Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Review: REBEL QUEEN by Michelle Moran

Fictional accounts of India published in English usually take the perspective of a British transplant encountering a foreign culture for the first time: think E.M. Forster’s A PASSAGE TO INDIA or M. M. Kaye’s THE FAR PAVILIONS. Michelle Moran’s REBEL QUEEN, just released from Touchstone, switches things up to marvelous effect. With the skill of an accomplished storyteller and the confidence of someone intimately familiar with Indian history and culture, Moran weaves a fascinating account of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 from the perspective of a vanquished people struggling to regain their sovereignty.

Though the title belongs to Rani Lakshmi, queen of the kingdom of Jhansi, it is Sita Bhopal, her most trusted confidante, who narrates the tale. Too poor to marry, Sita faces life as a temple prostitute unless she earns a spot in the Durga Dal, the queen’s elite group of female guards. Owing allegiance to no one but the rani and trained, like her, to ride horseback and wield sword, pistol, and bow, the ten Durgavasi live in the queen’s palace and provide her constant protection. Against all odds, Sita, instructed by a former soldier in the arts of war and fluent in English thanks to her father’s love of Shakespeare, fills the open spot in the corps. She leaves her poor village for the palace, dedicating her wages to building her younger sister’s dowry. At court, Sita must not only earn the trust of the queen, but navigate the ambition and envy of the other female guards. Secluded village life has little prepared her for the wiles of courtiers and the demands of international politics—or the attentions of the handsome head of the queen’s male guards, Arjun. Petty jealousies bloom into full-scale treachery as the British endeavor to wrest the kingdom from the widowed queen. Rebellion ensues as Lakshmi, with the help of Sita and other loyal guards, attempts to protect her country and her people.

The structure of the story seeks to bridge the cultural gap between Moran’s Indian characters and her American readers. Sixty years after the unfolding of the events, aged Sita writes a memoir based on diaries she has kept her entire life. The purpose of the memoir being to convince British occupiers of the importance of Indian traditions and to rehabilitate the Rani’s reputation in their eyes, Sita is able to—and frequently does—pause in her narrative to explain Hindu customs and contrast the changes that have marked India since the beginning of British rule. The conversational tone and direct address of the reader as “you” makes the insertion of such material expected and easy to digest. The memoir framework provides a view from within that acknowledges the intended audience’s “otherness” and unveils and animates Indian culture in ways that a straight narrative from an Indian perspective might not. Sita’s purpose and efforts mirror Moran’s; together, the two authors succeed in drawing the reader fully into an unfamiliar world and clarifying misconceptions about it.

The narrative itself builds slowly yet competently. The first half of the book focuses on Sita’s family conflicts and personal quest; once Sita moves to the palace and grows in her devotion to the queen, broader political events come to the forefront. Sita’s own insecurities and an overabundance of caution enable a palace treachery that precipitates the British offensive against Jhansi. Sita certainly pays for her hesitancy; the last quarter of the book recounts a spate of personal and national tragedies that left this reader breathless. Breathless, yes, yet pensive, too, and glad that Sita, like the Rani herself, does not shirk the task before her. With freedom yet to be won, Sita takes up of her pen and fires yet another salvo in the effort to liberate her people. With sensitivity to both her subject and the needs of the narrative, Michelle Moran demonstrates the power of story to touch minds and hearts as it exposes injustice and intolerance in the world.

No comments: