When the British Empire sets its sights on India in the mid-nineteenth century, it expects a quick and easy conquest. India is fractured and divided into kingdoms, each independent and wary of one another, seemingly no match for the might of the English. But when they arrive in the Kingdom of Jhansi, the British army is met with a surprising challenge.
Instead of surrendering, Queen Lakshmi raises two armies—one male and one female—and rides into battle, determined to protect her country and her people. Although her soldiers may not appear at first to be formidable against superior British weaponry and training, Lakshmi refuses to back down from the empire determined to take away the land she loves.
Told from the unexpected perspective of Sita—Queen Lakshmi’s most favored companion and most trusted soldier in the all-female army—Rebel Queen shines a light on a time and place rarely explored in historical fiction. In the tradition of her bestselling novel, Nefertiti, and through her strong, independent heroines fighting to make their way in a male dominated world, Michelle Moran brings nineteenth-century India to rich, vibrant life.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Imagine I took you down a long dirt road to the edge of a field, and we entered a farmer’s house built from mud brick and thatch. Now imagine I told you, “This is where I stood with the Rani of Jhansi during our escape from the British. And that corner, there, is where we changed into peasant’s clothes so she could reach the Fortress of Kalpi.” I suppose you would look from me, in my respectable sari and fine gold jewels, to the dirt floor of that one-room home and laugh. Only my eyes would remain serious, and slowly, the realization would dawn on you that all of the stories you heard must be true. The Rani of Jhansi—or Queen Lakshmi, as the British persisted in calling her—really did elude the powerful British army by dressing like a common farmer’s wife.
I’m not sure why this is so surprising to people. Didn’t Odysseus manage it when he disguised himself as a beggar? And the Duke of Vienna in Measure for Measure? Perhaps people’s surprise then is that I was the one who suggested she do it, taking inspiration from characters who’d only lived on the page. After all, I was not born to read such texts. In fact, I was not born to read at all. It was Father who insisted on my education. If it had been left to Grandmother, I would never have seen anything beyond the walls of my house. For, as I’m sure you know, women throughout India are nearly all in purdah.
When I was seven years old, I asked Father how this concept of secluding women came to be, and he guided me to a cool place in the shade. Our garden was large enough for a peepal tree, and it wasn’t until I was much older that I learned that not every house in Barwa Sagar was so spacious. But we were Kshatriyas, meaning our ancestors had been related to kings, just as their ancestors had been related to kings, and so on, I suppose, since the beginning of time. People have often asked me what these different castes mean, and I explain it like this: Imagine a beehive, which has workers, and breeders, and finally, a queen. Well, our castes are very much the same thing. There are Brahmins, whose job it is to be priests. There are Kshatriyas, who are the warriors and kings. There are the Vaishyas, who are merchants, farmers, and traders. And then there are the Shudras, who serve and clean. Just the same as a worker bee is born a worker bee and will die a worker bee, a person can never change their caste.
But that evening, as the setting sun burnished the clouds above us, turning the sky into a wide orange sea, Father explained purdah to me. He patted his knee, and when I climbed onto his lap, I could see the knotty muscles of his arms. They bulged beneath his skin like rocks. I held out my hand, and he used his finger to trace his words onto the flat of my palm.
“Do you remember the story of the first Mughal leader in India?” he wrote.
I took his hand and drew the words, “He was Muslim, and we are Hindu.”
“Yes. He was the one who brought purdah to our land.”
“So it’s Emperor Bahadur Shah’s fault that I can’t leave our house?”
Father’s arm tensed, and I knew at once that what I wrote must be wrong. “Purdah is no one’s fault,” he traced swiftly. “It’s to keep women safe.”
“Men, who might otherwise harm them.”
I sat very still. Did he mean that for the rest of my life, I would never know what lay beyond the walls of our garden? That I would never be able to climb the coconut trees? I felt a deep agitation growing inside of me.
“Well,” Father went on, “what’s troubling you now?”
Of course, Father didn’t use words like “well.” That was my addition; the way I imagined he would have spoken if he hadn’t lost his hearing while fighting alongside the British against the Burmese. Although you may wonder what the British were doing in India, and why any of us were fighting against the Burmese at all. It began in 1600, when English sailors first arrived in my country. If you’ve ever heard the story of the camel’s nose and how, on a cold winter’s night, the camel begged its master to allow it to place its nose inside the master’s tent, then you will quickly understand the British East India Company.
