When asked by maharaja Ranjit Singh what she would like as a wedding present—gold, pearls, a palace—18-year-old Jindan Kaur asks for a smart and trustworthy maid. Jindan, the daughter of the royal kennel keeper, is a practical woman and her marriage to one of the most powerful men in 19th century India, ruler of the sprawling Sikh empire that spread from the Khyber Pass to Tibet, cannot change that.
Narrated in the first person, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Last Queen paints Jindan as an inspiring figure. Widowed at 21, Jindan became regent when her six-year-old son, Dalip Singh, inherited the throne after a chain of events that would put Game Of Thrones to shame. She casts aside the veil to attend court, even riding out to address the Khalsa troops herself.
Though Rani Jindan is mired in ideas of pride and vengeance and makes terrible political decisions remarkably often, there is tenderness to the way Divakaruni approaches her story. The novel is a light read, without the philosophical trappings of some of her previous books. Divakaruni tells me she was aiming for “a more contemporary approach befitting the story of a person who comes from a solid peasant background”. The narrative moves from young adult-style steamy romance to hard-edged history pretty swiftly, with Jindan establishing herself as a formidable character the British are increasingly wary of.
Though there have been a few books on this leg of history in the past decade—from Anita Anand’s Sophia (2015), on the youngest daughter of Dalip Singh, to Koh-i-Noor, which Anand co-authored with historian William Dalrymple—this period novel casts light on a figure we know little about. Few might know, for instance, that Jindan escaped British prison to journey on foot to Nepal and that she used Punjabi newspapers to spread word of her plight.
The prolific Divakaruni, who teaches creative writing at the University of Houston, is now exploring another historical fiction. We spoke about why there is such little material on Jindan Kaur, British smear campaigns, and what makes an historical retelling successful. Edited excerpts:
You have been interested in women in mythology, with Draupadi in ‘Palace Of Illusions’ (2008) and Sita in ‘The Forest Of Enchantments’ (2019). With ‘The Last Queen’, you move from mythology to history. What drew you to Jindan Kaur?
Sometimes, the book chooses you. I was in India for the release of Forest last year and William Dalrymple and Anita Anand were out with their book, Koh-i-Noor. Their book had only a few pages on Rani Jindan Kaur but it left a mark on me. I kept thinking about this woman. What bothered me was that so much has been written about her husband Ranjit Singh and their son Dalip Singh but they completely left her out of the stories.
For me, the exercise was not unlike Palace or Forest, where the women were pushed to the margins of the stories. I found Rani Jindan Kaur’s story undeniably fascinating—how did it feel for a dog-keeper’s daughter to fall in love with a powerful king and have him fall in love with you? How did she escape British prison, make the journey to Nepal by foot? She had an indomitable spirit. If you think about it, Jindan isn’t unlike Sita: She lost her relationship with her son and tried to regain it. She was a widow who brought up her infant son in a court that was decidedly against her.
The British campaign against Jindan was vicious, describing her as a prostitute, seductress and the ‘Messalina of the Punjab’. It is yet another example of a powerful woman whose character was maligned to shame her…
Yes, very much. When I started reading her story, there were times I would just be so angry that I would have to get up and pace around the house. The British launched an obnoxious smear campaign—there were really ugly stories. She did have a lover and I write about him. I wanted to bring that in to be truthful to her life.
Do you believe the British smear campaign impacted Indian memory of her as well?
I think so because it is interesting how so little is written about her. There are one or two thin little books on her and even they don’t go deep into her story. There’s comparatively a lot more on Lakshmibai and Padmavati. Perhaps the smear campaign was insidiously successful. Even (the late) Khushwant Singh, who has written extensively on the Sikh empire, didn’t really expand on her.
While Jindan’s story is about being a woman in a man’s world, the female relationships in the story are crucial. Can you tell me more about this?
The subject of female solidarity is of great interest to me. In some ways, Jindan stands head and shoulders above the others. But her friends, the other ranis, Guddan and Pathani, and her maid, Mangla, were a huge support. I wanted to show how these women textured Jindan’s life. Another woman who was important in the narrative, though not Jindan’s friend, was Ranjit Singh’s chief queen, Mai Nakkain, who controlled the politics of the zenana. It was also a lot of fun writing these parts.
Jindan takes the first steps in building an intimacy with Ranjit Singh. This seems to be something she has in common with your heroines.
That’s right—Draupadi, but even in her own quiet way Sita is quite forthright. None of my characters are ashamed of expressing love and desire. I wanted Jindan to play an active role in her romance. I thought about why the king would marry the daughter of his dog trainer. There was no financial or political angle there, whereas most of his other wives had important family members.
To give him credit, it’s also about the strength of Ranjit Singh’s character that he didn’t exploit his position. He had several wives but the marriages were always conducted very respectfully, not common for the time. The book is about Jindan but I wanted readers to admire certain aspects of Singh. He leads by example, he was concerned about how she would fare once he was gone. But on a certain level, they were equals, and he respected that.
Your book seems to be part of a global wave of retelling the past with a focus on women, whether it’s The New York Times’ Overlooked obituaries series or the TV show on Catherine the Great. When does a retelling succeed according to you?
In Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, too, although the main character is a man, it is women retelling the story. I feel that the books or films that do it well succeed when instead of having a simplistic agenda they want to show the complexity of these women characters. Jindan is a very human heroine, with positive and negative sides. Her love for her brother is a big weakness. Besides, she had to pay the price for having one lover at a time when kings had hundreds of wives and concubines in their harems. It was such a huge issue at court that even the army chiefs thought they should discuss it with her.
Jindan should have had a story told with her at the centre long before this.
A large part of the book is about palace intrigue and political manoeuvres. In this aspect, Jindan’s impulsiveness and vow of vengeance led to the destruction of the Khalsa army—some even hold her accountable for the fall of Punjab. What were the challenges in writing the story of a heroic but flawed historical figure?
From the beginning, I was very aware of the fact that Rani Jindan Kaur is a flawed character, and part of my attempt, along with showcasing her courage and spirit, is to present her faults honestly. As you mention, her passionate desire for vengeance, after the Khalsa army brutally kills her dear brother Jawahar, leads her to make some unwise decisions and ultimately precipitates the First Anglo-Sikh War and the defeat that follows.
Jindan’s flaws, I believe, make her more human and more tragic. I hope that readers, even while they admire her for her heroic determination, will relate to her on a whole other level because of her flaws. After all, who among us is perfect?
If you could have a conversation with anyone right now, dead or alive, who would it be?
With this book in mind, I would love to sit down with Jindan and ask her if I got her story right.
Conversations At Large is a fortnightly interview column. Anindita Ghose is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai.