Summary and Story:
The daughter of the royal kennel keeper who went on to become Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s youngest and last queen. The Last Queen by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is the tale of Rani Jindan Kaur, Mother of the Khalsa. The fierce queen history forgot.
A regent queen to her son, she defied tradition to step out of the zenana, and conduct the royal business in public. The sharp-eyed and passionate queen who led the Khalsa troops to war. A rebel queen who did not let go even after being robbed of her only child.
It is a tale of loyalty and betrayal. And of a woman’s indomitable will to protect her own, her child, and her kingdom.
As a Sikh, I consider myself somewhat well-versed with Sikh history. My grandfather had a comprehensive library that included books on our Gurus, the history, and the chiefs of Punjab. I had read Khushwant Singh’s book, A History of the Sikhs a long time back. But I must confess I did not know much about Rani Jindan Kaur.
The book is divided into four sections – Girl, Bride, Queen, and Rebel that narrate the phases in the life of the queen. It is narrated in the first person. The book is meticulously researched although there seem to be quite a few creative liberties. Much like her previous book, The Forest of Enchantments, we don’t really know about the inner thoughts of the historical figures. But in true Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni style, it does not overpower or look out of place.
‘And remember this: whenever possible, don’t fight openly with your enemy. Let them think they’ve won—and then strike when least expected.’
Generally, biographies tend to whitewash a historical figure. Barely even mentioning the flaws. On the contrary, The Last Queen is as honest as it gets. Complete with her hot-headed decisions including the one the marked the beginning of the end of the empire. She is equally flawed and indomitable. And almost unlikable at some points.
In the case of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, he is usually portrayed as a larger-than-life and just man. The book explores a different side of him from the history books – one with a harem and concubines. And one who went to war shedding the blood of a thousand soldiers just to stoke his ego after an insult.
Perhaps we are always alone, from the time we leave the safety of our mothers’ wombs until the time Waheguru gathers us to Himself.
Although a pacy ready, the book began a bit slow for me. I didn’t care much about the way the queen fell in love with the king and all the politics in the zenana. It is only after the king’s death that the story actually began to take shape. The wheeling dealings. Kingmakers and coalitions. The backstabbing, both literally and figuratively. Incidents that make your skin crawl when you realize they actually occurred.
The book is a classic example of history always being written by the victors. When one thinks of warrior queens in Indian history, only a few come to mind. Rani Lakshmibai and Razia Sultan. What about the Gondwana queen, Rani Durgavati who refused to surrender to the enemy. The Maratha queen, Maharani Tarabai who brought Aurangzeb to his knees. One of the first female freedom fighters, the Queen of Sivaganga, Velu Nachiyar. I am sure there would be other women too we don’t know. Is history sexist? Perhaps it is.
This is the tragedy of Hindustan: our disunity. Our enemies have used it against us over and over.
The book can be considered a lesson in history. Up until the first war of independence and its aftermath. The last few chapters are more focused on her son, Dalip Singh, which does take away from the book. It is also highly critical of the British empire and rightfully so.
I began reading the book on my Kindle and switched to the audiobook when it was released. I enjoyed both versions although I am a bit partial to the audiobook. Overall, I highly recommend the book. If not for anything else, read it to know more about the forgotten warrior queen. I wish more authors would explore these fierce women instead of mythological retellings.
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About the author
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an award-winning and bestselling author, poet, activist, and teacher of writing. Her themes include the Indian experience, contemporary America, women, immigration, history, myth, and the joys and challenges of living in a multicultural world. Her work has been published widely, in magazines and anthologies, and her books have been translated into twenty-nine languages. Several of her works have been made into films and plays.
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