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The Queen's Last Salute

Last updated on: January 22, 2019 13:05 IST

Kangana Ranaut's Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi releases this week, a cinematic tribute to one of India's most courageous monarchs.
In this fascinating excerpt from Moupia Basu's new book The Queen's Last Salute, the British conspire with Indian malcontents to bring Rani Lakshmibai's empire under the Englishman's yoke.

 
IMAGE: Kangana Ranaut in Manikarnika

While Riyaz Khan's violations increased by the day, Maharani Lakshmibai gradually started taking over the reins of the kingdom from her husband, Maharaja Gangadhar Rao.

With each passing day, the king's health deteriorated and it was no secret that he didn't have much time left on earth. He spent most of his time resting in his chamber while Lakshmibai tended to matters of the state.

She never tired of listening to people even if it demanded endless patience from her.

There were times when the rest of the people in the courtroom would begin to get fidgety, but not a single crease could be seen on Lakshmibai's forehead, who sat erect and bright-eyed.

She was well aware that her troubles were just beginning, but she braced herself for whatever lay ahead, her demeanour stoic and resolute.

There was a niggling fear though and she spoke to her husband about it.

'The Company Bahadur has sent two new officers, Maharaj. Why are they increasing their strength? I hear Lord Dalhousie is eyeing all the kingdoms without an heir,' said Lakshmibai, her voice laced with concern.

 

The king was quiet. He knew what that meant. He had been thinking about it. It was time he took a decision. He was exhausted. But he reassured his wife, nonetheless.

'Don't worry, Lakshmi. I have thought of something. You will soon know.'

 

The rumble of British intrusions into the kingdom of Jhansee became louder with every passing day.

More and more firanghees could now be seen in the streets of Jhansee. There was a kind of tautness in the air that everyone felt.

The lazy indolence of a sleepy kingdom was slowly being replaced by a nervous energy that often rises from an unknown fear.

There were chilling rumours that Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General of India, was annexing various kingdoms under the Doctrine of Lapse.

Satara, Jaitpur and Sambalpur had been already annexed three years ago.

Every king of every principality in the country was now living under the shadow of uncertainty.

Who would be next?

Maharani Lakshmibai refused to let her apprehensions hinder the execution of her royal duties or create obsctacles in the daily lives of her subjects.

In a bid to reinforce the appearance of normalcy within the kingdom, she ensured that everything functioned the way it had been functioning all along.

 
IMAGE: Kangana Ranaut in Manikarnika.

It was the year 1853. It was also more than a year since the heir to the throne of Jhansee had died.

Lakshmibai knew that with the king bedridden, she could not afford to grieve for much longer. She began to take renewed interest in all events.

Each festival was celebrated with much gusto. The Dussehra festivities had just ended. Preparations for Deepavali had now commenced.

The queen decided to visit the Mahalakshmi temple in the town to check if all was well. She sent for Chandraki.

'Get the palanquin ready. And send word to the zenana that we are going to the temple.'

It was a hot day and the small procession set out for the temple that stood outside the fort.

As the entourage proceeded towards it, Chandraki broke away from the group and headed towards the small market along the border of the temple premises. The market was lined with shops selling flowers, incense and various commodities required for performing the puja.

Chandraki bought flowers and garlands, and as she was walking away from the shop, she overheard a male voice that stopped her in her tracks. She turned around to catch a flash of red disappear behind a shop.

Chandraki pulled her veil over her face and withdrew into an empty, dilapidated shed beside her. She stood waiting, but couldn't see anything.

'Has anyone seen you come here?' a firanghee's voice rang out. Chandraki flattened herself against the wall of the shed.

'No, sahib, I'm too clever for that.'

'Okay, okay, don't try to be smart with me,' the firanghee replied gruffly. 'Now tell me, why did you call me here?'

'I have news to give, big news,' the Indian replied in Hindi. 'Bada khabar, sahib!'

That voice. It was very familiar. Chandraki was sure she had heard it before.

'Kya khabar? What news? Jaldi bolo, quick!'

 

'The Maharaj is dying. But before that happens, he plans to adopt a son who will be the heir to the throne.'

Chandraki heard a sharp intake of breath.

'Pukka khabar? Are you sure?'

'Ji sahib, bilkul. He is going to adopt Anand Rao, a distant relative of his.'

'When?'