In the beginning, it was nothing more than a trading company buying up all of our rich spices and silks and shipping them to England, where a fortune could be made. But as the Company grew more successful, it needed to protect its profitable warehouses with several hundred armed guards. Then it needed several thousand armed soldiers. And one day, the rulers of India woke up to discover that the British East India Company had a powerful army. They were exactly like the camel, who promised at first it would just be its nose, then its legs, then its back, until finally it was the camel living inside the tent while the master shivered in the cold outside.
Soon, when one of our rulers needed military aid, they didn’t turn to other maharajas like themselves; instead they asked the British East India Company. And the more favors they asked, the more powerful the Company grew. Then, in 1824, a group of maharajas in northern India decided they’d had enough. They had been watching the Burmese take over their neighbors’ kingdoms year after year, and they knew that, just like with that cunning camel, it would only end once the Burmese were seated on their thrones as well. I can’t tell you why these same maharajas didn’t see that this story might apply to the British, too. You would think the safest thing would have been to turn to each other for help. But none of those powerful men wanted to be indebted to another maharaja. So instead, they indebted themselves to an outsider. They enlisted the help of the British East India Company, which was more than happy to wage war on Burma for their own, mostly economic, reasons.
Father fought in this war. Because of his caste, he was made a commanding officer and the Company paid him one hundred rupees a month for his post. I was only a few months old when he left for Burma, and there was every reason to believe that a glorious future lay ahead of Nihal Bhosale. He sent my sixteen-year-old mother letters from the front telling her that even though British customs were difficult to understand, fighting alongside these foreigners had its advantages. He was learning to speak English, and another officer had introduced him to a writer—a brilliant, unequaled writer—by the name of William Shakespeare.
“According to the colonel, if I wish to understand the British, I must first understand this Shakespeare.” Father took this advice to heart. He read everything Shakespeare wrote, from Othello to The Merchant of Venice, and when the war took his hearing two years later, it was Shakespeare who kept him company in his hospital bed.
Many years after this, I asked Father which of Shakespeare’s plays had comforted him the most while he was coming to terms with a world in which he’d never know the sound of his child’s voice or hear his wife sing ragas to Lord Shiva again. By that time, I had become a soldier myself in the rani’s Durga Dal—an elite group of the queen’s most trusted female guards. And by then, I, too, had read all of Shakespeare’s works.
Father thought for a moment, then told me what I had already guessed. “Henry V. Because there has never been a clearer, more persuasive argument for why we go to war.”
But war wasn’t what concerned me on that evening Father explained purdah to me. I was too young to understand about politics. All I knew was that I couldn’t play outside like the boys who drank juice from hairy coconut husks and staged mock battles with broken shoots of bamboo. I looked up at Father, with his bald head gleaming like a polished bowl in the sun, and wrote:
“Will I always be in purdah, even when I’m grown?”
“If you wish to be a respectable woman with a husband and children—as I hope you shall be—then, yes.”
But just as a crow will build its nest in a tree, only to have the sparrow come and tear it apart, the life Father had planned for me was ripped away by a little bird.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Rebel Queen includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Michelle Moran. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Rebel Queen recounts the story of Sita, a beautiful young woman from a remote village in nineteenth century India, who is granted a rare opportunity to serve in Queen Lakshmi’s elite all-female army, the Durga Daal. Leaving behind her widowed father and young sister, Sita travels to the kingdom of Jhansi and begins a new life of opulence and excitement, all while saving money for her sister’s dowry. Her good luck is short-lived, however, as the British army gains a stronghold in India and threatens to take over Queen Lakshmi’s throne. Intrigue, deception, murder, and culture clashes ensue, but the queen does not give up her kingdom without a fight. Sita, ever faithful to her queen, pledges her allegiance to the kingdom, even though it means she must sacrifice her beloved family and a way of life that can never be reclaimed. Rebel Queen is as heartbreaking as it is exhilarating—a rare glimpse into the making of an empire, and an examination of power, privilege, and loss.
