Maharani Jindan Kaur – the last, and (as recorded accounts tell us, the loveliest) wife of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the most famous and iconic ruler of Punjab, a figure we know very little about, when compared to other historical figures from her era.
There’s still much that’s known about her son, Maharaja Duleep Singh, the ‘Black Prince’, the last Maharaja of Punjab, but of the brave, wily, enigmatic mother, historical accounts are by no means abundant, perhaps because she was a perennial thorn in the flesh of the avaricious British intent on annexing this richest of the last remaining independent kingdoms of Hindustan.
Lucky for us though, that Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, decided to write ‘The Last Queen’, in her own inimitable style of connecting the dots and filling in the gaps on what’s not known. I think, apart from her style of writing, Divakaruni has this special knack for really delving deep into the psyche of her female characters, be it Draupadi, or Sita, and now Jindan Kaur, and writing their point of view, with a surreal realism . She makes them come alive, almost as if in their own words, like a medium channeling the memories of a long departed soul. This isn’t just about meticulous research, which she’s done plenty of for writing ‘The Last Queen’s, because Jind Kaur isn’t a woman of myth and legends (like Draupadi or Sita), but one of history, and that too recent and pivotal history. Sketchy though, there are accounts of Jindan’s beauty, her poor antecedents and chance meeting with the Maharaja, her marriage to him by sword, and the birth of their son, and all that followed by way of death and war and treachery. Divakaruni takes all of these and deftly weaves them into a seamless narrative, written in her trademark first person style, to give us a rich tale of rags to riches, rise to power, duty and love – for land and child, people and family.
There are all these emotions, that women are familiar with, and that can too often become our motives for doing or not doing something, reacting in a certain way, and that is a nuance that is found in all of Divakaruni’s books, and that to me is her biggest USP – she takes these women from the pages of history and gives them color, she turns them into flesh and blood characters right in front of our eyes, in their finery and austerity, with their wisdom and their whims and petulance and pride and passion.
In real life too, Maharani Jindan Kaur lived a tumultous life but died a quiet death, and this transition doesn’t come across as forced in the book either – there is no hurried writing towards the end, the narrative does not falter in its pace, and that is what makes this a book that kept me awake over the last few nights, promising myself that I would read ‘just one more page’ and then sleep.
If you enjoy reading fictional accounts based on essential grains of historical truths, then this is a well written one, about the woman once called the ‘Messalina of Punjab’ by the British invaders, to whom she was a constant thorn in the flesh in all kinds of ways, lending as much support as she could to the war for independence in her life and times. Even though they took her son from her, brainwashed him using his childhood as a convenient excuse, even made him convert his religion, stole the Koh-i-noor and his birthright, she did manage to win him back in the end, and that too was an essential win in all kinds of ways.
“Jo bole so nihaal, Sat Sri Akaal “, indeed.