Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Why should we have to whitewash our heroines
It is perhaps quite fascinating that when going through pages of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s seamless prose, in her latest work The Last Queen, one can’ help but draw odious parallels between attempts that aimed to mar Rani Jindan Kaur’s image back then, and their looming presence over strong women in the modern world. Yet, much like it is in today’s day and age, these very attempts to undermine her personality are met with incendiary counters.
But her story is much more than that. Jindan, born to a royal kennel keeper, marries the most powerful ruler in 19th century India — Maharaja Ranjit Singh — almost a mythical figure to her likes, ruler of the sprawling Sikh empire.
Divakaruni’s first person prose, punctilious and breezy at once, ennobles her narrative structure all together. In what she terms as an attempt to “create the atmosphere of the rapid flow of history” clubbed with “the shocking suddenness of the events”, Divakaruni succeeds in bringing to the fore the human side of a queen. Jindan, in Divakaruni’s prose, retains her mischievous confrontational charm from her formative years under the seemingly unquestionable layers of ruthlessness and divinity, a prerequisite for a regent and administrator.
Excerpts from an interview with the author:
Rani Jindan Kaur is a fascinating character in history. Did you stumble upon her story or was it something that took years of research?
I came across Maharani Jindan’s painting, which is now on the cover of The Last Queen, quite by chance at a literary festival when William Dalrymple was discussing his book Kohinoor. I learned a little of her tragic story—how she was wrongfully imprisoned by the British, and her little son, Maharajah Dalip, taken away from her and sent to England, and how, after many years, mother and son managed to be reunited with great difficulty. Immediately, I was attracted to this largely forgotten queen and decided to research her story. Researching, I discovered she was amazingly beautiful, intelligent, brave, and ahead of her time — but also stubborn and with a temper! I decided this complex and inspiring woman had to be my next heroine.
One of the most important facets of the book is that you bring out the greys brilliantly in your prose. Someone who’s such an important part of the history, it could’ve been a proper whitewash. As a writer, how did you make sure that the human side to her weighs in more than any other part of her legacy?
I focused on the close relationships Maharani Jindan would have had — with her husband, Maharajah Ranjit Singh, who falls deeply in love with her, and with her son, Dalip, who is less than a year old when his father dies and she is determined to do whatever she must to protect him. I also wanted to focus on her interactions with the other queens in the zenana, most of whom would have been jealous of her, and she would have had to withstand their plots. Her women friends — Rani Guddan, Rani Pathani (wife of Wazir Dhian Singh) and her maid Mangla helped me to bring out her human side, with its joys and jokes. Finally, I did not want to hide her faults. Why should we feel we have to whitewash our heroines? 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. Even Draupadi in my Palace of Illusions and Mother Sita in my Forest of Enchantments have their moments of human weakness.
You choose to write in a first person account. In many ways the role of a writer here is not that different from that of an actor – that of practically living the character.
This is true. I really had to get inside Maharani Jindan’s head and heart and feel what she was feeling, and think what she was thinking—when as a sixteen year old, she falls in love with Maharaja Ranjit Singh; when she is devastated by loss as a young widow; when she is determined to resist the British even when they’ve imprisoned her in the high-security Chunar Fort. When she was separated from her son by a British trick, I felt her anger and her pain—and her determination to never give in.
How did you make sure that the prose retains the flair of writing, which it does, and yet successfully moves swiftly from one major point to another escaping fitful continuity? There surely must’ve been parts that you’d have had to omit to contain the story in 300 pages.
I felt it was important to keep the book fast-paced, since I wanted to create the atmosphere of the rapid flow of history and the shocking suddenness of the events that make up Maharani Jindan’s life. So I wrote and re-wrote until I felt I had achieved a good rhythm without losing the important incidents that helped me showcase her character. I always kept her in the center of the story, telling us what happens in her own voice, and that helped me structure the novel.
From the story it seems that maligning a woman’s character in order to weaken her is certainly not a new concept. In the 21st century, to this day, it is as widespread as ever. Do you think about the commonality of these occurrences in the modern world? Jindan’s story is bound to find innumerable takers in women and hopefully ignorant men who’ll hopefully have an epiphany.
You are right, maligning a woman’s moral character, or blaming her for things outside of her control, still sadly continues to happen in society. Strong women often become special targets for this kind of behaviour. Maharani Jindan, too, faced this issue. She was the victim of a terrible smear campaign fabricated by the British, who wanted to destroy her popularity and the love and respect her people had for her. They portrayed her as lascivious and immoral and named her “Messalina of the Punjab.” But she fought against their lies bravely, even from prison, smuggling out letters that were printed in the Punjabi newspapers of the time. I certainly hope that she will inspire many readers, both male and female, so that we fight against such injustices.
The historic city of Lahore, too, comes vividly alive in your writing among other things. Tell us a bit about the research…
That was particularly difficult because of the pandemic. So I had to rely on writings by travellers of the time, including visitors to Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s court. I spent many hours studying maps of Lahore Qila. Old paintings and photographs of the Fort and the city were very helpful. I studied them, too, for hours, imagining how it would feel to be inside them! I spent a lot of time looking at Mai Jindan Haveli, which Maharajah Ranjit Singh built for her as a gift of love. I am glad to hear from many readers that they could feel the power of these places.
One has to ask, what’s more interesting? Mythology or history?
I must confess I cannot choose! They are both powerful in their own way. Mythology brings us timeless, archetypal themes and characters; history reminds us of the great men and women who shaped our world. Both history and mythology teach us crucial lessons about how to be human.