If you’ve been following along for a while now, it is no secret that I’m a huge fan of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s writing, so I was clearly excited for the release of The Last Queen. From Mistress of the Spices to Palace of Illusions, Sister of the Heart, and most recently The Forest of Enchantments I’ve enjoyed all of Chitra’s books.
Before I even get into talking about The Last Queen, I want to say that I feel such a great debt of gratitude to Chitra for writing this story. The story of Maharani Jindan Kaur – the youngest wife of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, The Queen Regent after his death, and the mother of Maharaja Duleep Singh. Yet so very little is known or written about her. As a Punjabi woman, it was an absolute treat to read about a powerful queen from our history.
I do want to point out that Chitra’s books are a fictionalized version of historical accounts. That being said, I still think the story follows a realistic timeline based on my knowledge of the events surrounding the fall of the Sikh Empire. I also had the opportunity to speak with Chitra about her research and feel very confident in her dedication to telling the story fully.
As for the book itself, for me it’s another fine example of how Chitra writes in the voice of women, and does justice for them. The all but forgotten queen who is often only remembered as a wife, the mother of Duleep Singh or the once owner of a string of pearls and emeralds, is shown as a whole woman. We read the progression of Jindan from a poor dog trainer’s daughter to a sister looking out for her brother, finally a lover, then a devoted wife, ruler, and mother.
Chitra does a fabulous job of building out this character. Sure there are parts of the story that can feel a bit draggy, and I think that is because there are important historical events that need to be re-iterated and written with respect. And yes, there are a lot of characters, and I even had to refer back to the list of major characters more than a few times to keep up – but it was a minor inconvenience for an overall gripping read.
There were some parts of this book that made me a little uncomfortable. Having only ever known Maharani Jindan Kaur as the Queen of Punjab and later the Mother of the Khalsa, having her humanized in that way, and reading about her mistakes and her intimate relationships was a bit strange. But that is what Chitra does so well – humanize those that we idolize. I remember having similar feelings about Ram and Sita while reading The Forest of Enchantments – are we allowed to peer into the personal lives of the divine I wondered?
Perhaps my favourite part of reading The Last Queen was the beauty with which Chitra speaks of the Sikh Empire, the Khalsa Army, and the great Sher E Punjab Maharaja Ranjit Singh. I’ve wished for years to watch a movie or read a book that uses language that is native to Sikhi and Punjab without hesitation. I didn’t feel for a minute that the author was trying to “Indianize” a Punjabi story, or minimize the importance of Sikhi to the story of Maharani Jindan Kaur.
For me it is a must read.
PS: If you liked The Last Queen, you might enjoy Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, What Lies Between Us, or The Reluctant Fundamentalist.