It was one of those mellow afternoons when the countryside was bathed in the warm glow of a late winter sun – the perfect weather for a gallop across the rocky plains. And like on all the other afternoons, the two women were seen exiting the fort, astride their horses, Badal and Bijli.
Badal, loyal and obedient, was always eager to please Her Majesty. But Bijli was her favourite. Like her mistress, the mare was daring and tempestuous, often crossing boundaries and venturing into the unknown. Lakshmibai was mostly seen astride Bijli, but today when she noticed Chandraki’s wistful eyes look longingly at the sturdy chestnut mare, Lakshmibai handed the reins to her.
“She’s yours for the day.” The queen smiled as Chandraki took the reins, her hands quivering.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” she stammered, overwhelmed at the queen’s magnanimity. The queen had never allowed anyone to ride the mare. Bijli was the king’s gift to her two years ago when he first learnt of her pregnancy. Lakshmibai was so possessive of her that she did not allow the grooms to attend to her except when the stables needed to be cleaned. She even fed the mare herself. But lately she could not allow herself that luxury.
Ever since the king had died, Lakshmibai would hardly get the time to indulge in any of her favourite pastimes. State matters kept her busy and officials from the East India Company would constantly be at her door with “extremely urgent” matters. In less than three years, she had lost almost everything that had once belonged to her.
“I cannot allow them to take over Jhansee. There must be something that can be done,” she said aloud as she mounted Badal. Chandraki got on to Bijli.
“You are trying your best, Your Majesty!” Chandraki reassured her.
The two women were now riding their respective horses and raising a cloud of dust behind them. They rode on in comfortable silence for some time, heading towards the road that led to Dutya. The dry terrain of Jhansee spread out before them, punctuated by rocks and boulders. Chandraki cleared her throat.
“Your Majesty, I wish to tell you something,” she said softly. The queen, who was wrapped up in her own unpleasant thoughts, started at the sound of Chandraki’s voice, which, though soft, broke through the stillness of the afternoon.
“I’ve got married.” Chandraki came straight to the point, like always. Maharani Lakshmibai pulled Badal’s reins sharply.
The horse came to a halt. Chandraki drew up beside her.
Lakshmibai turned towards Chandraki.
“I’m married,” Chandraki replied softly.
“Chandraki...married? No, it can’t be,” Lakshmibai told herself. She looked at her young companion. Did she hear her right? How was this possible? She mulled over this piece of news. But then, why was she so disturbed by it? Chandraki was, after all, a young, beautiful girl who had several admirers in the court. The queen knew about them. It was natural that she would want to have her own home, her own family.
Why should she expect that Chandraki would never marry? She was not her slave. She knew that as much as she wanted to, she could not stop Chandraki from charting her own course in life. It would not be fair. Her loyalty could never be questioned, and her companionship was most cherished. Yet, she would have to let her go at some point. Lakshmibai sighed. “Everyone is leaving me one by one,” she thought. “Am I destined to lead this long life completely alone?”
She turned towards Chandraki, who was waiting right beside her.
“Who is he? What does he do?” she asked.
This was the moment that Chandraki had dreaded all along. She knew the Maharani would ask the inevitable question and the answer was not one she would like. But it had to be done. The sooner she got over with it, the better.
“His name is Jaywant. And he is...he is a courtier in the royal palace.”
Lakshmibai smiled. So this meant Chandraki would go nowhere, but remain in the palace.
“A courtier! Well! That’s wonderful. What are his duties?” the queen asked. “How long have you known him?” The questions came in quick succession. And then there was a pause. It reminded Chandraki of rapid gunfire followed by a brief silence after which came the big blast. She prepared herself for its impact.
“Actually, he doesn’t work in the court of Jhansee.” Lakshmibai’s face fell. “Not in the court of Jhansee?”
“He’s from Orchha.” It was done. She had said it.
The two women had come quite far away from the fort. The sun was dipping and the shadows were getting longer. It was time to turn back.
“I do hope you know, Chandraki, what that means, don’t you?” The queen’s voice was firm, her face grim as she reeled from the force of Chandraki’s words.
Chandraki sat silent, her head bowed. She fidgeted with the reins that were now beginning to bruise her palms.
“Chandraki, I’m talking to you.” The queen raised her voice.
“Yes, Your Majesty, I do,” replied Chandraki.
“And you still want to go ahead with this...this dalliance of yours?”
