Bestselling author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Last Queen is the inspiring story of an audacious queen, brought to life in the author’s signature style. While we have all heard tales of Rani Lakshmi Bai and Padmavati, not many of us are familiar with another Indian queen. Daughter of the royal kennel keeper, the sharp-eyed, beautiful, stubborn, and passionate Jindan Kaur went on to become Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s youngest and last queen; his favourite. She became regent when her son Dalip, barely six years old, unexpectedly inherited the throne and went on to become a legendary warrior queen, as feared as she was fearless. Dedicated to protecting her son’s heritage, Jindan distrusted the British and fought hard to keep them from annexing Punjab. Defying tradition, she stepped out of the zenana, cast aside the veil and conducted state business in public. Addressing her Khalsa troops herself, she inspired her men in two wars against the ‘firangs’. Her power and influence were so formidable that the British, fearing an uprising, robbed the rebel queen of everything she had, including her son. She was imprisoned and exiled. But that did not crush her indomitable will.
An exquisite love story of a king and a commoner, a cautionary tale about loyalty and betrayal, and a powerful parable of the indestructible bond between mother and child, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s unforgettable novel brings alive one of the most fearless women of the nineteenth century, an inspiration for our times. Here is an excerpt from The Last Queen which sets the context for the rest of the story and introduces to us the enigma of Rani Jindan –
Jindan hasn’t slept for two nights now, waiting by the sickbed of Maharaja Ranjit Singh along with his other wives. They’ve recited the Guru Granth Sahib until their throats are raw. Birth and death are subject to the command of the Lord’s Will… He who believes in the Name becomes victorious. They’ve given away their finest Kashmiri shawls, jewels, cows, horses, elephants, sacks of gold coins. Jindan doesn’t own as much as the other queens. She came to her marriage empty-handed and has never cared to cajole gifts from her husband. But she, too, has gifted a triple-stranded gold necklace to the Jagannath temple hoping for the recovery of the Sarkar, as his people lovingly call him.
She kneels on the marble floor, grateful for the stone’s coolness, and rests her head against the carved gold bedpost. As the maharaja’s youngest wife, and his favourite, she’s allowed certain liberties. The other women sit straight-spined, palms joined stiffly. Some of them send her cutting glances from under their veils. She doesn’t care. It’s stuffy in this room with too much whispering, too many people— Hindustani vaids, European physicians, the senior courtiers, servants, priests, punkha pullers—and of course the wives, covered from head to foot as custom dictates. Above her head, the canopy bears down, a solid sheet of beaten gold. It oppresses her. Surely it oppresses the maharaja, too. He’d prefer to lie on the roof, she knows, in sight of the stars, as was his pleasure on summer nights. He’d breathe better there in the open with the city which he conquered and made his own stretching out beneath him. The intricate, beloved tapestry of Lahore, city of myth, fashioned from the wilderness before time began by Lav, son of Ram.
But to whom can she say this? Who will listen to her? The power she possessed even a few days ago, as the Sarkar’s favourite queen, has faded.
In a corner of the chamber, the chief minister, Wazir Dhian Singh, his thin, sharp face chiselled from granite, stands still and stern though he must be as exhausted as they. More so, because he has been going back and forth every hour, informing the nobles waiting in the Diwan-i-Khas of the latest developments, reminding Kanwar Kharak Singh to stay close by so he can get to the chamber right away if the king calls for his eldest son and heir. Making sure the army is kept in readiness, just in case the British decide this is a good moment to cross the Sutlej River. In the city they whisper that were it not for Dhian Singh, the day the Sarkar dies the kingdom would shatter like a mud pot dropped by a careless housewife.
Dhian watches the doctors with keen suspicion as they administer medicines and poultices. Where his master is concerned, he trusts no one. When Ranjit Singh mumbles, he’s the one who interprets the sounds rightly and strides forward with a lota of water. He holds the gold pot to the maharaja’s lips, raising his head as tenderly as a mother. The maharaja takes a slow sip and whispers something. Dhian’s eyes widen and, for a moment, dart towards Jindan. He looks troubled, but he touches the maharaja’s hand to his forehead, a gesture of fealty. What is he agreeing to?
Jindan’s temples pound. The mirror-tiles on the walls glitter mockingly. Bits of Dhian’s story float up in her mind: how he came from distant Jammu, young and hungry, knowing no one in the big city. A common trooper, he caught the Sarkar’s attention and rose rapidly, even though he wasn’t Sikh but a Hindu. Her husband was always open-minded that way—quick to spot talent and even quicker to reward it. Perhaps that is why he invoked lifelong loyalty in so many men.
Jindan wishes the Sarkar would open his eyes. Look at me, she wills him. Just once. Then she feels selfish. You don’t need to look at me. Just open your eyes, that’ll be enough. How small he appears in the bed, as though he’s shrunk in these few days. The women have started a new chant: They who practise truth and perform service shall obtain their reward. She joins them, lips moving automatically to the familiar words, but inside her head a different litany plays: What will happen if he dies? What will happen to my baby, my Dalip, who is not even a year old?
