She was the last of Ranjit Singh’s wives and the last queen of the Sikh Empire. She also was the first queen to appear in public and the first to toss aside the veil to gain her army’s allegiance. She was Maharani Jindan, née Jind Kaur, youngest child of Manna, the royal kennel keeper. Her humble beginnings notwithstanding, she was a quick learner, a thinker, a driven woman who used every opportunity to outsmart her adversaries.

Jindan’s story of love, motherhood, country, and conflicts (both battlefield and personal) comes alive in The Last Queen: A Novel of Courage and Resistance by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. The novel was published May 10 by HarperCollins in the United States.

Manna hopes the king might take his teen-aged daughter as a concubine. Instead, Jind recognizes the opening for more, and soon becomes the most-loved wife of Ranjit Singh, the Lion of Punjab. As such, she is given many things she otherwise lacked: love, security, standing, and a luxurious life, despite challenges as the newest, youngest wife.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni holds a copy of her new novel, “The Last Queen.” (twitter photo)

Fighting The British

When Ranjit Singh dies in 1839, Jindan is the twenty-one-year-old mother of a ten-month-old baby named Dalip, whom no one ever expects will become king. As one of the royal widows, Jindan and her son live quietly until 1843, when after a string of deaths five-year-old Dalip becomes the Maharaja with Jindan as Regent. The British attack, and Jindan motivates the Khalsa Army to retaliate. However valiantly her soldiers fight, the British, who by then are fearful of the fearless queen, manage to annex Punjab.

Despite having her kingdom, belongings, income, and son stolen from her, Jindan continues to fight in exile. In 1849, she cleverly escapes to Nepal, where she contributes her meager allowance to the resistance. There, she remains protected until Dalip, now in England, negotiates to have her live with him until her death at forty-five in 1863 at Abingdon House, Kensington.

Fierce, Historical Tale

As a woman and leader, Jindan is a fascinating study, and in some ways, Divakaruni has written a fierce, historical fairy tale. Even though Jindan is stripped of everything, she maintains her dignity and fighting spirit until her final breath. Even then, she understandably keeps a burning hate for the British that never extinguishes and a desire for the Sikh Empire to be reinstated.

Progressive by removing her veil and stepping out of the zenana to attend to business, Jindan proved herself to be an intelligent and strong leader; had a reputation as a mother protective as a lioness; and showed her resourcefulness when she escaped from exile. In fact, Divakaruni shows Jindan as a nineteenth-century woman who easily resonates with twenty-first century women: she was a firm believer in women’s rights, and she survived a slander campaign when the British labeled her “the Messalina of the Punjab.”

India’s Little-Known History

The Last Queen is an engrossing and exciting introduction to one piece of India’s little-known history. Divakaruni smartly tells Jindan’s story from the Maharani’s perspective, quickly drawing the reader into the queen’s complex world. The novel’s energy is the result of Divakaruni’s extensive research drawn from histories of Punjab and contemporary writings associated with the court; Jindan’s letters and Dalip’s guardian’s diaries; photographs and paintings; and even songs Jindan enjoyed hearing.

Divakaruni’s artistry as a storyteller portrays Jindan with intricate depth and human breadth without idealization. The author’s desire to spotlight this exemplary woman is nothing less than commendable as she examines the four most significant segments of Jindan’s life: Girl, Bride, Queen, and Rebel.

In an interview, Divakaruni spoke about her decision to write The Last Queen. “[Maharani Jindan’s] dramatic, tragic, and yet indomitable spirit made me curious to learn more about her,” she explains. “I thought, a spirited woman like her deserved to be better known and celebrated, and so I decided to write this novel.”

Given Jindan’s courage and passion, her intellect and strength, there is much to be said about the last queen. Certainly, there were roadblocks and setbacks in her royal life.

Nevertheless, she persisted.


SIDE NOTES: 

  • To learn more in novel form about the Koh-i-noor, the massive diamond stolen from young Maharaja Dalip Singh by the British, read Mountain of Light by Indu Sundaresan.
  • To learn more about Dalip’s impressive and influential daughter, Princess Sophia, read Sophia–Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand.
  • The Last Queen: A Novel of Courage and Resistance is the winner of the 2022 International Association of Working Women Award for Best Fiction of the Year, longlisted for the 2022 Dublin Literary Award, and the winner of The Times of India Best Fiction Author Award (the novel published first in India January 2021).
  • According to Amazon, Divakaruni’s next book: Independence: A Novel currently is scheduled to be published January 24, 2023

Jeanne E. Fredriksen

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in beautiful Central North Carolina where she is a long-time contributor to India Currents and a long-time Books for Youth reviewer with Booklist magazine/American Library Association....