The queen received no reply to her question. After a few minutes, she kicked Badal on his flanks and started back towards the palace. Chandraki followed quietly. Once back in the palace, the queen headed straight for her chamber with Chandraki close on her heels. On reaching her room, Lakshmibai dismissed her with a wave of her hand without a word.
Chandraki, who usually followed the queen into her room and helped her undress, was taken aback at her brusqueness. But she knew it was a command and she had no choice but to obey it. She quietly turned away from the door and, wiping the lone tear which threatened to run down her cheek any moment, ran along the entire length of the corridor and did not stop until she reached her own quarters and shut the door behind her. The queen had never been so angry with her before. What should she do? She slumped on the bed, her face buried in her palms.
Outside, the birds had embarked upon their orchestra as day gave way to night. The lamps came on, and people thronged the evening bazaars. Bells clanged as the evening pujas commenced in the temples spread across the town. For the next one hour, the city would come alive before the darkness of the early spring night would wrap itself around the plains of Bundelkhand.
It was time for the puja in the temple in the palace as well. Chandraki would reach the temple before dusk and prepare for the aarti along with the priest. But today, she did not attend the puja and instead lay on her bed, watching the blue sky turn red and then grey as the night crept in stealthily, casting a black cover across the sky. She was devastated by Maharani Lakshmibai’s dismissal of her.
It pained her to think that the queen had actually turned her away – she, who was Her Majesty’s comrade-in-arms, her confidante, her dearest companion. “She has turned her back on me,” Chandraki cried. How could she keep living if the queen abandoned her?
“She’s all I’ve got,” thought Chandraki to herself.
Chandraki wept as she recounted all that the queen had done for her. She was the envy of all the women in the palace because she was the queen’s favourite. The Maharani had taught her to read, ride and hold her head high. “She allowed me the respect that my mother had been denied all her life.” What would she do that she’d fallen from grace?
It was completely dark outside. The ebbing of the noises outside told her that the palace had gone to sleep. The queen had not called for her. Perhaps, she shouldn’t have told her after all. What if she was asked to leave the palace?
“But why should I be subjected to such treatment? What is my fault? I’ve fallen in love. Will she punish me for that?” She thought of Jaywant. She saw him smile at her with eyes filled with love. His words were a caress to her willing ears, his love brushed across her like a cool breeze on a hot summer night.
She looked out of the small window above her bed. The hours had flown by, silently. The sky had turned lighter with the first light of dawn. The birds had resumed their chatter and the first stirrings of life ushered in the new day.
Lakshmibai tossed and turned in her bed. “How can she even think of leaving me at such a tumultuous time? A time when I’m all alone and have no one beside me?”
There was a sharp pain in her heart. “Everyone is leaving me. She’s all I’ve got.” Chandraki was her only true friend, her companion. They had grown up together in Jhansee. Chandraki was a soldier, and she needed her right now. Lakshmibai thought of all kinds of reasons to keep her back in Jhansee. Her mind was in turmoil.
It was a restless night for Lakshmibai. Officials of the East India Company had given her a bad time the previous evening. She humoured them as inviting their displeasure would further stoke the already smouldering embers of a dying kingdom. She had consulted Lang on the same. “I’ve sent a representation to Lord Dalhousie again,” she told Lang. “I’m meeting Hamilton next week.”
“But Hamilton has no power over Jhansee,” Lang said. “Yes, Jhansee doesn’t fall under his jurisdiction, and he’s only a political agent after all but he is a dear friend and he understands us. He can plead our case with Mr Dalhousie. He’s almost like a father to me. Do you know, both of us were born in Benares?” Lang had offered no assurance and seemed equally helpless.
“I think I can argue my own case better,” Lakshmibai reasoned.
She spent most of the night drafting her next letter to Fort William after which she tried to get some sleep. But thoughts of Chandraki kept her awake. Her words hit her again and again. She rose from her bed and paced up and down.
“Orchha! The stupid girl has no idea what that means,” Lakshmibai fumed. “Oh Chandraki, how can you be so foolish as to marry a man from Orchha?” Orchha. A name she dreaded. Didn’t Chandraki know that it was dangerous to have anything to do with that kingdom?
Excerpted with permission from The Queen’s Last Salute: The Story Of The Rani Of Jhansee And The 1857 Mutiny, Moupia Basu, Juggernaut.