Each time a woman stands up for herself, she stands up for all women, said Maya Angelou. Although she and Rani Jindan Kaur weren’t born in the era, Angelou would have been proud of Rani Jind for setting a precedent.
Our history books do not cover many female monarchs of India. We celebrate their spouses or nearest kin for bravery and outlasting wit. But, rarely do we extend the same courtesy towards a woman ruler.
The Last Queen by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni traces the era of Lahore’s last ruling female monarch before the British looted and colonised Punjab. She was Rani Jindan Kaur, the final and beloved wife of Maharaj Ranjit Singh in the 1800s. The book is divided into four parts.
Unlike the other queens in Ranjit Singh’s court, Rani Jindan wasn’t from royal blood. Born as a dog trainer’s daughter, it was by accident she met her future husband. However, her lineage or societal restrictions did not stop her from fighting for her motherland.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh, during his rule, had unified the whole of Punjab, which extended till Afghanistan. While people remember him as the Lion of Punjab (Shere-e-Punjab), they forget the valour displayed by his Lioness of a wife. Through Jindan’s lens, Divakaruni paints the bountiful kingdom that flourished under his diplomacy.
After his death with enemies drawing in, the responsibility fell on Rani Jind’s shoulders as a regent. Divakaruni paints a compelling picture of a Queen who forcibly learnt the game of politics and used it in her favour. In the court, women were to cover their faces with a veil. She became the first queen to banish that law and strategise alongside her powerful advisers. Rather than simply being a pawn in someone’s game, she uses her cunning to sit on the throne and inspire her men. Initially apprehensive, she convinces the army of thousands with her words.
Divakaruni’s fast-paced narrative keeps the readers gripped throughout the story. The rich world-building and prose encourage us to flex our imagination while transversing us back in time. Even as a weakling, Jindan’s loyalty to her kingdom and battle against the British army is heartwrenching to read. We see the privileges and restrictions that come as loyalty. Divakaruni records the exploitations and manipulations done at the hands of the colonisers. It made me sad for the India that once was.