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       Rebel Queen, p.1

           Michelle Moran
 
Rebel Queen


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  For my husband, Amit Kushwaha. And for our son, Liam.

  Author's Note

  In order to make nineteenth-century India more accessible to twenty-first-century readers, I have made several changes to the historical record. For one, I have used the word India throughout the book, although the country of India as we know it today only came into existence in 1947. The term Hindu is also anachronistic, with the “ism” added by Westerners in the erroneous belief that Hinduism was a religion. It is more than a religion; it is a way of life. The term Hindu comes from the word Sindhu. It is the name of a river and is secular in meaning; even an atheist can be Hindu.

  I have made other changes as well. In keeping with their modern-day spellings, several city names have been changed, so that Kashi has become Varanasi, and Cawnpore has become Kanpur.

  Lastly, some of the titles used to address people in positions of power have either been shortened or eliminated. Raja Gangadhar Rao, for instance, has become simply Raja Gangadhar, and Rani Lakshmibai has been shortened to Rani Lakshmi.

  Every Englishman is born with a certain miraculous power that makes him master of the world. When he wants a thing, he never tells himself that he wants it. He waits patiently until there comes into his mind, no one knows how, a burning conviction that it is his moral and religious duty to conquer those who have got the thing he wants.

  —GEORGE BERNARD SHAW, 1897

  Prologue

  1919

  Seventy-five years’ worth of diaries are spread across my bed, nearly covering the blanket Raashi sewed for me last winter. Their spines all open, the books look like old moths, just too worn out and tired to fly away. At eighty-five, I find it difficult to read my own handwriting. But I have read these words so many times that they are imprinted on my mind; they are the patterns on a butterfly’s black-and-orange wings.

  I take an envelope from my desk and bring it to my bed. Most of my writing now is done here. I address the envelope carefully to “Miss Pennywell,” and I am proud of the fact that I’ve remembered to call her Miss and not Mrs. It was this kind of detail that saved my life when her countrymen came, looking to turn my home into a little England—only with the added benefit of exotic women and chai. But if what Miss Pennywell believes is correct, and the English will read this old woman’s story, perhaps that will change.

  You see, when I was a child I lived in the small kingdom of Jhansi, under the rule of Maharaja Gangadhar and his queen, Rani Lakshmi. Now, I live in a vast country called India, with borders that stretch from Burma to Kashmir. Instead of a maharaja, we are ruled by a foreign emperor, the grandson of Queen Victoria, King George V. And where carved stupas once pierced the sky, enclosing our sacred images of the Hindu prince Siddhartha (who eventually became Buddha), we have tall English crosses perched on church steeples. Yes, I am old, and no one can expect to reach my age without witnessing great change. But I have also lived through a terrible war between India and England, and have watched for almost a century as our ancient traditions have slowly been erased.

  There is an old Hindi saying that my father once taught me. Bandar kya jaane adrak ka swad. It means, “What does a monkey know about the taste of ginger?” And I expect that this is true for the English. They know nothing about the people they came to rule. So why should we expect them to preserve our temples and respect our gods? At best, they view them as foreign decorations. At worst, reminders of the “heathen barbarism” that runs rampant in a country that gave the world chess and the number zero.

  I look down at the address, which Miss Pennywell gave to me two months ago. I was standing with Raashi at the railway station in Bombay when a woman rushed up, the sound of her sharp heels clacking against the stone. In a country of red saris and saffron dupattas, she was dressed in a gray shirt and a matching gray hat. Her black skirt made its way only to her calves. She was English.

  “I’m terribly sorry to disturb you, Mrs. Rathod. It is Mrs. Rathod, isn’t it?”

  I hesitated for a moment. But the British government no longer cares about hunting down rebels, so I told her the truth. “Yes.”

  She held out her hand, and I knew from my schooling in English manners that I was supposed to shake it. “Emma Pennywell,” she said.

  I assumed she was another reporter, wanting to ask me what had happened to the rani’s wealth after she was killed. Instead she said, “Sixty-five years ago my grandfather escorted you to London. His name was Wilkes. He’d like to speak with you again.”

  It took several moments for me to comprehend what she was saying. When I did, I shook my head. “I’m sorry. That was a different life.” I took Raashi’s arm and we started walking toward the train. “I was from a different India then.”

  “Which is why I’ve come.” When she saw I wasn’t interested, she began to speak faster. “My grandfather is a publisher and he’s interested in memoirs set in the colonies. He wants to tell your story. I know you have a train—”

  I stopped walking to explain to her there were things in my past I never wished to revisit, but she didn’t even have the decency to look shocked.

  “We’ve all done things we’d rather keep in the dark. It’s only by shedding light on them that our demons can disappear.”

  Miss Pennywell was no more than twenty-two. What did she know about darkness and demons? “Miss Pennywell, I just don’t see the purpose of such a book.”

  “Don’t you regret how the British have changed your country?”

  “Some of it has been for the good,” I said, hoping to end our conversation. “This train station, for instance. Without the British, it could not have been built.”

