Rani, a Review of the novel on Jhansi Rani by Jaishree Misra
Suneetha | 16 Mar 2008

"Rani" has been in the news for the wrong reasons these days, it is facing a ban by the UP government, but does the book really warrant a ban? Read on to find out.

RANI by Jaishree Misra
A review of the novel by Suneetha.B

Jaishree Misra knows she is playing with fire when she spins a tale around a historical figure on an eternal pedestal, but she has done it with credit. Rani is not one of those run-of-the mill books of the 1857 centenary harvest but more of a historical romance about the warrior queen of India, Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi. There is more of fiction than fact occupying the 416 pages, admits the novelist; perhaps this makes the book better than most of the modern tales on Jhansi Rani making the rounds.
‘Rani’ is rather slow paced especially in the first half which portrays the little girl Manikarnika or Mani from Benares in a happy childhood at the house hold of the Peshwa. But the pace picks up after the tale touches the annexation of Jhansi by the British. Mani (Misra replaces the known pet name ‘Manu’ perhaps intentionally ) makes her presence felt, not as the expected fiery and spontaneous heroine but as a sensible ruler, whose patient wisdom holds her back from war till she is forced to jump into the fray.
Misra’s Rani is portrayed more of a believer in friendly gestures of diplomacy in tune with the strategies of her husband’s house rather than in sword-yielding measures. She keeps a distance even from her beloved childhood companions Nana and Tantia till the very last possible moment of war. Yet, her decision to leave her country in camouflage, just as Jhansi is in the fear of a siege is unconvincing.
The book has enough drama woven into it to make it a possible screenplay. The characters are generally well etched but fail to remain with you once they move out of the stage. Perhaps the exceptions are little Damodar, her adopted son and Sunder her personal attendant.
Even the sensual elements don’t breathe life into the men in her life. The queen is too brilliant a figure for that. In fact the delayed consummation of her marriage renders the little queen worried and prompts her to make moves atypical for a woman of her dignity. Misra rightly makes the attempted consummation a scene of sanitized sensuality. Still again with Ellis, the man who holds her romantic interest, the queen is rather practical. We don’t feel the flush of a stormy unusual romance in those scenes. The best vista perhaps is when the Rani collapses for a private weeping after a public stiff lipped final good bye to Ellis.
Misra has done her research well. The active presence of the church in Jhansi, the various historical spots brought to life in the course of the novel and the real correspondence between the Rani and the British picked from the archives prove it. She also convincingly settles the doubt of why the Rani waited four years to fight the British in the uprising of 1857 although Jhansi was annexed in 1854. The negotiation between the Rani and the British is proved by what is recorded on her in the archives. Perhaps this element strengthens the fabric of the book more than anything else.
We in India don’t ever hear of the Rani aiding the bloody massacre of a group of English women and children but the British records still hold the fact against her. Misra attempts to erase this black mark by attributing the Rani with a character of incomparable integrity and highlighting the circumstances that finally sabotage her good intentions. Does the writer suggest that this is perchance the reality?
The eternal romantic in Misra we glimpsed in ‘Afterwards’ and ‘Ancient Promises’ does not hide here, she plots to make the ill fated lovers meet again albeit fleetingly. Indeed if the grapevine is right about a possible Bollywood film, this is going to be the most heart rending scene in the movie.
There aren’t many things that take away your joy of reading Rani at a stretch. In fact Misra has an adept pen and uses lovely imagery throughout. Look how she describes the light that falls on the floor of the room through stained glass as ‘coloured lozenges of light’. The shift of point of view is subtle and unobtrusive, defying all modern rules of story writing. The scene of the King’s funeral starts from Ellis’s perceptive but we find ourselves in the queen’s thoughts without our realizing it.
In contrast I found the use of archaic and uncommon words a bit of a burden. The text has plenty of it. Perhaps the writer considers the use of long words to suit the mood of a past era but encountering ‘obstreperousness’ in two continuous pages made me desperate for my dictionary. Otherwise, Misra keeps her promise and delivers a very readable book.