by Michelle Moran
Published March 2015
From Goodreads: When the British Empire sets its sights on India in the 1850s, it expects a quick and easy conquest. After all, India is not even a country, but a collection of kingdoms on the subcontinent. But when the British arrive in the Kingdom of Jhansi, expecting its queen to forfeit her crown, they are met with a surprise. Instead of surrendering, Queen Lakshmi raises two armies—one male, one female—and rides into battle like Joan of Arc. Although her soldiers are little match against superior British weaponry and training, Lakshmi fights against an empire determined to take away the land she loves.
Told from the perspective of Sita, one of the guards in Lakshmi’s all-female army and the queen’s most trusted warrior, The Last Queen of India traces the astonishing tale of a fearless ruler making her way in a world dominated by men. In the tradition of her bestselling novel Nefertiti, which Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, called “a heroic story with a very human heart,” Michelle Moran once again brings a time and place rarely explored in historical fiction to rich, vibrant life.
See that synopsis there? Doesn’t it describe a fascinating tale of a warrior queen defending her kingdom against the onslaught of British colonialists? Doesn’t it sound like Lakshmi Bai was a forward-thinking queen who called the women of Jhansi to her side to fight for their land?
Yeah, that’s not really what this book is about. I think the person who wrote the synopsis must have been reading a different book, or perhaps just read the last fifty pages or so, because while it’s a fair description of the last chapters, it doesn’t describe the majority of the book. It is less a tale of this great warrior queen, and more the story of one of her bodyguards, Sita, who has defied her culture’s norms from childhood and is accepted into the durgasavi, the queen of Jhansi’s elite, all-female guard.
The story is told as a memoir. It opens in 1919, with Sita beginning to recount the events of her life to a young Englishwoman. This framing is helpful to Western readers who may not be aware of Indian customs and beliefs, as it allows Moran to explain various bits of history and culture without having to resort to one character telling another character something they should already know. I found this device to be distracting, though, as Sita would be narrating along and then all of a sudden would pause to say something like, “we didn’t actually worship cows, even in that that time. It was more like….”. While the information was useful for understanding the characters, it was distracting.
And it made me wonder something: is it problematic for a Western writer to write the stories of non-Western people?
I think the answer is both yes and no. On one hand, people these days– people of all days, really, but it’s especially pronounced now– are afraid of people they don’t understand and whose customs are unfamiliar. If a writer who looks like them writes a story about those unfamiliar people, then perhaps those unfamiliar people will stop seeming so strange. Culture, whether it’s on TV or in books, can help a society to recognize the humanity of a minority. If more people are reading more books about other cultures, then its more likely that those ‘other’ cultures will be accepted, and that’s a good thing.
On the other hand, if, say, a middle-class white woman such as myself reads a book like Rebel Queen and then thinks to herself, “I have read a book set in India in the Victorian Era! I am a well-read person! I no longer need to read books about India!”, then authors from India (or wherever else in the world you can think of) will lose out. Shelf space is precious in bookstores. Publishers don’t want to end up with tons of unsalable books, so they choose the safe bet. Instead of The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni* (a person with a name that sounds strange to white ears), we end up with Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran. It’s good for the publisher since they’ll sell more books that way, but is it good for us, as readers, to see the world’s stories filtered through Western perspectives?
From the Author’s Note onward in Rebel Queen, Moran was sure to point out that ‘things were different then’, and that she simplified certain terms for the region and its beliefs. She also spent pages explaining terms like purdah, and while it was interesting to see ideals of modesty turned on their head when Sita encountered English women and their fashions, all this explaining got on my nerves. It felt like Moran assumed that her readers would be completely ignorant of Indian customs, and would either not be able to figure out the meanings of words from their context, or would refuse to look them up if they were confusing. Call me elitist, but I prefer authors who don’t assume that I’m unable to absorb new words into my vocabulary.
I wanted to like Rebel Queen, and while there were many parts I truly enjoyed, I was disappointed in it overall. The synopsis described a different story from what was actually there, and Moran’s numerous explanations often got in the way of the story. Perhaps if Moran had delved more deeply into Sita’s perspective and not used the framing device of, ‘here is my life story as I’m looking back at it sixty years later’, it would have been a more compelling story. But as it is, Rebel Queen largely falls flat.
*The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is one of my December selections. It will be interesting to read an Indian story (it’s a retelling of part of the epic poem, The Mahabharat) from the perspective of an Indian writer and compare it to Rebel Queen‘s American one.