Questions and Topics For Discussion
1. Rebel Queen opens with an epigraph from George Bernard Shaw: “Every Englishman is born with a certain miraculous power that makes him master of the world . . . that it is his moral and religious duty to conquer those who have got the things he wants.” What tone does this quote set for the novel? How does Rebel Queen address the issue of colonization? Do you think the novel portrays the British as merely the aggressors, or are they also partly victims?
2. On page 3, the aged Sita recounts running into a British journalist who wants to publish Sita’s story of the rani and the loss of the kingdom of Jhansi. When she hesitates, the journalist replies, “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.”. What “demons” does Sita have? Do you think telling her story rids her of these demons? Why or why not?
3. Discuss the ways in which gender roles are twisted and at times defied in Rebel Queen. Does Sita live her life according to her maid Avani’s belief that only “a man can change his life . . . a woman can only change her appearance” (27)? When Sita joins the Durga Daal, does she change more than her appearance? Consider, too, how the rani and her husband fit into the question of true change versus the appearance of change. Is one character the most successful at changing?
4. How would you characterize the rani? Is she a likable character? Is she a good ruler of her kingdom? Is she just and compassionate? Do you think she lives up to the title of the Rebel Queen, and is being rebellious her tragic flaw?
5. Revisit the scene, beginning on page 129, when Kahini publicly embarrasses the young petitioner in the ladies’ durbar because she is from a poor village. How does Sita’s speech change not just the young girl’s future, but the future of the story as well? When she says, “some people are so impoverished all they have is gold” (130), which character do you think she is addressing? In Sita’s case, do you think her words are her riches, her own form of gold?
6. Many of the characters in Rebel Queen are cruel, and in fact Sita claims that moving to the rani’s palace made her “understand more about cruelty” (170), including the cruel nature of her own grandmother. Who would you name as the cruelest character in the novel? Is the cruelness understandable, if not justifiable? Why or why not?
7. Discuss the line of Rumi’s poetry that haunts Sita: “Why are you so content with a love that turns you yellow?” (173). Do you agree with Sita that this line implies that some love is mediocre, or even unhealthy? Is it possible that love can lead to the worst version of yourself, rather than the best? Which examples of the many kinds of love might be labeled “yellow” in the novel? Consider the rani, Kahini, Sita, Arjun, Anu, and Sita’s grandmother in your response.
8 How does the death of the rani’s son change the course of the novel? Do you think his death prefigures the loss of her kingdom? Do both losses—the personal and the public—stem from greed? Explain.
9. Compare and contrast the rani with Queen Victoria of England. How are the two similar? How do they differ? Does each use their femininity as an effective source of power?
10. “We stood around the breach in the wall, weapons readied, listening to the sound of birds calling to one another. It didn’t matter to them whether we slaughtered one another, or even who won. Tomorrow, they would be signing even if all of us were floating in the Ganges” (312). Consider this quote as a commentary on the nature of war. Does Sita, the narrator of the novel, believe there is ever a winner in war? In this case, who won and who lost, and at what expense?
11. On page 316 Sita writes, “the enemy had come from within, not without.” How does loss, interior and exterior, function as a possible theme in Rebel Queen? Do Kahini’s actions weaken the rani’s kingdom enough to make it susceptible to the British? Do you think that there is always an interior enemy who opens the door, so to speak, for the outside one? Consider Sita’s own family as an example.
12. Do you agree with Sita’s decision to leave her pregnant sister behind and rejoin the rani? What does this decision reveal about Sita? Would you have made the same decision in her place? Is it possible to forgive oneself for the misfortunes of those we love?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. For Sita’s father, reading the classics opened up the world to him, “a world in which he’d never know the sound of his child’s voice or hear his wife sing ragas to Lord Shiva again” (9). And for Sita, a woman made to observe purdah, literature had the power to take her beyond the four walls of her own home. Have your book club revisit some classic literature beloved by Sita and her father, such as Shakespeare’s Othello or The Merchant of Venice, or look for productions of these plays at your local theater. Try to imagine yourselves confined to only your home as you read or watch the play. Afterward, discuss the ways in which these texts have the ability to transform both you and the world. What lessons do these classic plays teach us that can be directly applied to our lives? To Sita’s? What is it about Shakespeare’s language that makes him sound so fresh all these years later?
