The Queen’s Last Ssalute: The Story of the Rani of Jhansee & the 1857 Mutiny, Moupia Basu, Juggernaut Books; Rs.399, Pages 359
History lends itself to exciting ways in which it can be shaped, sensationalised and manipulated to create fiction. Certain iconic figures, the Rani of Jhansee for example, are generally identified as good material. In Indian Writing in English, historical fiction aka ‘faction’, is a popular genre as it can cleverly fuse folklore, myth and facts to construct dramatic action and exotic romance — the stuff of pacy thrillers.
This novel begins with history — Lakshmibai’s marriage in 1842 to Gangadhar Rao Newalkar, Maratha ruler of the princely state of Jhansee, sited in the Bundelkhand region. It highlights the shenanigans of the East India Company, which starting as a mere trading enterprise, has transformed into a dominant political power in the subcontinent. Evoking the convenient ‘doctrine of lapse’, the company had annexed several princely states. The ruler of Jhansee, trying to avoid annexation, produced a male heir who died, and adopted a son a day before his demise. The events that followed are facts, but Basu loses the chance to authenticate the narrative of the Queen’s heroic resistance to the covert annexation of Jhansee under this convenient legalism.
In a concerted manner the novel moves out of the field of historical fiction into fictional history, a racy series of conspiracies rooted in petty jealousy, emotional eruptions, intrigue, zenana politics and tenuous friendships that dramatise the narrative. Basu builds an elaborate paraphernalia of exciting romance — rugged geographical terrain, festive scenes, the grandeur of mahals and maharajas, creating and capturing the cultural ethos of the princely courts of mid-19th century colonial India.
The plot of this historical thriller unfolds in three parts. The story begins in Jhansee but quite early it relegates Lakshmibai to the margins as a fictionalised story of Meera renamed Chandraki, the daughter of a courtesan who becomes the protégé and companion of the queen, takes centrestage.
The real protagonists of this romance are Chandraki and her bete noire Riyaz Khan, her husband Jaywant alias Keshav, a courtier, and the shahi daakiya in the royal establishment of the neighbouring princely state of Orchha, with Chandraki’s journey in search of her husband occupying centrestage.
Drawing on local lore, the author sets up Rani Larai of Orchha as a foil to Rani Lakshmibai and projects the personalities of these two competing queens through the perspective of Chandraki who is treated with extreme suspicion in enemy territory. Is she a spy and informant? A spectrum of subsidiary characters including the villainous Nathay Khan, Dewan of Orchha and a bevy of zenana women play supportive roles in this saga of revenge and betrayal, seduction, treachery and dare-devilry.
The pace of events accelerates in the third section of the book when news of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, an uprising triggered by the revolt of sepoy Mangal Pande hanged in Barrackpore, overtakes the narrative. The bloodshed and violence unleashed in the British cantonment towns of northern and Central India in 1857 is documented history.
The Jokhan Bagh massacre of 65 Britons and Rani Lakshmibai’s controversial role in it is much discussed. Did she aid and enable the rebels? Did her soldiers resort to primitive violence? Ironically juxtaposed against Jhansee struggling in the throes of the Mutiny, is the role of Rani Larai of Orchaa addressing her subjects in the durbar: ‘I do not wish to embroil our kingdom in this mess… anyone seen or heard supporting either the rebels or the firanghees will face dire consequences’.
The author acknowledges the creative licence she has taken to enhance the personalities of historical figures. Political intrigue of the last chapters of the story is intertwined with the fate of the loyal Chandraki attempting to flee to Jhansee to be beside her vulnerable queen. A surprising twist in the end awaits the reader, followed by a nostalgic epilogue and a recapitulation of the history of two warrior queens who crossed swords once upon a time.
The Queen’s Last Salute is an action-packed thriller that has popular entertainment value. If one is looking for a compelling portrayal of an iconic queen who bravely confronted the British and their allies like Orchha, it will disappoint. The fictional characters of this work of historical fiction come alive in deeds and words, even if they lack psychological depth. The strength of the narrative is the author’s remarkable use of montage as a technique to draw together strands of time, space and information.