- “The Last Queen” springs from the author’s vivid imagination encompassing the extraordinary life, love, reign, and the fall of a woman of substance.
To read Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s award-winning historical fiction, “The Last Queen,” based on the life of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s last wife Rani Jindan Kaur is to sink your teeth into a freshly plucked, still ripening guava from the tree. One bite augurs an explosion into myriad tastes, imagery, vistas, and reflections. Tart, sweet, exotic, and exquisite in concept and execution.
My ancestors hail from the land of plenty and the blood of the Punj-Ab (the five mighty rivers) courses through my veins. I admire Divakarurni for addressing a region that is not in her comfort zone because she hails from the glorious state of Bengal.
Divakaruni is blessed with a vivid imagination and being privy to the extensive library at her disposal she conjured up a tale that transports the reader into the ubiquitous soil of my beloved birthplace.
I was born in Amritsar and my father’s family hailed from the “dream city” of Lahore. They left their ancestral home during the tumultuous Partition of India in 1947. I have heard my great-grandmother Maji tell me stories of sleeping on their terrace under the stars just like Raja Ranjit Singh liked on a summer night. She talked with nostalgia about how she hid her triple-layered gold necklace (similar to the one the mighty king gifted his beautiful young wife) in the folds of a khes. I enjoyed reading about the simple life of Jind Kaur in Gujranwala. Serendipitously the ancestors of Rishi Sunak, the UK’s current prime minister are from the same place.
Divakaruni has deftly recreated an ordinary childhood with a worried Beeji not having enough to feed her kids. Jindan’s girlish quibbles with her sister, pinches, pillow fights, two precious white salwars, phulkari shawls, and broken chappals. A childhood bond with her older brother Jawahar knitted by sharing apricots, purple jamuns, scraped knees, and marrow sucked from goat meat.
Unsaid words, promises made and kept. A father who worked away from home. A simple life of any young girl in a village. But this girl was different. She was destined to be a queen. It was fascinating that Chitra gleaned details of how Jindan’s mother borrowed plates from neighbors to feed the community. How she told the children to get fresh jalebis and not stale ones. I could feel the sticky syrup of those jalebis on my fingers drip through the pages of the book.
When Manna (Jindan’s father) took the young brother and sister to Lahore, I was amazed to see the grandeur of the mythical city often described with tears in his eyes by my father, the young Swadesh aka Kaka who was forced to leave his home at the same tender age as the young protagonist.
I have heard about the age of Renaissance with music, poetry, culture, inclusion, and diversity. Of colorful, bustling bazaars. Traders hawking wares from overseas: Diaphanous silks, velvets, juttis, bangles, halwa-puri and biryanis from my father. I could recognize the qila, the Naulakha pavilion, the Baroodkhana masjid, and the gardens overflowing with roses, but I had not heard of the glittering Sheesh Mahal, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s primary residence.
I knew of the bearded Sher-e-Punjab, or Lion of Punjab, whose kingdom extended up to Afghanistan, ruled Punjab during the first half of the 19th century — from 1801 to 1839. He proudly rode on elephants through the Badshahi, Sheranwalla and Hathi Darwaza and I have seen similar ones in my birthplace Amritsar but to witness the glorious spectacle during Baisakhi celebrations with people dressed in yellow and gold has always been a dream of mine. In some ways through her vivid descriptions, Divakaruni made me fly back into that era.
Many Punjabi traditions are stitched into the narrative like water surahis on every crossroad, plunging a watermelon in a pail of water before cutting it, giving alms to beggars on Sankrant and Pooranmasi, doing seva at the gurdwara Dhera Sahib and Harmandir Sahib with a solid gold dome installed by the generous and pious Ranjit Singh.