She pushes away that traitorous thought. The king has weathered worse. Illnesses, accidents, injuries, hunts and battles gone wrong, his thigh clawed by a tiger, a spear tip breaking off in his chest. Didn’t he survive them? The smallpox in his childhood that took his left eye. The disease in the brain, a few years back, that caused him to fall to the ground, unable to move the left side of his body for days. Didn’t he triumph over them all, ruling the greatest kingdom left in Hindustan? The only man with enough power to hold back the British? That’s how it’s sure to be again. A few weeks and he’ll be laughing that raucous bark of a laugh, asking for his favourite horse, Laila, to be brought to him, feeding her lumps of jaggery with his own hands before springing onto her back. He’ll be calling for more wine, more dancing girls, reworks, pleasure boats, wrestlers, qawwaali singers ferried all the way from Lucknow. And after they’ve all left, it will be just the two of them, intertwined in the cool underground chambers of the Summer Palace, her lips travelling over his body the way he likes…
She’s reeled back into the present by Dhian Singh’s announcement that the queens must return to the zenana quarters. Jindan gathers her courage and protests. ‘Let the others go; I need to remain. I won’t be in anyone’s way.’ She knows how to make herself small and invisible. She learned it in her village childhood from her brother, Jawahar. A useful skill when one needs to escape chastisement. ‘I have to be here when my Sarkar calls for me, as he surely will.’ She imagines her husband’s hand reaching for her, finding nothing. But Dhian shakes his head, courteous, implacable.
Jindan is forced to adjust her veil and file out with the other queens. They don’t look at each other. If they see their fear reflected in another’s eyes, it’ll become real. It’ll bring the Sarkar bad luck.
The ministers have lined up in the passageway outside. The Crown Prince, Kanwar Kharak Singh, stands at their head, looking confused. He’s a good-hearted man but weak and, she’s heard, overfond of opium. Dhian straightens Kharak’s jewelled turban for him, disapproval obvious in his fingers.
A servant rushes up with a gold bowl containing saffron paste. Jindan knows what it’s for. In the presence of his courtiers, the Sarkar is going to put a tika on Kharak’s forehead, binding them to the new king in loyalty so that his beloved Punjab will be safe after he’s gone.
The haveli the king gifted Jindan when she gave birth to Dalip ten months ago is her favourite place in the world. She has never owned a home before this. Her childhood was spent in a village hut belonging to a foul-mouthed landlord who was always threatening to throw them out. The haveli has a few small rooms; its walls are plain yellow sandstone, its floors, slabs of grey, its windows, no more than slits. It is nothing like the palatial homes where the important ranis live, with majestic arches and domes, walls inlaid with precious stones, and mosaic floors intricate with Mughal designs. She wouldn’t have felt at home there; the Sarkar, a perceptive man, and kind when statecraft allowed him to be, knew that.
But tonight she strides blindly through the house, taking no comfort in it. Her maid Mangla, who has been watching over baby Dalip, hurries forward to ask how the Sarkar, God protect him, is doing. Jindan shakes her head. She can’t speak.
‘Dalip is hungry,’ Mangla reminds her.
Jindan’s breasts ache, full and heavy. It would be a relief. But no. She has only a little time. She must use it in the best way.
‘You give him milk,’ she tells Mangla. ‘You lie down with him.’
Usually, Jindan loves nursing Dalip. His weight in her arms, his sucking mouth, that sudden joyful release in her chest. The way his trustful limbs slacken when he falls asleep. But tonight she’s glad that she started him on cow’s milk a few weeks ago. He’s a good baby. He mostly sleeps through the night. Even when he wakes, he will not cry for her. He’s used to being with Mangla because of all the nights Jindan spends with the Sarkar. That’s a good thing. If Dalip cries, she can’t think. His distress cuts into her like a saw.
‘Eat something,’ Mangla begs. ‘You haven’t eaten since yesterday. At least drink a little buttermilk. I made it the way you like, with salt and crushed mint.’
Jindan is touched by Mangla’s concern. But she can’t. She must stay focused. She must carry out the resolution which came to her when she was sent away from the Sarkar’s chamber.
In her bedroom, she takes her thick braid and knots it to one of the bars of the window. This way, if she nods off she’ll be jerked awake. Her plan is to stand at the window all night, facing the samadhi of Jhingar Shah. He was a great saint, the protector of the qila. His spirit still resides in his tomb. When Dalip had the bloody flux, she fasted and prayed there for twenty-four hours, and the next morning her baby opened his eyes and smiled at her.
She’ll beg the saint for his blessing all night. Tomorrow, the Sarkar will be better.
She tightens the knot to make sure it won’t come loose. She faces the samadhi and clasps her hands so hard the skin turns white. She feels the prayer pulsing in her belly.
If Jindan wants something badly enough, she can make it happen. She believes this completely. Isn’t every major event in her life, all twenty-one years of it, proof of this?
How else could she, a girl from a no-name family on the outskirts of a small town, end up in Lahore, city of emperors? How else could she possess a haveli in the heart of this fortress textured by centuries of history? How else could she, the daughter of a dog trainer, become the Sarkar’s favourite queen? How else could she give him what many of his wives, though they were married to him in his prime, failed to produce: a son to delight his old age?
She is about to learn how wrong she is.