Book- The Last Queen
Author- Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
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Release date -2021
Genre- Historical Fiction
The unsung heroines of Indian history are how I would like to describe many of the women who though an integral part of who we are, have been forgotten and buried in history pages. And I love the way some of our modern writers like Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Kavita Kane, to name a few, have taken it upon themselves to pull these women out of these pages and reacquaint us with them. In many cases, the books have been written from the perspective of some of these female characters like Sita, Draupadi, Menaka and Ahalya to enable the readers to look at the world from their eyes, understand their views and look at history from their standpoint.
I feel that we have always been made to read and believe what our patriarchal society wants us to believe, and the reality gets pushed aside. This endeavour of pulling out these unsung heroines is a welcome and much-needed change. Looking at history from the viewpoint of a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a mother can be so different and so enlightening.
The story of Rani Jindan, the youngest and the last queen of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh and his favourite, falls into this category. I don’t think her life was ever the focus of any historian simply because they did not consider it significant enough. In any case, most of our history books are about men, their heroism, courage and bravery, with a very little mention about the women who formed a part of those men’s lives. A woman’s life, her challenges, her struggles were never the point of discussion as they were trivial, so to say. But as a woman, I feel getting insights into a female historical character can be a huge learning for modern women as their lives have a lot to learn and imbibe from. That is the reason why I like to read such books. I find them to be rewarding, enriching and a huge source of inspiration.
The Last Queen is the story of the life of Jindan, a life that takes her from the home of her father, a humble kennel keeper, to the palace of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh. Though getting married to a king would be a dream come true for many a girl, the reality, as in this case, is far from being a pleasant one. Though she gets married to him, her life is not exactly a bed of roses. She has to face her share of palace intrigue, jealousy, and hostility. But the young girl takes it all in her stride.
Chitra brings out the boldness of her character very early on in the story when she narrates the incident of a young Jindan facing up to the boys who try to tease her. This boldness gets revealed once again when she stands up to Mai Nakhan and refuses to be intimidated by her.
The girl though aware of her humble origin, never lets that affect her interactions with people. Though a little hesitant initially, she gets used to a queen’s life quickly with the support and encouragement from her husband, Guddan and Mangala. By nature, she is confident, she is gutsy, and though in awe of Sarkar, she interacts with him are on an equal footing.
Jindan is a woman with strong relationships. Her bonds with her brother, Jawahar, with Guddan, Mangala speak of her loyalty towards all of them. Her love for her husband is deep-rooted. Her interactions with him reveal her to be a smart and intelligent woman though not very well educated. She is able to offer him her opinion on various issues concerning his empire. Though young enough to be his daughter Ranjeet Singh can relate to her in many ways and share the threats and challenges that he faces.
She is widowed at a young age left behind with a child who is not only young but the heir to the throne. It is a huge responsibility, but she takes it on without any hesitation. Fearlessly she stands up to the British to protect her son’s rights. And though she is betrayed by several people, she remains unnerved and firm in her resolve. She is the queen / the regent and therefore the keeper of tradition, but she does not hesitate to cast aside her veil to address her troops when the need arises.
And then, when her son is taken away by the British in an action that reeks of treachery and deceit, she is heartbroken. Her feelings of anger, sorrow are brought out very well by Chitra. The reader’s heart goes out to her, and you can actually feel her pain. But the woman does not accept defeat.
Her courage, fearlessness is brought out by the way she faces the British, her imprisonment, exile and then her journey all the way to Nepal, where she seeks asylum.
After years of pining for her son, the joy she experiences at the prospect of meeting the all grown up Dalip is brought out vividly. Though she has yearned and prayed for him, she is disappointed to see how anglicized he has become. Her heart breaks when she realizes that he doesn’t care too much about the country of his birth. The book brings the various highs and lows of her life in a very realistic manner.
Chitra has related the story in a simple and engaging manner which is so typical of her style. Though Jindan is a queen with a fancy lifestyle, the reader can identify with her and her challenges as she is a woman at the end of the day. And like every woman, her life has its share of struggle and strife. A notable feature of the book is that the author does not try to glorify Jindan. She is a human being; she is a woman with her set of weaknesses, vulnerabilities and flaws. Her character is real and relatable. After all, we all have flaws, and so does Jindan.
It is a book that brings Jindan back to us, a fearless woman who history had forgotten. It is a poignant tale of love, betrayal, patriotism, loyalty and the beautiful bond between a mother and her child.
The book clearly brings out how it is the life that we lead, and the experiences we go through that make us what we are, shape our personalities.
I would highly recommend it to every woman.