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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and her Last Queen

May/14/2022 / by ABHIJIT MASIH
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and her latest book, Last Queen
Author Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni with copies of her latest book The Last Queen

In her latest work, Chitra Divakaruni has lifted Maharani Jindan, an Indian freedom fighter from relative obscurity to international fame.

Divakaruni – an author, poet and a professor of writing at the University of Houston – has won many accolades, including an American Book Award. Among Divakaruni’s book-to-screen adaptations have been “Sister of My Heart” and the 2005 movie, “The Mistress Of Spices,” co-scripted by director Gurinder Chadha and starring Aishwarya Rai and Dylan McDermott.

Chitra Divakaruni’s latest novel, “The Last Queen,” published by William Morrow/HarperCollins, will be out in the US, May 10. There have been talks of a movie script as the book went on to win some early awards: the Best Fiction 2022 Award from the Times of India AUTHER Awards, and Best Book 2022 Award from the International Association of Working Women. It is long-listed for the Dublin Literary Award and the Publishing Next Fiction Award.

The book is about Jindan, a commoner who became the last reigning queen of India’s Sikh empire. Based on true-life events, Divakaruni describes Jindan’s rise from the daughter of a royal kennel keeper to a powerful monarch. Relying on a first-person narrative, Divakaruni divides the life of the fierce queen into four parts: girl, bride, queen, and rebel.

Divakaruni spoke to SEEMA from her home in Houston about her work.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni with all her books
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni with all her books

Why did you choose to write about Maharani Jindan?

The heroine of “The Last Queen” is Maharani Jindan Kaur, the wife of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who many people have heard about, because much has been written about him. But very little has been written about her. I came across her just by chance, I was going to give a talk at a literary festival in Kolkata. I saw a projected image on the screen – a painting of Maharani Jindan. I could see that this is a woman who had been through a lot in life. Something about that painting just called to me. I was, like, I have to write her story. Her story is so worth telling. It was so inspiring for me, because of all the things that she fought against how she never gave up. She was a great freedom fighter. She fought against the British until her last breath. Yet, we don’t know much about her. She was widowed early in life. And she fought against her own nobles to keep control of the kingdom so that her young son would not lose it, so that he would not be taken away from the throne. So there’s a lot of interesting things in her life. Plus, it’s a great love story. She just spoke to me to write her story. And I did.

In “The Last Queen,” you’ve highlighted the ruthlessness and the egocentricity of the British. Was that intentional?

Well, Jindan’s story cannot be separated from the story of how the British cheated Indians and India. One of the things I really learned during researching is that the same problem that was a problem for India during the colonial era remains a problem probably for all countries. How did a handful of British people win over this huge Indian subcontinent? It’s because they pitted people against each other, because there was so much infighting. That is how, from the inside, they weakened the kingdoms. It happened over and over and over. So the political lesson of Maharani Jindan is that if a country or a community cannot stay together, if there’s infighting, then people will take advantage of that and that will lead to its downfall. So I really wanted to bring up her personal heroism, but also the tragedy of India at that time. My hope is that we read history, we look at history, we identify with characters. That helps us to lead better lives today.

The painting that inspired the author to write about Maharani Jindan Kaur
The painting that inspired the author to write about Maharani Jindan Kaur

From writing about mythological characters in the past to a historical female character in “The Last Queen,” are your intentions to get people to learn from the past so that they don’t repeat its mistakes?

When I started writing “The Last Queen,” I really wanted to showcase Maharani Jindan, because she is so unfairly forgotten by history. People remember her husband, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, people remember her son, Maharaja Duleep Singh, because he’s the one that the British took the kingdom away from, and also took him away from India to live in England. They made sure he lost his culture, and pride in his culture. A lot of things have been written about him. But how did his mother feel? That we don’t know as much about. So I wanted to. It seems to me that that is so true of many women. Many amazing inspiring women – we just seem to forget their stories. That’s always been a project of mine – to put the woman in the center of the stage, to have us think about what amazing lives these women led and what are the things we can learn from them.

What were the challenges you encountered in doing research for “The Last Queen”?

It took me about three years. So I usually like to go to do a little bit of on-the-ground research. I like to go to places where important things have happened. And especially in this novel that was so important. For instance, she was imprisoned by the British in a very terrible prison fortress called the Chunnar Fort. I wanted to see it and get a feel for it. Then, for many years, she was separated from her son by the British. But when he grew up, he tricked them. And he came to India, and secretly arranged to meet with his mother in a hotel in Kolkata. I really want to go see that place. But with the pandemic, I realized none of this was going to happen. I really relied not only on old diaries, her letters, of course any history written at that time in newspaper entries. Most of all, I relied on old photographs and old paintings. Thank God for the internet, I was able to get hold of many old photographs and paintings. I think that really helped me get into that world.

Would you like someone like director Sanjay Leela Bhansali – who has brought many historical women to the silver screen – to immortalize Maharani Jindan on film?

Well, I don’t want to speak too soon. But “The Last Queen,” I’m very excited to say, has been optioned. I’m not allowed to say any more than that right now. But I’m very excited that we may be getting some exciting news soon. Fingers crossed for that. All of you who are reading, please do send good, good energy to “The Last Queen,” because I think that would be great to see those times, those places, that are just so amazing. I myself would love to see that on screen.

Seema

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