To be revered as a heroine in India is to be a paragon of virtue: pious, equal parts nurturing and protective, always self-sacrificing, epitomising the best of maternalism. This is the usual formula; the bar is high and there is no room for error. In an effort to revolt against these ideals, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni writes narratives that humanises our heroines. The Last Queen by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni shows us that perfection is not the tax women have to pay to be admired. Chronicling the life of Rani Jindan Kaur, the youngest and favourite queen of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the mighty ruler of Punjab, the book is a look into the making of one such woman.
Jindan is the third of Divakaruni’s protagonists who is written to be inspiring without being perfect. In a society that celebrates flawless women alone, idealism becomes the necessary accompaniment of their character. It’s a position out of reach for most of us, a restrictive box that we struggle to fit into. Attempting to do so leaves us with deep scars on our psyche. Not attempting it can mean being alienated.
In a society that celebrates flawless women alone, idealism becomes the necessary accompaniment of their character.
Where perfection dwells, so does the pressure to not disappoint. Rani Jindan Kaur encounters it too. She goes to great lengths to hide her relationship with Lal Singh, a courtier, even undergoing an abortion that almost kills her. Being a young royal widow, she is not allowed to covet dalliances or love like her male counterparts. Even the men closest to her – her brother and a trusted retainer – find her truth hard to digest. Jindan tells them, “I’ve done nothing wrong—nothing except follow my heart. But the world is cruel to women who love.” It’s the Madonna-whore complex, a worldview that organises women into two categories: virtuous and wicked. We see it in our brothers, fathers, and sons for whom their sisters, wives, and mothers are Madonnas – saintlike. To imagine them embraced in desire sets off a cognitive dissonance crisis. As for women, confronting these same desires sets off a challenge where we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
This saga is also an indictment of another societal criterion: denial of the self. The ability to sacrifice and put ourselves last is embedded in women’s psyche from early on. It is essential to prioritise others – husband, children, family – over yourself to be a “good” woman. Jindan has been brought up no differently and it’s empowering when she realises that she deserves love too and pursues Lal Singh, after trying her best to deny her feelings. She expresses how she is able to be “wild and uninhibited” with him and communicates her sexual needs to him, something she has never done before. The thrill she feels will resonate with scores of women who’ve never vocalised their sensuality because of the shame associated with female sexuality.
This saga is also an indictment of another societal criterion: denial of the self.
Also inextricably linked to the idea of womanhood is motherhood. A host of mythological characters like Sita, Draupadi, Savitri, Dharti Mata (Mother Earth), Saraswati and historical figures like Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, Begum Hazarat Mahal are praised for exemplifying maternalism. Similarly, Rani Jindan is bestowed with the title of Mai Jindan, the Mother of the Khalsa. However, being venerated is like walking a tightrope; one misstep leads to a steep fall. Society does not recognise a mother’s loneliness, her thirst for love or need for independence. The title demands that Jindan can do nothing without approval. Though men marry multiple times and have mistresses, the idea that she could marry for love is anathema to the idea of Mai Jindan. Familiar double standards rear their heads.
Another important part of Divakaruni’s writing is her direct and matter of fact way of describing character flaws. While Jindan is brave and intelligent, she has her moments of petty glee and vengeful short-sightedness. Divakaruni treats them as flaws – and just that. By her own admission, the choice to acknowledge the foibles of Draupadi (The Palace of Illusions), Sita (The Forest of Enchantments), and Jindan Kaur is deliberate. It’s a recognition of the humanity of women; nobody is flawless. To expect it is to divorce us from our humanity. In an interview she explains, “Every human being is a mix of strength and weakness.We must accept and admire our women protagonists just the way they are and not place an unfair burden of perfection on them.” The message is something all women need to hear and imbibe.
While Jindan is brave and intelligent, she has her moments of petty glee and vengeful short-sightedness.
Be it Draupadi, Sita, or Jindan, all three protagonists fight a battle that women encounter to this day – a test of virtue – the aptly named agnipariksha. Jindan faces British attempts to defame her. A woman’s virtue (or lack thereof) dictates whether she is offered basic respect and dignity. In a precursor to modern day slut-shaming, the British launch a smear campaign against Jindan, accusing her of promiscuity and seducing men to accomplish her goals. The title they conferred on her was “the Messalina of Punjab”, likening her to the influential Roman empress who had a reputation for being “promiscuous” and “sexually voracious”. Ironically, the accusations against Messalina herself have been dismissed by historians as a politically motivated smear campaign. Here, these two women from opposite sides of the world are similar. Vilification is a potent weapon against women. Its consequences are dangerous.
For too long, our heroines as well as our women, have floated in shiny bubbles that could be seen but not touched. The success of Divakaruni’s reimagination of mythology and history from a woman’s perspective is testimony to the fact there is a demand for these voices; that the bubble needs to burst. I often wondered about what must have gone through Draupadi’s mind that fateful day Duryodhana ordered her disrobing or why Sita never complained despite facing one unfair accusation after the other. These narratives not only answer some of my questions but also emphasise that a woman’s point of view is not optional but rather essential to the complete understanding of a story.
The Last Queen is indeed the story of an inspiring heroine who was ahead of her time. It’s also the story of a woman just like us: doing her best to navigate a patriarchal world; sometimes stumbling, but never stopping.