I've been interested in reading books about Indian history lately and picked this up at the bookstore.

I enjoyed Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's The Palace of Illusions and didn't like The Forest of Enchantments. She writes well, though, and I wanted to read more books by her. I heard some praise for this book and was excited to read about the last queen of the Sikh empire.

It took me a couple of months to get to it but I did and wow, what a book.

about The Last Queen

the last queen by chitra banerjee divakaruni book cover

She rose from commoner to become the last reigning queen of India's Sikh Empire. In this dazzling novel, based on true-life events, bestselling author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni presents the unforgettable story of Jindan, who transformed herself from daughter of the royal kennel keeper to powerful monarch. 

Sharp-eyed, stubborn, and passionate, Jindan was known for her beauty. When she caught the eye of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, she was elevated to royalty, becoming his youngest and last queen—and his favorite. And when her son, barely six years old, unexpectedly inherited the throne, Jindan assumed the regency. She transformed herself from pampered wife to warrior ruler, determined to protect her people and her son's birthright from the encroaching British Empire.

Defying tradition, she stepped out of the zenana, cast aside the veil, and conducted state business in public, inspiring her subjects in two wars. Her power and influence were so formidable that the British, fearing an uprising, robbed the rebel queen of everything she had, but nothing crushed her indomitable will.

An exquisite love story of a king and a commoner, a cautionary tale about loyalty and betrayal, a powerful parable of the indestructible bond between mother and child, and an inspiration for our times, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's novel brings alive one of the most fearless women of the nineteenth century, one whose story cries out to be told.

Content warnings: violence, murder, death, grief, war.

my review

The Last Queen narrates the true story of Maharani Jindan, the last queen of the Sikh Empire, who fought valiantly against the British. As soon as I found out what the book was about, I knew I had to read it. It's written by an author I like and is about a person whom I know almost nothing about.

Despite studying history in school, barely anything has stayed in my memory. We had a bad habit of forgetting everything after the exam was done. We were taught only what was in the textbooks and what was required for exams. Indian history is vast and filled with heroes, not all of them make it in the textbooks. And women are barely mentioned.

If Jindan wants something badly enough, she can make it happen. She believes this completely.

Maharani Jindan was the daughter of the royal kennel keeper in the Sikh Empire ruled by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The king's previous wives were all from noble birth and rich families but he took a liking to Jindan and married her. Rani Jindan was the king's youngest queen. It is told that everyone was in awe of her beauty.

Being the youngest, she never thought that she would have any power. All she wanted was a peaceful life with her son. However, after Ranjit Singh's death, many unexpected treacheries and political moves resulted in her son Dalip/Duleep Singh being instated as the new maharaja at five years of age.

Rani Jindan became the queen regent and ruled the empire in her son's stead. Instead of sticking to traditional roles, she publicly held court, addressed troops, and made decisions for the empire as the regent. She refused to be veiled or stay in the zenana. Her main goal was to defend Punjab against the encroaching British and preserve her son's rights as the king.

Unfortunately, the time was rife with turmoil and the British took control of Punjab. They determined that she was a threat to them because she wouldn't stop fighting against them. Rani Jindan was imprisoned and stripped of her pension and rights. Her son was taken to London as a ward of Queen Victoria.

She escaped under disguise and travelled to Nepal to take asylum under the King of Nepal who was her husband's ally. Robbed of her power and promised pension, she funnelled as much money as she could to aid in battles against the British.

Several years later, her son returned to India and requested to meet her. As she was blind, weak, and not as beautiful anymore, the British allowed it. They refused to part ways and hence, Rani Jindan travelled to London with her son. After a few years with him, she died in London.

The above is a very short account of her life which does not include everything. Her life is full of stories and twists to be summarized in a few paragraphs. But you get the idea—her life deserves to be told. It's surprising how The Last Queen is the FIRST book about Rani Jindan.

I may be injured; I may even be wounded to the heart; but I’m not defeated yet.

