I stared unseeing into the endless horizon. The setting sun rendered a beautiful burst of orange-red hues across the sky. The green of the verdant valleys fought for my attention too. But my mind was elsewhere, and not in a very pleasant place. Anger, resentment, and fear filled my heart and mind.
I did not imagine my life this way. Widowed early, lost a son, vainly fought for my kingdom against foreign rule. Against a cruel, arbitrary law they enacted on their own as a devious means of annexing lands without wars! The Doctrine of Lapse, it seems! Who are they to tell us when and what lapses in our land?
I remember the gory battle two weeks ago at Jhansi. We were 10,000 in strength, highly motivated men and women ready to give up their lives for Jhansi, and they were a mere 1500, with the sole aim to take my beloved kingdom under the rule of the East India Company!
But bravery and motivation did not stand a chance against sheer military skill and power. They laid siege for two weeks. We couldn’t last beyond that. I wonder if it would’ve been easier to have accepted their Rs.60,000 pension and settled peacefully in another place with Damodar.
But no! How could I do that? Would I have been able to show my face to my dead husband when I met him in the other world? In my defense, I could’ve confronted him with my own anger. How could he leave me, bereft and alone?
People said he died of the heartbreak of having lost his son. But wasn’t he my son too? Wasn’t I more heartbroken considering I carried him in my womb for nine months? But I still lived! Why? Only confusing questions and livid rage remain!
But when they sent an emissary offering me the pension and commanding me to leave the fort of my beloved Jhansi, I realized my bigger purpose. I was meant to live on to save my kingdom from the outsiders.
That Damodar, my husband’s little cousin, was officially adopted as our son and successor didn’t help our cause. They said only natural heirs can be successors, and they enforced the wretched Dalhousie Act on us.
Who are they to do this? Don’t they know our culture does not work this way? Hadn’t they heard of King Bharata who refused to let any of his own nine sons succeed him? Why? Because he didn’t find them wise and good enough to rule his kingdom! So, he chose to bring forth a suitable heir, Bhumanyu, through Sage Bharadwaja.
Hadn’t Lord Dalhousie and his minions heard of the Mahabharata where sons of Sage Vyasa continued the Kuru clan? Not natural heirs! In fact, heirs from the maternal side!
What right do they have to impose rules arbitrarily on us? It is our land, and we will choose our leader.
And then we heard some good news! The sepoys in Meerut had risen in revolt against their English bosses, and rightly so! They were made to bite bullets made of cow and pig fat before loading them onto their pistols. The sepoys were Hindus and Muslims! How could they betray their religion? And so, the unified contingency revolted.
The feelings of patriotism slowly but surely began to spread. We then heard some more good news. Emboldened by the mutiny of the sepoys, Bahadur Shah Zafar, the eldest surviving Mughal, was placed on the Delhi throne and was declared “Emperor of Hindustan.” And that act fanned nationalism even more.
I was elated when I heard such gratifying news. Maybe it was a sign for us to fight for our independence, to defeat the foreigners, and reclaim our sovereignty. And so, we prepared ourselves at Jhansi too. The new recruits were taught to fight. Their skills were raw, but their confidence was heartening. Seeing so many women enlist themselves brought tears of happiness to my eyes. My father was right! Any woman can be a soldier! He trained me to be one!
But emotion alone was not enough. We lacked military power and money. I lost Jhansi in a horrifying battle! So many of my men and women dead! The streams of blood slowly turned to rivers of blood. Children wailing near the corpses of their parents! Pure torment! The invading soldiers killed mercilessly and skillfully while thousands of my brave but untrained soldiers fell dead! It was a horrendous sight!
I’m ranting again. But what can I do? These relentless thoughts are driving me crazy! And all the blood spilt for naught! I had to escape like a coward carrying little Damodar on my back! What to do! His safety was my priority. I was the protector dowager queen.
The only bleak ray of hope was that I was able to reach the safety of Kalpi. But my father was captured during the escapade. At least he would die in honour of defending his freedom. Not like me! A coward who chose to flee from battle. The tears didn’t stop!
It was he who pushed me to escape, reminding me of my duty to protect the future ruler of Jhansi until he came of age. Thankfully, the Peshwa Raosaheb of Kalpi decided to help me. However, that damn Sir Hugh Rose followed me from Jhansi and caught up with me at Kalpi. We had to face another crushing, humiliating defeat at the hands of his army.
I was devastated. A trading company ruling an entire nation! Who would’ve thought it would come to this! Slowly but surely, money and military powers were stealthily and skillfully manipulated to make a rich, resourceful country a subsidiary of a trading enterprise! Not a superior kingdom! How could we have allowed it to come so far? Shame on us!
The humiliation instead of filling us with fear charged our morale. Raosaheb Peshave, Nawab of Banda, Tatya Tope, me, and many other chieftains gathered at Gopalpur and planned to attack and take over Gwalior. The plan worked. We rejoiced to finally taste victory after a series of defeats.
And yet, I knew it was only a matter of time before that blasted Rose found his way here. And I was right. He was coming fast. I took on the responsibility of guarding the eastern ramparts of Gwalior fort. It was a pleasure to see even my servants and helpers don soldiers’ uniforms to fight.
“We’ll die with you rather than surrender,” gallantly they screamed in unison, filling my heart with newfound vim and vigour. Tomorrow, we are expecting Rose to attack from all sides, and I know defeat is imminent. Yet, I will not give up, not until my last breath.
“Rani, they are waiting for you to begin the meeting,” the guard’s voice broke into my ranting reverie.
“Rose’s army is advancing and very close to Gwalior. What is our plan?” Tatya Tope opened the strategy meeting.
“Let us increase the number of guards at all the gates!” Someone said.
“Yes! Let us keep Gwalior safe.” Another voice in the group agreed.
“We can hold out for a few more days,” said another.
“How many more days?” I intervened.
The warrior who was confident of holding out for a few days faltered. My voice reflected the rage I was feeling.
“They hold us ransom in our own homes. And we should hold out in deference to them? Is that how we want to be remembered?”
The room became as silent as death. One could hear a pin drop. I was hoping to lift their spirits with my anger and rally them to battle.
I realized there was no point in hiding and holding out. It was time to go on the offensive. I stood up, unsheathed my sword, held it high up, and said, “Har Har Mahadev! Do or die!”
I don’t know what came over me. Perhaps the futility of everything hit me hard. But I was sure I didn’t want to have an ignominious, cowardly death. No more running away!
The resounding war cry shook the very foundations of Gwalior fort. They answered the call of their Rani!
HAR! HAR! MAHADEV! HAR! HAR! MAHADEV! HAR! HAR! MAHADEV!
They were ready and so was I! Into battle we went! All the gates of the fort were swung open and we charged into the oncoming army. I swung my sword as wildly as possible, knowing it was futile, yet not giving up! Not until my last breath!
I got hit and fell down! My warrior costume made me look like a soldier fighting for her Rani, not the Rani herself. No one recognized me. I was left to bleed to death! But my loyal companions found me.
They carried me to a nearby mutt.
“Water! Water!” Aah! The cool sips of Gangajal!
“Promise me that my body will not fall into the hands of the British! Promise me!”
Their eyes were filled with tears! But they gave me their word!
“Manu! Manu!” My mother was calling me! My nickname! Short for Manikarnika! What I was before I became Rani of Jhansi!
After 19 years of being separated from my dead mother, I ran happily into her open, welcoming arms. No more rantings and thoughts! No fear, no anger, only peace! Knowing I had given my best every day of my 23-year-old life.
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