Women wearing a veil, reciting the Gurubani from Sundar gutka, craving tart cauliflower pickle and wearing red juttis. Each page of the novel is studded with tiny delights like the sweet lentil pearls of a motichoor ladoo. It was wonderful to learn about Jindan’s hero worship of the charismatic, elegantly dressed Ranjit Singh and how she won his heart with her simplicity. His trust in her and promise of marriage bore witness to his keen insight into human nature, lasting friendships and ability to instill loyalty into his subordinates.
He loved Jindan because “she listened with her entire body,” was not greedy, was interested in the affairs of the court and wanted to preserve the strength of Punjab. Jo bole So Nehal; Sat Sri Akal. After marrying his sword in his absence and then reuniting with him in Lahore Jindan spent a few happy years with her aging King. Learning from him how to deal with the encroaching British Lords who could never be trusted (Laat Sahibs) and getting to know his adviser the fakeer, his Wazir Dhiyan Singh, the intrigues of the court and Ranjit Singh’s complex relationship with his wives. Jindan’s trust in rani Guddan (who to my utter dismay commits Sati). The trustworthy maid Mangla unlike Kaikeyi’s Mantra protects her queen from all disasters, including poison and blasphemy.
The second part of the book after the final stroke that takes Ranjit Singh’s life deals with Jindan’s loss and her shock at the king’s heirs and ministers’ schemes to loot the treasury and install themselves on the throne. Mayhem and bloodshed follow, Jindan has to escape with her son Dalip Singh to Jammu, Amritsar and finally back to Lahore where she is reinstated as the Queen Regent, as the mother of her son Dalip Singh, the only surviving heir to the throne of Punjab.
Mother and son are safe for some time and she makes a few wise decisions winning the favor of the court but as destiny unfolds she is betrayed by her love interest Laal Singh who turns out to be a British spy. Her brother Jawahar is devoted to her but fails her by virtue of his own reckless behavior. The Brits label her an Indian Messalina because of her indiscretions and she is imprisoned. The young crown prince who once fed corn to white peacocks from cupped palms is whisked away to England, forced to sign off his Kingdom and the “glorious” Kohinoor once worn by Ranjit Singh in his armband to Queen Victoria.
Because of his “Anglo” instructors, the son of Punjab becomes uncomfortable with his Indian roots and calls his own countrymen “natives.” Jindan escapes her prison and makes an arduous journey to Kathmandu to seek shelter with King Jang Bahadur but the British spies force her out. The royal mother and son reunite in England but Jindan’s ill health gets the better of her.
Regardless, the last queen does not care for the cold, dreary London, their bland food, their pretentious ways and the falsehoods they have crammed down her Dula ji’s brain. She makes a last-ditch effort to make Raja Dalip Singh realize his worth and inheritance as the king of Punjab rather than be denigrated to the Black Prince by Queen Victoria and be a footnote in history.
Does the last queen fulfill her destiny? Does Victoria return the Kohinoor? What happens to the valiant Khalsa army? What is the fate of Punjab? Do the people of Lahore and Amritsar still remember the mighty Lion King? Do the people of Gujranwala remember Jindan’s voice chanting Gurbani? For that and for many other sweet nuggets of gur that Jindan feeds Laila, the magnificent Arabian black beauty, I recommend that you read “The Last Queen.” It is magical.
A Conversation with Chitra Divakaruni
When did you conceive the novel?
In 2017, I made a trip to India to speak about my novel “Before We Visit the Goddess” at several of the major book festivals. While I was at the Kolkata Literary Meet Festival, I heard William Dalrymple, who was presenting just before my session, speak about his book on the Kohinoor and on the various people who had possessed that ill-fated diamond. He projected the image of a painting on the screen as he spoke: a beautiful woman with a stoic expression on her face: Rani Jindan, the widow of Ranjit Singh, and the mother of Dalip Singh. The British had unfairly wrested her kingdom, her son and the diamond from her, and she had fought them valiantly all her life. I was fascinated by the image—and by her brave and tragic story, which I had not known. I felt a great urge to write about her and started doing the research. The more I found out, the more I was fascinated. I felt it was imperative that I share her story with readers all over the world because there is much to learn from her life. The result was my novel, The Last Queen.
