(Originally published in the Indian Blog World in their October 2009 edition)
What is the image that comes to your mind when you hear the name Jhansi Rani?
A woman with a sword in hand and a baby tied to her back, on a rearing horse? A spotless heroine of the National Movement of 1857 who was the epitome of bravery and was full of anti-British feeling? At least, this is what my history books have taught me and I stopped reading history at Class X.
But read Rani, a historical novel by Jaishree Misra, and you will be initiated into a lot of history that we should know but didn’t.
Did you know that the annexation of Jhansi according to the Doctrine of Lapse happened in 1854, but the Rani of Jhansi was not at war with the British till 1857? Various records say that she actually wasn’t in the anti-British camp at all till very late. In fact she is said to be one who was very friendly with the masters till something went very wrong. This isn’t reverse-patriotism but the characterization of a great queen as someone with a lot of integrity and balance of judgement. She chose the sword to fight as a last resort, till then she used her sense and good judgement and the education she had been given as a child to read situations in the right perspective.
Did you know that while we revere her as a heroine who can do nothing wrong, the British Archives actually have a huge black mark against her as the murderess of a huge number of British including women and children, who were ostensibly under her protection? The Jokhan Bagh massacre of Britishers is a real incident in history, but I knew it the first time from Rani. This incident is what changed her from a queen who was fighting for her rights in the courts into a ‘wanted’ person who had to flee her land.
There are several real historical records in the book, like the mails that passed between the Rani and the British Headquarters etc. quoted to prove the factual authenticity of the book, but there is a lot of fiction as well. The book was in trouble and banned in the state of UP because the author fictionalized a part of the Rani’s life and showed her as involved in a romance with an Englishman; which was seen as blasphemy. The author has mentioned in an interview that only the name of the Englishman is true, the rest is fiction.
The book sketches the warrior queen’s eventful life and says she actually stood for peace and harmony and was not the sword-swinging heroine till she was hunted by the British for something she hadn’t done. The book is long, about 400 plus pages; and it is written in rather heavy vocabulary, which is expected to create an archaic ambience. Read it to decide whether you agree that the vocabulary adds to the mood or not. But it is definitely a good read, especially if you are curious how a queen finds time and space for love especially in a time as troubled as the 1850s.