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Historical fiction becomes richer when it resonates in the present too. Does The Queen’s Last Salute by Moupia Basu deliver in those terms?
The year is 1842 and an ageing king has brought home a wife – a young bride, all of fourteen years – whom the townsfolk are eager to catch a glimpse of. Word is that she is a strange girl, one who wields a sword and is a trained horse-rider. More bizarre is the fact that she has grown up playing with boys and is smart, witty, maybe even a little cheeky.
While people begin to gather in the Diwan-E-Aam, ten-year-old Meera is arguing with her mother, Saanvali, in the zenana, about why she needs to dress up to meet the queen. At the same time, she is curious to learn how this peculiar girl, only a few years older than her, has managed to accomplish things unheard of for women, and how her arrival will change their ordinary lives.
When Saanvali brings her daughter up to the dais to meet Queen Lakshmibai, Meera, finally getting her chance to satiate her curiosity, looks straight into the queen’s eyes and asks, ‘Is it true that you ride horses?’ Even as the durbar hall lapses into silence, stunned by Meera’s insolence, the queen simply asks her name. Meera seems to remind her of a peacock – slender and graceful, with a hint of arrogance. But it is her large dark eyes that sparkle with innocence. The queen rechristens her Chandraki and announces that henceforth, Chandraki will be her companion.
Drawn from her travel experiences and subsequent research around the rich folklore and history of Jhansee, Moupia Basu spins a fascinating historical thriller inspired from the life of the Rani of Jhansee, leading up to the events of the 1857 uprising. While Basu loops in all major historical events and characters of the time, starting from when Manikarnika married Maharaj Gangadhar Rao Newalkar and made Jhansi her home, the axis of this particular narrative is the relationship between the Queen and Chandraki. As I see it, more than Rani Lakshmibai it is Chandraki who is the lead protagonist, for it is through her eyes that we watch the events of Maharani Lakshmibai’s life unfold amidst the pages.
As Lakshmibai busies herself in ruling over Jhansee alongside her husband and keeping the firanghees at bay, Chandraki remains by her side as her companion and lady-in-waiting. In turn, the queen educates Chandraki in the arts – language, horse-riding and swordsmanship. Being the alert young woman that she is, Chandraki often reports to the queen on matters concerning the people and the state. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship bonded with the strength of a deep friendship. Perhaps it is this friendship that lands Chandraki in a situation she never imagined.
A fascinating aspect of reading historical fiction is in realising how authors, inspired by true events, and using characters that are entirely a figment of their imagination, create an absolutely novel world of their own. Here too, Basu weaves a politically significant tale based on India’s history and gives it a romantic, coming-of-age flavour.
Chandraki’s first brush with love and her subsequent desire to seek her beloved lands her right in the heart of the enemy. Fighting the British on one end and anticipating their neighbour to lay siege on the other, Chandraki is entrusted with a mission she grudgingly accepts. She soon finds that none of her training could have prepared her for what is expected of her. Her heart and mind running in opposite directions, she reminds herself where her loyalty lies and what she must do to save her land and her queen.
Tastefully seasoned with the picturesque natural beauty of the region and its majestic forts and temples, Moupia Basu offers a colourful peek into the valiant lives of two women who defied their gender in order to safeguard what rightfully belonged to them. It is of little importance then that one was a queen and another a commoner. What matters is that they were driven by their objective, and refused to bow down to a patriarchal society without a fight.
In that, The Queen’s Last Salute is a more than fiction. It is a tribute to the beginnings of female heroism in India.
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Image source: a still from the movie Manikarnika, book cover via Amazon
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