Finding a hero for all in India’s history

I turned 50 last month (gulp!) and the older I get the more I realise how much I don’t know.

When I began researching the Acrobats of Agra – as a history fanatic I love the research part of writing a book – I’d never heard of Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi.

Yet within India she remains a timeless hero; just last month a train station in Nagpur was named after her and a new TV series dramatizing her life was announced less than a year since the latest Bollywood biopic hit cinemas. She’s featured in numerous books, including an appearance in George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series – Flashman, of course, attempts (and fails) to seduce her. There are Rani statues across India, universities named after her and even a marine park in the Bay of Bengal.

All of which was news to me, and that’s one of the joys of history; discovering these amazing characters and learning of events that fascinate, intrigue and educate. And there was something else too – for a novelist the added attraction is the Rani has become a mix of fact, myth and legend. The British general she fought against during the Indian Rebellion in 1857 compared her to Joan of Arc. There’s something of Boudicca here too – a woman leading her people’s doomed attempt to free themselves from a foreign oppressor (I wonder whether the lack of women in so many older history books means when they do feature they are more likely to become mythologised?)

So there are different versions and interpretations of the Rani, and that frees me as a writer to have my own Rani as a key character in the Acrobats of Agra.

Across the historic accounts there are characteristics that seem constant, and they helped define my Rani. From childhood she defied the norm. Her mother died when Manikarnika, as she was first named, was a young child and while her father served at court she learnt to read, write, shoot, horse ride, fence – all things girls were not supposed to do.

She was married young, around 14, to the Maharaja of Jhansi, a state in north central India, where she added weightlifting and wrestling to her CV and changed her name, as was the custom, to Lakshmibai. When the Maharaja died, the Rani looked to rule in his place, except the British, via the East India Company, decided against this through a law called the Doctrine of Lapse. This meant if a ruler died without a named male heir, the East India Company could take over. In other words, the British made up a law and imposed it on territories they fancied.

The Rani was not going to give up her throne without a fight. Her resistance was first mounted via the courts – if the British could use the law against her, she would use it against them. She took on an Australian barrister to argue her case and was supported by two British agents based in Jhansi. It did not go her way. Nevertheless when the 1857 Rebellion began, the Rani initially sided with the British, raised a small force, with a number of women in its ranks, and fought off attempts by a neighbouring ruler to take advantage of the unfolding chaos and steal Jhansi for himself.

When a rebel army arrived in Jhansi, the remaining British residents appealed to the Rani for protection. There are differing accounts of what happened next, but it seems likely she did try to protect them and was unable to do so. Some 60 Britons surrendered to the rebels and were massacred.

Events unfolded quickly and the Rani had little choice but to join the rebellion. A British army laid siege to Jhansi and legend has it the Rani, her son strapped to her back, mounted her horse, leapt from the walls and galloped to safety. Behind her 5,000 of the fort’s defenders were killed.

The Rani continued to resist the British. In June, 1858, aged 29, she took part in the battle for Gwalior, the last of the rebellion. “Clad,” according to one witness, “in attire of a man and mounted on horseback”, she led a desperate charge against the enemy. It was the final act of a remarkable life.

Even in death there’s doubt over the Rani. One report has her wounded and horseless and still trying to fight before she was shot by a British soldier.

She passed quickly into legend, praised by friend and foe. The British took terrible and brutal revenge for the rebellion – the number of those executed or who died as a result of British actions is unknown but is estimated to be counted in the hundreds of thousands. In northern India the British reprisals became known as the “Devil’s Wind.” Yet the British, as the Indians, were captivated by the Rani of Jhansi. “A perfect Amazon in bravery,” wrote one soldier. “The sort of daredevil woman soldiers admire.”

“Her courage stands pre-eminent and can only be equalled but not eclipsed by Joan of Arc,” wrote John Latimer, another soldier.

It wasn’t only her courage that made the Rani standout. In her brief time ruling Jhansi she broke with convention in her care for the poor. She received British officers and her own ministers face-to-face rather than as custom demanded wear a veil or sit behind a curtain. She strikes me as a woman who stood up for women, stood up for her people and stood up for herself; as much a role model for my daughters today as she was for those who followed her 160 years ago.

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