2. On page 68, the rani’s Dewan compares Sita to the Indian painter Nihâl Chand’s ideal woman: “pale cheeks, sensuous lips, a high forehead, thin brows, and wide lotus-blossom eyes.” With your book club, study a few paintings by Chand, paying particular attention to his version of ideal beauty (the painting can be found here: www.exoticindiaart.com/product/paintings/bani-thani-portrait-of-lady-who-is-model-of-beauty-HL96/). After enjoying the artwork, have a conversation with your book club about the nature of beauty. What do you notice about the paintings? What words would you use to describe the women portrayed? Why do you think Sita says that to be compared to Chand’s Bani Thani is “as much a compliment as an insult” (68)? Is Sita’s beauty a help or a hindrance to her? Consider how being beautiful affects the other characters in the novel. If you had to choose to be skilled or beautiful, which would you choose and why? Do you think Sita would choose her skills over her beauty?
3. Before the British formally took over the kingdom of Jhansi there was health and happiness in the rani’s palace—and a lot of food. Sita lovingly describes one meal “of steaming rice, curries made with green chilies and coriander, and vegetables cooked in heavy sauces” (94). Have a dinner party with your book club in which you recreate this menu. Over dinner, discuss the many examples of loss that occur in Rebel Queen. Is it difficult for the characters to mourn personal losses in the midst of public loss? Have you ever been in a similar situation? Share with the group your own story of loss.
A Conversation with Michelle Moran
Rebel Queen is full of references to canonical works of literature. Like Sita, are you most inspired by William Shakespeare? Who would you name as your top five favorite authors?
Without a doubt I am inspired by Shakespeare, and he is definitely among my top five favorite authors, along with Janet Fitch, J. R. R. Tolkien, Douglas Preston, and Erik Larson. I was extremely fortunate to be able to study Shakespeare with a brilliant professor, Martha Andresen, who is now retired. She was phenomenal, and the way she brought Shakespeare’s plays to life made you realize Shakespeare truly wasn’t of an age but for all time (as his contemporary, Ben Jonson, said). There’s a wonderful book by Harold Bloom called Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, and he sums up better than I ever could what makes the Bard so unique among authors. Perhaps this is why Shakespeare is read in every part of the globe, including India.
This novel, much like your international bestseller Nefertiti, recounts a story based on the real life of a long-dead queen from antiquity. What draws you to characters like Rani Lakshmi and Nefertiti?
The characters from history that jump out at me are often women who managed to carve powerful roles for themselves in societies where women weren’t typically allowed positions of power or authority. They are also the ones who have lived through some sort of revolution and managed to weather it. Revolution is fascinating to me, whether it’s cultural, religious, or political. In Rebel Queen, the people of India are growing tired of England’s physical and political encroachment on their land. As they begin to voice their displeasure, however, England responds by tightening its grip, and once the people of India take up arms, England sees it as a revolution and acts accordingly, sending in an army to suppress what they see as a “rebellion.” Whenever a rebellion or revolution occurs in a society, new leaders emerge who are often tremendously charismatic or in some other way very interesting. In this case, one of those leaders was Rani Lakshmi.
Why did you decide to tell this story from Sita’s point of view? Is she your favorite character? If not, who is your favorite?
I was drawn to Sita because her position in society was so unique. Here was a woman raised in purdah (where women are veiled and confined to their houses) who became a part of the queen’s Durga Dal, an elite fighting force made entirely of women. What must that have been like? Women at that time were raised to believe that their place in society was at home—that to step outside the home was dangerous not only to their physical well-being, but to their moral and spiritual well-being, too. How would a woman like that feel if she suddenly shed her veil and stepped outside? Would she adapt, or would she flee back to what was familiar to her? I wanted to explore all of these emotions, and I couldn’t have done that with any other character but Sita, who is definitely my favorite, yes.
In your author’s note you mention you had to make a few changes to the story “in order to make nineteenth-century India more accessible.” How do you decide what should be changed and what must be preserved in historical fiction? Is it a fine line for you?
There is a fine line, but as a historical author you are always going to get mail questioning your judgment call on such things. For me, though, it’s not a terribly difficult choice. If names have changed over time, I go with what people are most familiar with today. If something in a character’s past is uncertain, I have no problem filling in the gaps, as long as the guesswork is plausible. If readers want a biography on Rani Lakshmi, plenty exist. But writing historical fiction means making history accessible to a wide audience.
Along similar lines, what was the research process like for Rebel Queen?