  “But think of all the temples that have been destroyed.”

  I kept my expression neutral. I didn’t want her to know how often I thought of this.

  “Please, just consider it,” she said, then pressed a calling card into my hand. “What if your story convinces the British that Indian traditions are important? What if the King of England himself were to read it and decide that your rani was right? That she wasn’t a Rebel Queen, as they’ve been calling her in England, but a true queen, willing to take up a sword to defend her people against empire builders. Just as you did, Mrs. Rathod.”

  Now she was baiting me. I knew it. But I took her card, and after two months of persistent letters, she has finally changed my mind.

  Raashi thinks I am brave to write about my past. But my guess is that she really means foolish. After all, memoirs are not open doors into another person’s house. They are more like broken windows, with the owner trying to explain away all of the damage. And I’m not blinded to the truth. I am writing this as much for myself as I am for India.

  The sweet scents of garam masala and coriander fill the house, and I know that Raashi is cooking. I should probably begin before this cool morning thaws into a scorching afternoon when nothing but sleeping can be done. But I continue to look at my friends, their worn leather covers as creased and familiar as the backs of my hands. When this memoir is finished, I will not save my diaries. I will take them to the Ganges during Vasant Navratri, when everyone is floating their old calendars down the water, and I will let the goddess of the river determine if the things I did were right; if what happened to my sister, and to India’s bravest queen, should still weigh so heavily on an old woman
s heart.

  Chapter One

  1840

  Imagine I took you down a long dirt road to the edge of a field, and we entered a farmer’s house built from mud brick and thatch. Now imagine I told you, “This is where I stood with the Rani of Jhansi during our escape from the British. And that corner, there, is where we changed into peasant’s clothes so she could reach the Fortress of Kalpi.” I suppose you would look from me, in my respectable sari and fine gold jewels, to the dirt floor of that one-room home and laugh. Only my eyes would remain serious, and slowly, the realization would dawn on you that all of the stories you heard must be true. The Rani of Jhansi—or Queen Lakshmi, as the British persisted in calling her—really did elude the powerful British army by dressing like a common farmer’s wife.

  I’m not sure why this is so surprising to people. Didn’t Odysseus manage it when he disguised himself as a beggar? And the Duke of Vienna in Measure for Measure? Perhaps people’s surprise then is that I was the one who suggested she do it, taking inspiration from characters who’d only lived on the page. After all, I was not born to read such texts. In fact, I was not born to read at all. It was Father who insisted on my education. If it had been left to Grandmother, I would never have seen anything beyond the walls of my house. For, as I’m sure you know, women throughout India are nearly all in purdah.

  When I was seven years old, I asked Father how this concept of secluding women came to be, and he guided me to a cool place in the shade. Our garden was large enough for a peepal tree, and it wasn’t until I was much older that I learned that not every house in Barwa Sagar was so spacious. But we were Kshatriyas, meaning our ancestors had been related to kings, just as their ancestors had been related to kings, and so on, I suppose, since the beginning of time. People have often asked me what these different castes mean, and I explain it like this: Imagine a beehive, which has workers, and breeders, and finally, a queen. Well, our castes are very much the same thing. There are Brahmins, whose job it is to be priests. There are Kshatriyas, who are the warriors and kings. There are the Vaishyas, who are merchants, farmers, and traders. And then there are the Shudras, who serve and clean. Just the same as a worker bee is born a worker bee and will die a worker bee, a person can never change their caste.

  But that evening, as the setting sun burnished the clouds above us, turning the sky into a wide orange sea, Father explained purdah to me. He patted his knee, and when I climbed onto his lap, I could see the knotty muscles of his arms. They bulged beneath his skin like rocks. I held out my hand, and he used his finger to trace his words onto the flat of my palm.

  “Do you remember the story of the first Mughal leader in India?” he wrote.

  I took his hand and drew the words, “He was Muslim, and we are Hindu.”

  “Yes. He was the one who brought purdah to our land.”

  “So it’s Emperor Bahadur Shah’s fault that I can’t leave our house?”

  Father’s arm tensed, and I knew at once that what I wrote must be wrong. “Purdah is no one’s fault,” he traced swiftly. “It’s to keep women safe.”

  “From what?”

  “Men, who might otherwise harm them.”

  I sat very still. Did he mean that for the rest of my life, I would never know what lay beyond the walls of our garden? That I would never be able to climb the coconut trees? I felt a deep agitation growing inside of me.

  “Well,” Father went on, “what’s troubling you now?”

  Of course, Father didn’t use words like “well.” That was my addition; the way I imagined he would have spoken if he hadn’t lost his hearing while fighting alongside the British against the Burmese. Although you may wonder what the British were doing in India, and why any of us were fighting against the Burmese at all. It began in 1600, when English sailors first arrived in my country. If you’ve ever heard the story of the camel’s nose and how, on a cold winter’s night, the camel begged its master to allow it to place its nose inside the master’s tent, then you will quickly understand the British East India Company.

