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God save the queen

A great historical novel about Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, a reluctant heroine who comes vividly alive thanks to a galloping narrative, writes Damini Purkayashtha.

books Updated: May 21, 2012 15:12 IST

Book: Rani
Author: Jaishree Misra
Publisher: Penguin
Price: Rs 350

From the innocence of childhood to the disillusionment of marriage, Jaishree Misra's Rani is a novel of many moods. The story follows the life of young Manikarnika from the Peshwa's court in Varanasi to the kingdom of Jhansi where she dons the mantle of a reluctant hero(ine).

What sets Misra's novel apart from the plethora of novels in this genre is the fact she assumes a point of neutrality and leaves the onus of judgment on the reader. As 13-year-old Mani is married off to the much older (and childless) king of Jhansi, Misra steps into the mind of a child who enjoys the idea of marriage because it would mean no more classes and is free to ride her horses. Her character is far removed from the de-sexualised, demi-goddess of Indian nationalist history and the anti-heroine of colonial British narratives.

In Misra's version, she is a character who was forced into a corner and painted black and white by the two sides of a war she had initially refused to call her own. The author treats the flipsides of the revolt with utmost care, careful again not project her sympathies on either narrative. She spares no details while narrating how British women and children were butchered by the revolutionaries, at the same time telling us about Laxmibai's repeated attempts at peaceful negotiations with the Viceroy, Lord Dalhousie.

History is of importance to the story, but it comes to the reader in small doses. Conversations between British wives discussing the horror of the Anglo-Sikh wars, the young queen discussing the atrocities of the British against their own sepoys, and Major Ellis reacting against the East India Company's takeover of principalities--Misra has researched 1857, but she knows better than to shove it down our throats.

When Robert Ellis, Jhansi's political agent, boards a ship for an endless journey to India, Sindbad meets Odysseus as the young man looks forward to discovering this new land of wonder where doom and hardships await him. Yet, Ellis seems more of a narrative ploy than a prospective man in the Rani's life. As he leaves her, unable to stand up for her beyond a point, Misra places him back in England learning about the mutiny from the other perspective. As Laxmibai is blamed for the brutal murder of several British women and children, we see Ellis reading the British wire with disbelief, just as Rani finds herself cornered into a fight.

Having harped on about the historicity of the novel it is important to state that the story does not drag. It is fast-paced and cleverly written. What's more, the narrative is visual, teleporting us into Rani's world as the sounds and colours of the newly made Panch Mahal come alive.

One word of caution. Misra's Laxmibai just never seems to get angry-- not when her husband refuses to consummate their wedding, not when Ellis refuses to fight for her, not when her father seemingly betrays her, not even when the British refuse to believe her innocence. After all this, when she finally loses patience, the young queen only silently resolves to fight for her people, that too because she has no other choice. This absence of anger makes Laxmibai seem incomplete. And yet, hers is a story you will want to read, not only because of her, but also because of how Rani treats the much-celebrated uprising of 1857.