Just before his fourth birthday, which Damodar had been told was less than a year earlier but which seemed a long time ago to him, a strange but beautifully dressed lady with sad eyes had come to visit him. She had brought him many toys.

She was Queen Lakshmibai, his mother had said, and he must be respectful towards her.

So he had sat stiffly on her lap and answered her questions as best as he could because his parents had been watching them from the other room, hawk-eyed.

This lady, the queen, was to become his new mother, he was told after the visit. A great honour. But he already had a perfectly nice mother and wondered why he needed another.

But then a year had gone by and there had been many things to occupy his mind, so he had not thought about it till now.

Now, he was woken in the chill of dawn by his parents and made to wear new silk clothes that rustled when he moved and chafed his skin all over. It was all he could do not to cry.

“Princes are strong,” his father reminded him. “A new life awaits you and you must look forward to it – and be happy.”

He tried, but it is not easy to be happy just because someone orders you to be.

However, as he neared the palace in the royal carriage that had been sent for him, his eyes widened.

The entire building was draped with colour, its every corner fragrant, some bright orange blooms even adorning the flag with the kettledrum that flapped noisily in the breeze from atop the ramparts. He had never seen so many flowers in one place before.

He had no time to look around though, for he was hastily ushered into the main chamber for the adoption ceremony. The queen threw him a smile as he entered but he was too nervous to return it. Perhaps she understood for she nodded at him and held his hand tightly before she was called away.

The air within was stifling. Damodar soon began to droop with exhaustion while the priest droned on.

From time to time, he stole looks at the man in grand clothes who lay on a couch on the other side of the room and who smiled at him whenever their eyes met. This was the king, he knew. He was soon to become his son – and this despite the fact that he already had a father whom he loved very much.

But the king was dying – this also he knew.

Major Ellis, the British political agent to the throne of Jhansi, and two other British officers watched the ceremony from their seats of honour. They were the official witnesses to the fact that Raja Gangadhar Rao, the ruler of Jhansi since 1838, and his wife, Rani Lakshmibai, had formally adopted the son of a distant relative and named him Damodar Rao, in memory of their own boy who had died four months after his birth in September 1851.

Jhansi now had a legitimate heir to the throne who would ascend it when the ailing king died. The rani would be his regent and rule the kingdom till he came of age.

Now Jhansi would be safe from the British, the queen thought, relief washing over her as she kissed her new son after the ceremony.

She turned to Major Ellis, her eyes as sharp and alert as always. “The deed is done. Please convey this fact to Lord Dalhousie and your superiors. Jhansi has a secure heir to the throne; it will be safe even after the king and I are gone.”

Major Ellis ran a finger under his braided collar and surreptitiously wiped away the sweat, his face red with the heat. His uniform, designed for the cold English weather, was completely unsuited to the intense sun of Jhansi. He bowed. ‘I will convey your news to the Governor-General, Your Majesty. And may I congratulate you and the king on your son? He is a fine boy.’

King Gangadhar Rao died the very next day. The palace was immediately shrouded in mourning and an endless round of rituals began. The little boy sat through it all, his new mother at his side, holding his hand.

She was stone-faced as memories unfurled, all the while, in her head – of her coming to Jhansi, eager and expectant, all those years ago, despite knowing that the king she was to marry was much older than her in age; of his amusement at her delight in her new home, her unbounded curiosity about everything; of her slow realisation that the king was more interested in clothes and ornaments and theatrics than her; of his increasing dependence on her to manage the affairs of the kingdom as his health waned; of their joint desolation at the death of their child; and of her dull certainty that she was soon to be a widow.

Life had been tough so far, yet she was determined not to bow under its weight. Her shoulders were young but broad and she felt equal to any future problems that might be thrown at her.

Damodar squeezed her hand suddenly, in childish reassurance, and she smiled.

Queen of Fire

Excerpted with permission from Queen of Fire, Devika Rangachari, Duckbill.