it is majestic. Resolute and flowing like butter, the narrative commands both immediate and sustained attention of the audience. Indian words such as Biji (9), khet (10), gaalis (13), Naulakha (17), Sarkar (41), bewakoof (26), jannab (38), Kambakht (38), etc. occur independent of footnotes or italicization.

The language is simple, and yet enriched with epigrams holding moral tension and sensibility of a modern woman. Some of Jindan’s impactful precepts and witticism are: “Is it appropriate to pray on a thieving mission?” (9), “I want to be a provider like him, not just a mouth to feed” (10), “I’ve never met a man so comfortable with truth” (47), “How quickly we learn the habits of luxury” (65), “Silence is a persuasive tool” (72), “I’d walk through fire to see Dalip” (299).

The Last Queen is a gripping tale that renders past pulsate with life. It offers a surreal sojourn to Moti Bazaar, Diwan-i-Khas, Sheesh Mahal, and other structures within Badshahi Qila of Lahore in all their hubbub and grandeur. Divakaruni masterfully intertwines the story and character to these places, leaving their imprints on the reader’s memory. Gujranwala (Jindan’s village) is drawn vividly via Jawahar adventure of “stealing food” (9) for they don’t have “enough to eat.” Jindan traverses the “dusty paths” (10), “cornfields to the left” or “orchard to the right” and reaches the “guava groves”: “We sit on the bank of the grass-choked stream that strutters along behind our hut, pretty enough but sadly devoid of fish.” Soon after our eyes are accustomed to the pristine location and penury of the village, we are on a trip to Lahore, as wonderstruck by its splendour and riches as Jindan and Jawahar following their father Manna in its alleys.

These visual treats are creation of Divakaruni’s imaginativeness, aligned intuitively with historic references. She admits to have dug up Jindan’s story from chronicled accounts of her husband, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and son, Dalip Singh. Taking cues from old letters, diaries, photographs, and paintings, Divakaruni fleshes out the “magnetic”, “fiery, strong and pure” persona of Jindan as intimately as if Jindan is her alter ego. One can’t agree more with William Dalrymple’s observation on the cover of the book: “Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is writing at the very top of her game.”

Bio:
Dr. Jindagi Kumari is Assistant Professor at Maharaja Surajmal Institute of Technology, New Delhi (affiliated to Guru Govind Singh Indraprastha University) where she has been teaching English Language and Communication Skills for the last 6 years. She also taught temporarily at the National Institute of Technology, Jamshedpur, and Sri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi University. She completed her PhD on Indian English Poetry from ISM-IIT Dhanbad. The areas of her research interest are Indian English Literature, Post-colonial Studies, and English Language Teaching, among others. She has published short stories and poems in Journals such as Muse India, Setu, Kitaab, The Bombay Review, and Teesta Review.

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One thought

  1. The Review makes us know an unknown story of the Indian history in a short time. The protagonist ,Jindan has been described as a real heroin of the Sikh kingdom .The beauty of the language has been discovered.Praiseworthy review.

    Like

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