Rebel Queen

Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran



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


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