'Pata nahin. But it will be soon. You will have to act fast.'

Chandraki didn't wait to hear anything else. She tiptoed to the edge of the wall and peeped just in time to see the firanghee hand over a small purse to the other man who wasn't as visible. The Indian declined to take it.

'I will convey the news to Major Malcolm. We meet again next week, same time, same place. If there is any new development, let me know,' Chandraki heard the firanghee say.

'Ji sahib. I must go now.'

Chandraki froze. That voice! 'Oh my God! It is Riyaz Khan!'

Her heart was beating so loudly that she was sure everyone around could hear it. Her lips were set into a thin line and her eyes flashed with anger.

'I should have known it. The brute has the gall to sell Jhansee to these firanghees! Riyaz Khan, I will make sure you're punished for this, you traitor,' she growled.

Chandraki joined the queen's retinue after a quick darshan of the goddess at the temple.

Her mind was in a state of chaos, her heart was a flood of swirling emotions.

She felt shocked, confused, horrified and helpless. But above all she was angry.

How could someone betray the very person who had offered him refuge?

 

'How could you do this to our Jhansee, Riyaz Khan?' she cried as she ran all the way back to the palace, ahead of the small procession, and didn't stop till she reached. 'You will have to act fast.' Isn't that what Riyaz Khan had told the firanghee?

What were the firanghees planning? Why did Riyaz ask the sahib to act fast?

Once she reached the palace, Chandraki waited at the entrance of the queen's quarters. The small procession had not yet reached the palace. She could hardly control herself.

'Should I inform the Maharaja straight away?' she wondered, but eventually decided against it. It was better to inform the Maharani who would know what measures to take.

Chandraki rubbed her palms and stomped her feet impatiently. How long would it be before the queen reached?

After what seemed an interminable wait, the queen finally arrived. As she entered her chamber Chandraki followed. The queen stopped and looked at her.

'I would like to be left alone for a while, Chandraki. Don't come in now. Ekaant!' she said and attempted to draw the curtains.

Chandraki was silent but did not move. Lakshmibai frowned, annoyed at her stubbornness.

'Is there anything you want, Chandraki?' the queen asked somewhat brusquely, her voice spiked with irritation.

Ever since she had lost her baby, Lakshmibai, otherwise of a most cheerful disposition, had been short of patience and almost always wanted to be left alone.

 
IMAGE: Kangana Ranaut in Manikarnika.

'Yes, Your Majesty! I want a word with you. It's very, very important.' The queen resigned and allow her into the room. She knew that Chandraki wasn't an obtrusive person, so this had to be something really serious.

'Fine! Tell me. But make it brief as I want to rest,' she said impatiently.

Chandraki nodded. 'Your Majesty, pardon me for this intrusion, but what I have to tell you is of utmost importance for Jhansee! While you were at the temple, I had gone to a shop to pick up flowers. I overheard Riyaz Khan talking to a firanghee. He informed the English sahib that the Maharaja is planning to adopt Anand Rao and urged him to act fast.'

Chandraki narrated the whole conversation without pausing for breath. The queen's expression changed from one of irritation to shock and then to fear in a matter of seconds. She slumped on to the bed, her head in her palms.

'I know what they are talking about, Chandraki. Major Ellis had given the Maharaja hints about such a situation arising. That's when Maharaja took the decision to adopt Anand.'

'Hints about what?' Chandraki asked.

The queen did not reply. Instead, she said to Chandraki, 'Send the Maharaja a message that I want to meet him immediately.'

 

Chandraki knew the information she had provided required urgent addressal. She ran out of the room, but suddenly stopped and returned to the queen's bedchamber. 'Maharani!'

The queen looked up. Her face was drained of colour.

'Yes?'

'So what will you do with Riyaz Khan?'

For a moment, the queen didn't know what to say. Then in a tired voice, she replied, 'I don't know about Riyaz Khan. In fact, right now, I can't think of anything else. I just want to see the Maharaja.'

She paused briefly and then said, 'Chandraki.'

Chandraki stopped at the door and turned around to face the queen.

'Thank you! Once again!' Lakshmibai smiled, but her eyes were sad.

 

Excerpted from The Queen's Last Salute: The story of the Rani of Jhansee and the 1857 Mutiny by Moupia Basu, with the kind permission of the publishers, Juggernaut.

 

 

Moupia Basu
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