With each of my novels, the research always begins in the country where the novel takes place. In this case, it was India. Because I married an Indian man, the research for this novel was considerably easier than it would have been without someone to translate Hindi documents for me or take me on a tour of various sites within India. As with each novel, the research involved a lot of traveling and reading, which for me is one of the best parts about writing historical fiction.
Do you agree that loss is a major theme in Rebel Queen—both personal and shared loss? When you write, do you consciously choose themes or do they arise organically from the writing?
Loss is definitely a major theme in the book—the experience of it, why it happens, and finally, coming to terms with it. I don’t consciously choose the themes. I think each character I write about has events in her life that are so often repeated that they create a theme. Unfortunately for Sita, those events involved loss—of her kingdom, her family, and life as she knew it in Jhansi. But I also think Rebel Queen is a story of hope. That even in the most trying times, people survive; love survives.
Do you think that Sita comes to terms with her losses at the end of the novel?
I think she comes to accept them, yes. There is something cathartic in the retelling of a traumatic story, and I believe this is what she is doing by sending her memoirs to England, particularly since England was the source of so many of her life’s troubles. There is an oft-quoted saying that while a person might never get over trauma they can certainly move past it. I think this is what she does.
Would you characterize this novel as pre-colonial? What larger conversation about the nature of colonization do you hope to join? Is it important to you to show alterative points of view regarding this topic?
Yes, I would definitely consider it a pre-colonial novel, since England didn’t actually take over India until after Rani Lakshmi’s death. I think many people, myself included, hear the word colonization and immediately think of Africa. It wasn’t until I was married in India and began touring some of India’s historic sites that I began to think about England’s presence there and what life must have been like under British rule.
Is Rebel Queen a book that suggests gender roles might be fluid rather than static? What characters do you think push the gender envelope furthest in this story?
There is no doubt in my mind that gender roles are fluid. Historically, it seems very clear that Raja Gangadhar was more attracted to men than women. English soldiers who were in Jhansi at the time and Vishnubhat Godse, a Marathi writer who witnessed Jhansi’s fall, remarked on this, even talking about Gangadhar’s desire to play women’s roles on the stage and his liking for women’s dress.
The Boston Globe has said that your “artful storytelling skills bring(s) . . . to vivid life . . . ancient history.” Do you feel called to certain time periods or characters from history? How do you choose the setting for your novels?
Actually, I don’t feel called to certain periods in history. But I do feel called by certain stories, whether they’re set in Egypt, or Rome, or India. So far in my career, each of the books I’ve written have been inspired by various trips I’ve taken. In the case of Nefertiti, it was an archaeological dig in Israel, followed by a trip to Egypt. In the case of Cleopatra’s Daughter, it was a trip to Rome. And in the case of Rebel Queen, it was my marriage and subsequent tour of India.
What news can you share with us about upcoming projects? Do you have plans for a new novel?
I do, although unlike my previous novels, this one was inspired by something more personal. The Typist is set in Paris during the Second World War and tells the story of a young woman, Edie Boutin, who’s taken from her university class at the Sorbonne and, along with a dozen other women, is told by the French police that she is to type the list of Jews who will be rounded up and deported from France. There is no refusing the police, and this act sets off a chain of events that change not only Edie’s life, but also the lives of one particular Jewish family whose address she accidentally adds to the list.
The idea for the book came to me after my son was born. Because I love the field of archaeogenetics, one of the first things my husband and I did was to order an ancestry test for him. We used the company 23andMe, and what came back not only for him, but also for me, was very surprising. It turns out that I am Jewish, and not just a little. A significant portion of my DNA showed Ashkenazi Jew. We’d never talked about this in my family. It wasn’t a secret, but it wasn’t a topic of discussion either, and no one could tell me how a Jewish boy from Germany ended up marrying a German Catholic, or why they’d chosen to raise their daughter a Catholic instead of a Jew. It started me down a path that eventually led to the Holocaust, and sadly, the concentration camps as well. At the same time that I was discovering this family history, I took a trip to Paris, and it was while I was there that I began to realize just how complicated and controversial the German takeover of Paris had been. I started visiting the sites in Paris where the Jews once lived, and where they were held prior to being deported to various concentration camps across Europe. When my trip was over, I knew it would be the basis for my next novel.