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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s new book The Last Queen is an emotional narrative of Punjab’s Rani Jindan, who put up a brave fight against British takeover of her kingdom.
The Palace of Illusions was the first book by Chitra Banarjee Divakaruni that I read and fell in love with, instantly. Mythology being a topic of interest, especially the Mahabharata, I was deeply engrossed in the story and found myself unable to put the book down even after I had finished reading it.
The Last Queen, the gifted writer’s latest offering, is an equally intriguing book that enthrals you, amazes you, and leaves you asking for more long after you have turned the last page.
It is the story of Rani Jindan, the youngest queen of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Lion of Punjab. The Mother of Khalsa, or Mai Jindan, as she came to be known, was born to a commoner, but went on to lead her army against the British after the death of her husband and became the regent to her six-year-old son who inherited the throne.
It is the inspiring story of a passionate woman who was a dazzling combination of intelligence, bravery, beauty, and fearlessness. A woman who impressed the Maharaja with her spunk and her forthrightness, her courage and her spirit at the tender age of sixteen. A woman, who, through this book, invokes in you the spirit to fight your circumstances and come out a winner.
I liked the first person narrative style the author has used throughout the book. It gives you the feeling of being by her side as the last queen of Punjab Jindan opens her heart to us and invites us into her life as she narrates her story. We become a part of her world through her words, living and breathing the life she lives and watching it unfold in ways she, and we, may never have imagined.
It begins with her childhood, meanders through her growing years, her teenage, when she falls in love with the Maharaja, her life as a new bride, a young mother and then a widow who vows to carry on her husband’s legacy despite facing stiff opposition for being a woman in a man’s domain. Later, it takes us through the period, when as a victim of treachery by the British, her son is snatched from her. It is followed by her daring escape from India and concludes with her old age when she reunites with her grown-up son, travels to London for his happiness, and eventually, passes on.
The twists and turns that come into her life when she least expects it, the good times and the bad, the people she meets–the ones who support her and those who oppose her–make for an engaging story that keeps you captivated right till the end.
There are times when you are so moved by her story, you wish you could reach out to her! She is a woman after all, just like you and me. A woman who follows her heart for the sake of her son, for the sake of her beloved Punjab, and sometimes for the sake of her own. A woman who is often a victim to her feelings, to temptations, just like us; who berates herself for the wrong decisions she makes, but eventually accepts her follies and forgives herself.
The vivid imagery transports you into that era — the earlier half of the 19th century. You find yourself amidst every scene that takes place in the story. Be it the time, when as a little girl, Jindan yearns to stay in school, or, when she joins her elder brother, Jawahar, in adventures mostly to find food to fill their hungry bellies. Her humble life in her village with her mother, sister and her brother. Her visit with her father to Lahore where she is enchanted by the beauty of the place, of the architecture, the exquisite gardens and where she falls in love with the Maharaja.
Every setting, every scene has been described so beautifully, it brings the moment and the place alive in front of your eyes!
The grand Shalimar gardens where she spends time with the Maharaja; the moments when they feel attracted to each other; the tender love shared by the much older husband and his very young wife; the desperation she feels when her husband falls victim to age and sickness. These were my favourite moments in the book.
The political scenario of the period when we, in our greed for power, allowed the British to overpower us and treat us as mere puppets is indeed heartbreaking. The bloodshed that follows every war, the refusal to unite as one and fight against the British and the frustration felt by those whose heart bled for the country leaves you feeling sad and angered.
The desperation for unity and integrity is palpable in the pages that describe the atmosphere from the period when our country succumbed to the power of the British and crumbled to a pitiful version. Power in the wrong hands and also the hunger for power that makes men stoop to such levels where they lose the respect of their countrymen seems to be a continuing trend, indeed!
As a mother who meets her long-lost son, she puts aside her happiness for his sake. The moments when she yearns to see the spark in his eyes that she did in her husband’s eyes — that of love for their Punjab — are poignant.
It is indeed heartbreaking reading about the way her son’s life changed after he was separated from her. But, the end also carries in it a ray of hope for Jindan, and for the people of Punjab, and therein lies the mother’s victory despite all that she lost in her life.
The courage to fight your circumstances, to create your identity despite the obstacles in your path; the strength to live life on your terms, to face the consequences of your decisions, bravely, and to forgive yourself for being human, and to keep fighting till the very end in spite of the pitfalls are the signs of a true hero. And, Rani Jindan is one such hero who inspires us to emulate her fighter’s spirit and give our best, irrespective of the difficulties, and mostly, people’s opinions that threaten to pull us down.
These words by the last queen of Punjab, Jindan, are so powerful, so full of inspiration, they are sure to stay with you for life:
“I may be injured; I may even be wounded to the heart, but I’m not defeated yet.”
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Image source: By George Richmond – Link and book cover Amazon
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