  In the beginning, it was nothing more than a trading company buying up all of our rich spices and silks and shipping them to England, where a fortune could be made. But as the Company grew more successful, it needed to protect its profitable warehouses with several hundred armed guards. Then it needed several thousand armed soldiers. And one day, the rulers of India woke up to discover that the British East India Company had a powerful army. They were exactly like the camel, who promised at first it would just be its nose, then its legs, then its back, until finally it was the camel living inside the tent while the master shivered in the cold outside.

  Soon, when one of our rulers needed military aid, they didn’t turn to other maharajas like themselves; instead they asked the British East India Company. And the more favors they asked, the more powerful the Company grew. Then, in 1824, a group of maharajas in northern India decided they’d had enough. They had been watching the Burmese take over their neighbors’ kingdoms year after year, and they knew that, just like with that cunning camel, it would only end once the Burmese were seated on their thrones as well. I can’t tell you why these same maharajas didn’t see that this story might apply to the British, too. You would think the safest thing would have been to turn to each other for help. But none of those powerful men wanted to be indebted to another maharaja. So instead, they indebted themselves to an outsider. They enlisted the help of the British East India Company, which was more than happy to wage war on Burma for their own, mostly economic, reasons.

  Father fought in this war. Because of his caste, he was made a commanding officer and the Company paid him one hundred rupees a month for his post. I was only a few months old when he left for Burma, and there was every reason to believe that a glorious future lay ahead of Nihal Bhosale. He sent my sixteen-year-old mother letters from the front telling her that even though British customs were difficult to understand, fighting alongside these foreigners had its advantages. He was learning to speak English, and another officer had introduced him to a writer—a brilliant, unequaled writer—by the name of William Shakespeare.

  “According to the colonel, if I wish to understand the British, I must first understand this Shakespeare.” Father took this advice to heart. He read everything Shakespeare wrote, from Othello to The Merchant of Venice, and when the war took his hearing two years later, it was Shakespeare who kept him company in his hospital bed.

  Many years after this, I asked Father which of Shakespeare’s plays had comforted him the most while he was coming to terms with a world in which he’d never know the sound of his child’s voice or hear his wife sing ragas to Lord Shiva again. By that time, I had become a soldier myself in the rani’s Durga Dal—an elite group of the queen’s most trusted female guards. And by then, I, too, had read all of Shakespeare’s works.

  Father thought for a moment, then told me what I had already guessed. “Henry V. Because there has never been a clearer, more persuasive argument for why we go to war.”

  But war wasn’t what concerned me on that evening Father explained purdah to me. I was too young to understand about politics. All I knew was that I couldn’t play outside like the boys who drank juice from hairy coconut husks and staged mock battles with broken shoots of bamboo. I looked up at Father, with his bald head gleaming like a polished bowl in the sun, and wrote:

  “Will I always be in purdah, even when I’m grown?”

  “If you wish to be a respectable woman with a husband and children—as I hope you shall be—then, yes.”

  But just as a crow will build its nest in a tree, only to have the sparrow come and tear it apart, the life Father had planned for me was ripped away by a little bird.

  Chapter Two

  1843

  My sibling’s birth came at the height of the summer’s monsoon. Hot rain lashed our village, pooling in the fields and flooding the streets so that even the farmers’
children—long used to these conditions—were breaking off taro leaves and using them for umbrellas. I watched as the boys folded the giant leaves around their heads, and I thought of how fun it must be to use a leaf like a living shield. All of Barwa Sagar was under siege, and as I looked out the window, I imagined that each raindrop was a tiny soldier marching from the sky to our fields.

  “What are you doing?” Grandmother said when she saw me at the window.

  I was supposed to be in the kitchen, watching the fire.

  “The water is still heating up, Dadi-ji. I was just—”

  She slapped my face. “Don’t you know what’s happening in there?”

  “Yes. Maa-ji is giving birth.” I bit my lip to keep it from trembling. Ji is a term of respect, and we add it to the name of any person who is older.

  “Let me tell you something about childbirth, beti, which you may not learn from the books my son reads with you.”

  Grandmother could never grasp why Father would waste his time teaching a daughter. Some things have changed for the better under British rule: for example, they have forbidden the killing of infant girls. At that time, however, the practice was common, which tells you how girls like me were valued. Even today, on the birth of a son there will be music, and dancing, and sweets will be distributed among the poor. But on the birth of a daughter, silence as thick and heavy as a blanket will descend on the house, since there is no reason to speak, let alone celebrate. After all, who wants to honor the birth of a child you will have to feed, and clothe, and educate, only to watch all that money and hard work disappear once she is married off?

  Now, this isn’t to say that daughters are never loved. But for a father, the birth of a daughter means saving money from the moment she takes her first breath, since she will need a dowry within nine or ten years’ time. For a mother, the birth of a daughter means growing to love a little girl you are likely never to see again once her husband takes her away to his village.

 
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