Maharani Jindan Kaur: The Rebel Queen
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Priya Atwal, and Navtej Sarna in conversation.
“Colonial propaganda, for example, created a barrier to understanding what Maharani Jindan Kaur’s life was really like, whether or not the sources were to be discredited. But the process of piecing together a story with empathy was what each speaker was drawn to, nonetheless,” writes Pia Bhatia on the #JaipurLiteratureFestival 2021 session, Maharani Jindan Kaur: The Rebel Queen. Read on to find out!
At #JaipurLiteratureFestival 2021, author Navtej Sarna opened this session with a brief summary of the history of Punjab prior to its annexation by the East India Company in 1849. He wove Maharani Jindan Kaur seamlessly into this often-overlooked yet rich world of the past, introducing her as both the wife of the Sikh Empire’s first Maharaja and the mother of the last.
The session was beautifully structured. First, each author discussed the diverse experiences that drove them to write their respective books. For historian Priya Atwal, it was a lecture she attended at Oxford; for author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, a George Richmond portrait of the queen. As the conversation progressed, however, the audience learnt both of the ways in which Divakaruni, Atwal and Sarna’s paths had previously crossed as well as which aspects of their writings intersected. As Sarna aptly mentioned, Divakaruni’s novel had no footnotes while Atwal’s had over 70 pages of references - yet the works shared so many striking similarities!
Most prominently, the question of the presence of fact in fiction was explored through three lucid lenses. Divakaruni advocated for bringing to life the inner worlds of forgotten figures across her works, and The Last Queen is no exception. “Well, History, you have chosen to forget her,” she said. She wondered how the queen interacted in the zenana, or how she felt once she reached Nepal - and in answering these questions through her imagination, she felt she had woven a complete story anchored by a complex character. Sarna had a slightly similar take: he described narrating from the perspective of supporting characters so as not to rewrite facts. To him, minor characters could be given unseen facets without him feeling the ethical conflict of creating history. As a historian, Atwal’s perspective was an interesting addition. She discussed how history is, in many ways, a “constructed narrative”, and one that exists on the same spectrum of storytelling as writing fiction.
Atwal and Divakaruni also spoke about the process of engaging with potentially skewed historical sources and incomplete narratives. Colonial propaganda, for example, created a barrier to understanding what Maharani Jindan Kaur’s life was really like, whether or not the sources were to be discredited. But the process of piecing together a story with empathy was what each speaker was drawn to, nonetheless - Sarna mentioned breathing life into characters who were once patronised and diminished to footnotes by past historians, while Divakaruni described striving to depict how the Maharani “grabbed agency” that wasn’t given to her while making moments that made history textbooks feel more real.
The final, and perhaps most powerful question Sarna asked was this: What is the lasting image about Rani Jindan? He wondered - will she remain known for treachery and debauchery or as a symbol - the mother of all Sikhs? Divakaruni hoped the narratives surrounding the “largely forgotten” yet “wonderful, important” rebel queen will change. Perhaps this generation will begin to view her as complex and human. Atwal, on the other hand, admitted she might have a more guarded answer as a historian. According to her, we cannot verify the details of the queen’s private life - so how do we perceive her, going forward? “What we can do and must do,” she said, “is to, as far as possible, reclaim the stories of women like the Maharani from the clutches of very patriarchal, very misogynist and very orientalist history.” Atwal went on to say that it is most likely Rani Jindan was not a symbol to be shunned or idolised but a normal person who lived through incredible times - much, in fact, like us.