The Last Queen, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

It’s always great to read about amazing women from history that aren’t the ones I already know from my own English history. This novel is about Jindan, one of the wives of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, ruler of the Sikh Empire in the early 1800s. Jindan’s young son, Duleep, briefly becomes king with Jindan as regent, in the power struggles after Ranjit Singh’s death. Looming over these internal power struggles within the Sikh Empire is the constant threat of the British Empire and its bid to rule all of the Indian subcontinent — which, as we know, they eventually succeeded in doing, at least for awhile.

Because it’s history, we know Jindan’s struggle to see her son rule over an independent kingdom as his father had done is going to be a doomed one; however, there’s a lot here I didn’t know and the book had me flipping back and forth between it and many Wikipedia pages about Jindan and her son. Their story is fascinating, both in the novel and in real life, and is interlaced with that of a jewel we heard a lot about during the recent ceremonies around Queen Elizabeth’s death — the Kohinoor diamond, which Duleep Singh gave to Queen Victoria and which Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan all claim rightfully belongs to their countries rather than being embedded in the British Crown Jewels.

The only quibble I had with this novel was with pacing. Jindan’s early years — her childhood, her early marriage to the already-elderly king, and the events leading up to his death — are portrayed in wonderful detail. But once the events where she is at the centre of the action began — when the king dies and the struggle over his succession, and the struggle to keep the Punjab free of British rule, actually starts — so much is happening that those events, and the later years of Jindan’s life in exile, feel rushed, almost as if they’re being summarized. Particularly during the bloody and brutal times right before and during Duleep’s short rule, when betrayals and assassinations are happening almost too quickly to keep up with, the body count feels almost numbing for the reader and left me wondering how it felt for the people going through it. I sometimes have this thought when reading historical fiction set during particularly bloody periods in history (the French Revolution comes to mind as well) — do people become inured to that level of trauma? Most of us would be deeply traumatized by seeing even one body of a person who had been brutally murdered, especially if it was someone we knew: what’s the impact of seeing that over and over for months or even years? I felt distanced from Jindan’s perspective during those events (even though the story is still being told in first person) when the earlier chapters had been so vivid and immersive. But despite those small quibbles this was a fascinating story to read and learn about.

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