At nineteen years old, Sita is the shining star of Queen Lakshmi of India's imperial guard, having pledged herself to a life of celibacy in the name of protecting the young ruler.
When Sita agrees to train Lakshmi in the art of military combat, a close friendship develops between the two women. But trouble soon threatens - Lakshmi's court is dangerously divided and rumours are rife that the country is at risk. Meanwhile, in London, advisors to Queen Victoria are looking to extend the power of the Commonwealth, and India is coveted as the next jewel in the imperial crown.
In the ensuing battle, will the bond between Lakshmi and Sita be broken for ever?
Seventy-five years’ worth of diaries are spread across my bed,
nearly covering the blanket Raashi sewed for me last winter.
Th eir spines all open, the books look like old moths, just too
worn out and tired to fl y away. At eighty-fi ve, I fi nd it diffi cult to
read my own handwriting. But I have read these words so many
times that they are imprinted on my mind; they are the patterns on
a butterfly’s black-and-orange wings.
I take an envelope from my desk and bring it to my bed. Most
of my writing now is done here. I address the envelope carefully to
“Miss Pennywell,” and I am proud of the fact that I’ve remembered
to call her Miss and not Mrs. It was this kind of detail that saved
my life when her countrymen came, looking to turn my home into
a little England—only with the added benefi t of exotic women
and chai. But if what Miss Pennywell believes is correct, and the
English will read this old woman’s story, perhaps that will change.
You see, when I was a child I lived in the small kingdom of
Jhansi, under the rule of Maharaja Gangadhar and his queen, Rani
Lakshmi. Now, I live in a vast country called India, with borders
that stretch from Burma to Kashmir. Instead of a maharaja, we are
ruled by a foreign emperor, the grandson of Queen Victoria, King
George V. And where carved stupas once pierced the sky, enclosing
our sacred images of the Hindu prince Siddhartha (who eventually
became Buddha), we have tall English crosses perched on church
steeples. Yes, I am old, and no one can expect to reach my age
without witnessing great change. But I have also lived through a
terrible war between India and England, and have watched for
almost a century as our ancient traditions have slowly been erased.
Th ere is an old Hindi saying that my father once taught me.
Bandar kya jaane adrak ka swad. It means, “What does a monkey
know about the taste of ginger?” And I expect that this is true for
the English. Th ey know nothing about the people they came to
rule. So why should we expect them to preserve our temples and
respect our gods? At best, they view them as foreign decorations.
At worst, reminders of the “heathen barbarism” that runs rampant
in a country that gave the world chess and the number zero.
I look down at the address, which Miss Pennywell gave to me
two months ago. I was standing with Raashi at the railway station
in Bombay when a woman rushed up, the sound of her sharp heels
clacking against the stone. In a country of red saris and saff ron
dupattas, she was dressed in a gray shirt and a matching gray hat.
Her black skirt made its way only to her calves. She was English.
“I’m terribly sorry to disturb you, Mrs. Rathod. It is Mrs. Rathod,
I hesitated for a moment. But the British government no longer
cares about hunting down rebels, so I told her the truth. “Yes.”
She held out her hand, and I knew from my schooling in English
manners that I was supposed to shake it. “Emma Pennywell,”
I assumed she was another reporter, wanting to ask me what
had happened to the rani’s wealth after she was killed. Instead she
said, “Sixty-five years ago my grandfather escorted you to London.
His name was Wilkes. He’d like to speak with you again.”
It took several moments for me to comprehend what she was
saying. When I did, I shook my head. “I’m sorry. Th at was a different
life.” I took Raashi’s arm and we started walking toward the
train. “I was from a diff erent India then.”
“Which is why I’ve come.” When she saw I wasn’t interested,
she began to speak faster. “My grandfather is a publisher and he’s
interested in memoirs set in the colonies. He wants to tell your
story. I know you have a train—”
I stopped walking to explain to her there were things in my past
I never wished to revisit, but she didn’t even have the decency to
“We’ve all done things we’d rather keep in the dark. It’s only by
shedding light on them that our demons can disappear.”
Miss Pennywell was no more than twenty-two. What did she
know about darkness and demons? “Miss Pennywell, I just don’t
see the purpose of such a book.”
“Don’t you regret how the British have changed your country?”
“Some of it has been for the good,” I said, hoping to end our
conversation. “Th is train station, for instance. Without the British,
it could not have been built.”
“But think of all the temples that have been destroyed.”
I kept my expression neutral. I didn’t want her to know how
often I thought of this.
“Please, just consider it,” she said, then pressed a calling card
into my hand. “What if your story convinces the British that Indian
traditions are important? What if the King of England himself
were to read it and decide that your rani was right? Th at she
wasn’t a Rebel Queen, as they’ve been calling her in England, but a
true queen, willing to take up a sword to defend her people against
empire builders. Just as you did, Mrs. Rathod.”
Now she was baiting me. I knew it. But I took her card, and
after two months of persistent letters, she has fi nally changed my
Raashi thinks I am brave to write about my past. But my guess
is that she really means foolish. After all, memoirs are not open
doors into another person’s house. Th ey are more like broken windows,
with the owner trying to explain away all of the damage.
And I’m not blinded to the truth. I am writing this as much for
myself as I am for India.
Th e sweet scents of garam masala and coriander fi ll the house,
and I know that Raashi is cooking. I should probably begin before
this cool morning thaws into a scorching afternoon when nothing
but sleeping can be done. But I continue to look at my friends,
their worn leather covers as creased and familiar as the backs of my
hands. When this memoir is fi nished, I will not save my diaries.
I will take them to the Ganges during Vasant Navratri, when everyone
is fl oating their old calendars down the water, and I will let
the goddess of the river determine if the things I did were right; if
what happened to my sister, and to India’s bravest queen, should
still weigh so heavily on an old woman’s heart.
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