Being fond of history and of books, I was delighted to come across an extremely old book recently. This was ” Lachmi Bai, Rani of Jhansi” by Michael White, re- published by Project Gutenberg which has brought out over 60,000 ebooks which are available for free to readers. The original was published way back in 1901 by J F Taylor And Company, New York! This book has an interesting sub-title, “The Jeanne D”Arc of India”
There are so many stories about the valiant Rani Lakshmibai ( as we would spell her name these days) that we are not quite sure which story is true and which is more of a legend. For those not familiar with the background, her biography in the Encyclopedia Britannica can be a starting point. A more current and interesting account appears in, “What ‘Really’ Happened in Jhansi?” in Live History of India,
However, in reading White’s book, you must remember when it was written. In 1901, at the start of the twentieth century , Queen Victoria was ruling over a vast Empire and India had been the jewel in the crown since 1857. The language therefore sounds stilted to our ears. A sampling: ” Thou art the Jamadar Golab Das”? she interrogated. ” As thou sayest, Noble Rani”. ” Tell me, O Golab, ” she besought anxiously, ‘ Have they heard? Have the eyes of the Foreigners been opened? Hath a traitor whispered in their ears?”
The story is set in the Indian Mutiny of 1857 ( now also called India’s First War of Independence) and revolves around the young Rani of Jhansi (1835-1858) and her two principal courtiers, a Hindu – Prasad Singh and a Moslem – the Afghan, Ahmad Khan. Much of the book is about the intrigues in her court as a result of their rivalry. While the context is historical, the author seems to have given his own fictional account of the Rani’s court. The Rani’s Secretary, Bipin, is thrown in for comic relief!
It covers the period when in Jhansi they heard that Delhi had been re-taken by “the Foreigners” and the battles moved back to Central India, when the British sought to mercilessly deal with the rebels. It features other historical figures like Tantia Topi, The Maharaja Jiaaji Rao Sindhia of Gwalior, Nana Sahib, the Maratha Peshwa and the Rao Sahib of Kalpi.
After initial defeats, the Rani takes the seemingly impregnable fortress of Gwalior in a surprise attack that stunned the British. However, she and those loyal to her were soon defeated by the advancing British. White compares her bravery and audacity with Jeanne D’Arc hence the sub-title mentioned earlier.
Kaye and Malleson write of her, in their “History of the Indian Mutiny” : ” Being young, vigorous and not afraid to show herself to the multitude, she gained a great influence over the hearts of the people. It was this influence, this force of character, added to a splendid and inspiring courage that enabled her to offer a desperate resistance to the British. Whatever her faults in British eyes ….her countrymen will ever believe that she was driven by ill-treatment into rebellion; that her cause was righteous cause. To them she will always be a heroine.”