BOOK EXCERPT

The indomitable queen: As the Sikh Empire crumbled, only one woman scared the British

Even in defeat and exile, the rebellious Maharani Jind Kaur refused to play the docile role that the British expected of her.

It is known despite the heavy precautions taken by [Major GH] Macgregor to vet the letters and information being passed to her that either through her servants or by secret communication Jind Kaur was aware of how the war in the Punjab was going. Not only that but she managed to slip out letters to her sympathisers. She also managed to send messages to Chutter Singh and Mulraj during the month of March 1849 at least once. These messages were, unfortunately for her, intercepted.

Two horsemen were seen one day crossing into the Punjab on March 1, 1849. Their eastern Indian features marking them out as different and their movements seen as suspicious, they were pursued. One managed to escape but one was captured and arrested. Papers were found on the man along with two amulets. A letter secreted inside jewellery was a common form of carrying confidential information. The amulets carried a letter each for Mulraj and Chutter Singh. They were dated two months to the date the horseman was captured, around the time it would take a horseman travelling from Benares, so the letters were presumably written early in January, prior to Chillianwala. Frederick Currie had no doubt the letters came from Jind Kaur. He had, he explained, shown them to Mr Bowring, his assistant, who had seen many of the Maharani’s letters she had sent to the previous Residents and knew her writing nuances. Bowring was positive these were genuine.

The letter, a diatribe rather than any discussion of plots and intrigue, allowed Jind Kaur to vent her anger and frustration at the British for her incarceration and encouraged Chutter Singh to humiliate the British prisoners already taken.

“By the grace of the holy Gooroo, written by the Maee Sahib to Chuttur Sing.


I am well and pray for your welfare also. A hundred praises on your bravery. I am unable to bestow sufficient commendation on it; as long as the earth and heavens exist, so long shall people continue to utter your praises. You have settled matters with the British, right well.


They quake and tremble through fear of you and have lost all their ascendancy. They have abandoned eating their food, and their tongues falter. Be confident and firm. The English have no troops, so exert yourself to the utmost.
Give the British, whom you have taken prisoners, one hundred blows each a day; blacken their faces; and placing them on donkeys, parade them through your camp; cut off their noses also; by these means, in a short time, not one of the British will be left in the land. Do not interfere with the Hindostanees, but proclaim, by beat of tom-tom, that all who will enter the Maharajah’s service shall be rewarded.

Collect together 1000 or 2000 able bodied men, and having disguised them as fakeers, send them across [to Calcutta]. Instruct them to watch the British during the day and to kill them at night. The British have no troops in this part of the country, certainly not more than 1000 or 2000 men, and at night are accustomed to sleep with no one near them. Be confident. The British do not molest me at all, being afraid to do so...”

The other letter being addressed to Moolraj was a copy of the above. The intervening time between her writing the letters and the horsemen messengers being captured had seen the fall of Multan and the battles of Chillianwala and Gujrat, bringing an end to the war and making the message redundant. A further letter from her to Shere Singh was also intercepted. In this she informed Shere Singh there was a crore of rupees hidden at Sheikhupura which he could use to pay his troops. This money was shortly confiscated by the British. These intercepted letters, sent to the government on March 19, ten days before annexation ended any little chance of leniency by the British government and in fact provided the excuse for further drastic action against her. The decision was taken to put the Maharani under official incarceration.

The immediate pretext though would be an incident relating to one of her servants who managed to escape the strict guard and disappear. This, it was decided, was a trial run for the Maharani herself to escape British custody and Macgregor immediately sanctioned the transfer of Jind Kaur to the fortress of Chunar, the usual jail for state prisoners, the move taking place on 6 April.

Realising she would probably spend the rest of her days in the prison, and with no expectations of release despite the legal efforts of Newmarch, Jind Kaur looked to other means of escaping British custody. The ladies of the time normally were in purdah (face veils), and thus the Maharani was never asked to show her face on arrival at Chunar and the days after. Occasionally her voice was heard, but in recent days the guards had noticed it had taken on a different tone, attributed by the person under the veil to a cold she had contracted.

In fact Jind Kaur had escaped. One of her servants, known by the name Seenawallee, meaning seamstress, who was allowed in and out of the prison had exchanged clothes (and face veils) and taken her place while the Maharani in her servant’s clothes had walked out of the fortress. The plan had nearly come to grief; one of the guards had initially challenged the “seamstress” and refused to allow her to leave the fortress but had been convinced by her other servants that she had always had the right to enter and exit the fortress to visit her mistress. She was challenged again by the guards on the outer gate but the Havildar had shouted out all was fine. The next day Seenawallee (or what appeared to her but was another servant) appeared again asking for entry to the fort so that the guards’ suspicions were put to rest. As the real seamstress took the place of the Maharani in her cell, Jind Kaur was already well on her way north to Nepal. The charade continued till the 19th, when her servants, confident that her royal mistress had a good start, made public their ruse.

The escape prompted much speculation in the papers. Some, refusing to believe in the servants’ accounts, speculated she had escaped even earlier during the preparation for her removal to Chunar. According to the story written by the Benares Recorder, she had escaped the same afternoon as her arrival on the 6th and that she had very definitely reached Chunar. Others speculated she had escaped several days after being transferred. The matter would prove unresolvable due to the face veils she and her accomplices had always worn. Jind Kaur had coolly left a note in her cell:

“You put me in the cage and locked me up. For all your locks and your sentries, I got out by my magic...I had told you plainly not to push me too hard – but don’t think I ran away, understand well, that I escape by myself unaided...When I quit the Fort of Chunar I threw down two papers on my gaddi and one I threw on the European charpoy now don’t imagine, I got out like a thief.”

Jind Kaur travelled rapidly under the disguise of a pilgrim, crossing 480 km and the border and reaching Kathmandu by the 29th of the same month, where she applied for sanctuary.

Excerpted with permission from The Second Anglo-Sikh War, Amarpal Singh, Harper Collins.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.