Book review: The Last Queen by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
The Last Queen by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. HarperCollins Books.
As someone who has liked everything Divakaruni has written, in varying degrees though, I found this account of Rani Jindan Kaur, the last queen of Punjab, favourite wife of Maharaja Ranjit Singh the Lion of Punjab, mother to the last king of Punjab the hapless Dalip Singh, to be quite her best work yet.
Everything comes alive on the printed page: the power and pelf of Ranjit Singh, the lights of Lahore, the fearlessness and fealty of the Khalsa army, the internecine warfare that breaks out after Ranjit Singh`s death, the installation of five- year-old Dalip on the throne with his beautiful, regal Biji standing behind him, veiled at first, then taking a calculated decision to shuck off that veil later on. The advent of perfidious – and aggressive — Albion into Punjab and their kidnapping of Dalip, leading to his eventual exile to England, to become Queen Victoria`s much favoured Black Prince.
This is a sympathetic account of Jindan`s journey from a hardscrabble life in a Gujranwala village to becoming one of Ranjit Singh`s many queens, surviving the fickle favour of monarchs to eventually become his favourite as well as his last queen. The rani survives state intrigues to garner much affection and loyalty in Punjab even if for all too short a time. She is nothing if not fesity, learning the ways of statecraft quite well, escaping imprisonment to travel across the mountains to Nepal and seek sanctuary there.
She is the mother who watches as her son is taken across the Kala Pani and totally anglicised, the mother who hears that Sir John Login and his Lady have become foster parents to the erstwhile young ruler, the mother who eventually realises that this young man lacks both the strength of character or stubborn focus of his feted father, and cannot ever become another Lion of Punjab. She is the mother who on her deathbed far away from Punjab, extracts a promise from her son that he would return to the land of his forebears and make another bid to regain his lost powers.
The Last Queen is an absolute page-turner, with all the snippets of history delivered in engaging capsules that fluidly move the plot forwards. It is also a feminist account of a brave queen who doesn’t suffer from any false modesty, who is vulnerable enough to take on a lover, yet fights like a tigress to regain all that was taken from her. Giant figures like Ranjit Singh, then warriors, friends, lovers, enemies, all stride across the pages but the focus never ever once shifts from Jindan.