Was there a significant fact about Jindan Kaur that caught your eye? Was it her keen vision, courage, her stubbornness?
All of the above. It was most of all, her love for her king, her country and her infant son that touched me. She dedicated her life to these three and sacrificed much personal happiness for their sake.
Did you write her character arc first or develop it simultaneously with the turmoil in her life and turn of events?
My research gave me a lot of information and ideas about her character, but the character itself came to life as I wrote the book. So I would say, her character grew organically as I wrote the chapters with their many dramatic ups and downs.
How is she similar or different from your other strong female protagonists — Draupadi and Sita?
She is strong like Draupadi and Sita. Like them, she has ideals and self-respect. They, too, make mistakes, but Jindan makes some of the biggest mistakes. Like Draupadi, she has a great love story, because the great King Ranjit Singh falls in love with her although she is the daughter of a lowly dog trainer in the Qila. Like Sita, she focuses her entire energy on bringing up her son as a single mother. But unlike them, she is sometimes led by family loyalty and sometimes by her ego to make some crucial mistakes that will lead her to lose her kingdom and son. So ultimately, I think, she is a more tragic character. On the other hand, we can learn so much from her mistakes.
What was the most exciting part about bringing her back to life? What would she say if we met her today?
It was exciting to picture her in her time. The court of Maharajah Ranjit Singh was lavish and colorful, and imagining her in the Lahore Qila was very exciting for me. I think, if we met her today, she would say, “I lost the kingdom of Punjab because of infighting and treachery in my court among Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, because people could not come together and put the good of the kingdom before their own selfish needs or their own limited religious identity. Don’t repeat my mistake!”
What part of the book did you have the most fun developing?
The most fun for me was when she comes to Qila as a new bride. All the other queens in the zenana are so jealous of her—they try to trick her, trap her, humiliate her publicly, and even kill her. But she is very smart (and has an equally smart maidservant, Mangla) and triumphs over them all. That was so enjoyable to write!
Any deja vu, aha moments?
When I finished my novel, I felt a great need to write the end of the British story in India: when they are finally kicked out and India becomes independent. That became my next novel, “Independence,” which is about the lives of three sisters in Bengal in the 1940s when the freedom struggle was at its height. So you could say Rani Jindan inspired me to write my next book.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this fine work?
Two things. The first, as I mentioned, was that I could not travel for research. I had to depend on old photographs and paintings to get a visual sense of places that were important in Rani Jindan’s life, such as Lahore Qila, where she lived as queen; Chunar Fort, the high-security prison in which the British imprisoned her, and Spence’s Hotel in Calcutta, where she was reunited with her son after many years of isolation. The second thing was that I only knew a little bit about Punjabi and Sikh culture. So I had to do a lot of research about that. I finally asked HarperCollins to get me a cultural fact-checker, someone with a Punjabi background, to make sure I did not make ignorant mistakes.
Any readers’ feedback?
I was very delighted and appreciative that readers and critics liked this book so much. The word many people used was “unputdownable!” I am thankful that Rani Jindan’s life inspired many people. I keep getting messages from readers that they now want me to write about the other queens down the ages that have been forgotten!
Other projects you are working on?
My next project is a biography. For contractual reasons, I cannot disclose the subject.
Books you are reading? Authors that inspire you?
I often re-read Tagore. I grew up with his books and his poems and songs, and they continue to inspire me. I love the work of Amitav Ghosh. Women writers from different cultures inspire me, too: Anita Desai, Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jamaica Kincaid, Sandra Cisneros, and Margaret Atwood. Bengali writers such as Mahasweta Devi, Sunil Gangopadhyay and Suchitra Bhattacharya.
With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published hundreds of poems, movie reviews, book critiques, and essays and contributed to combined literary works. Her two books are My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM and the Princess Theater.