The book is divided into parts according to the phases of Rani Jindan's life—Girl, Bride, Queen, and Rebel.

While much is known about Rani Jindan after her husband's death, there isn't much recorded about her before it. Her marriage, beauty, and family were acknowledged. Hence, the book fills in many gaps through fiction. We see her as a girl in a small mud house in Gujranwala, her bond with her brother, her excitement to go to Lahore, and more.

Some creative liberty is clearly taken. According to official sources, Maharaja Ranjit Singh married her because her father extolled her beauty. In the book, they meet naturally despite her father's schemes and marry for love.

The book details her life before her marriage and life after marriage. It shows the difficulties she went through as the only queen of lower birth, how she overcame them, and how she supported her husband in private. We see her growing from a naive girl to a wife who learns to play the game at the court and in the zenana.

Because not much happens before her husband's death, the first half of the book has comparatively a slower pace. It's still intriguing and attention-grabbing but it's like reading a fairytale. Her life is like that!

Interestingly, through Rani Jindan, we see the charismatic Sarkar Ranjit Singh and understand why his subjects love him. He was popularly known as Sher-e-Punjab (the Lion of Punjab) and affectionately called Sarkar. Ranjit Singh is known well in history because he united factions and small local kingdoms into his empire. He treated all religions equally, defended against many foreign invasion attempts, and brought prosperity to all his people.

People revered his father as the Lion of Punjab, but his mother is the one they should have called Lioness.

The second half of the book almost flies by. Since many of the events are recorded, there are fewer gaps to fill. There's much to be shown and most of it is of importance.

Maharani Jindan took her new role as regent by the reins. She was only 21. She drew on everything that she knew and what she learned from her husband. She showed her worth in court and refused to sit quietly. Instead of wishing that she was a man, she used her power as a woman.

It was especially inspiring to see how she weaponized the veil that women are required to wear. When a woman removes it in the presence of other men, it means that she considers them her family. Rani Jindan once removed her veil in front of the army to inspire them to fight for her.

She loved her city and her people. She didn't stop fighting even when she was imprisoned by the British. She used all of her contacts and money to incite rebellion. The British feared her so much that they stripped her of money, jewels, and her people.

Her acts were inspiring for years to come. Even after years of exile, the Sikh army remembered her and cheered for her, ready to go to war for her.

Reading about her life in the last part was sad. Rani Jindan was a headstrong woman but years of blows and being separated from her son weakened her. Her body showed what she went through in her short life. She died at the age of 45 but it might as well have been at the age of 80.

The last few chapters were so sad. I read multiple Wikipedia pages about her and her family hoping for at least one ending that's not sad. I didn't find it and it made me sad and so damn angry.

But to whom can she say this? Who will listen to her? The power she possessed even a few days ago, as the Sarkar’s favourite queen, has faded.

Reading from Jind Kaur's perspective was like being in her life with her. Because of this, her emotions impacted me more. I was happy with her and sad with her.

I've said this before for other fictional and fantasy books—that it feels like I'm living that life. It's more surreal in The Last Queen because it's about real historical events. Maharani Jindan's life was no short of a fictional novel.

It made me think about my perspective of stories. Why do we repeatedly go for fictional stories to find inspiration when we have real people for it? After reading The Last Queen, I read about the queen's life on Wikipedia just for confirmation. I was awed to find out that her life was really like that.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni does her best to show Rani Jindan as a person in this book. We see her motivations, what and whom she loves, how she grows into her new roles, and her flaws. We see her wanting the best for her son and fighting for it all her life.

We see her as a girl, a wife, a woman, a queen, and a mother. She's much more than a story on Wikipedia in this book. Her story was brought closer. I don't think I will ever forget it now.

Rani Jindan's story is not eclipsed by others in the book. She is surrounded by people whose lives are also like fictional stories. There's a reason her story is not widely known—her husband and son's stories are more popular. The Last Queen touches other characters but they're only prominent when in relation to Rani Jindan. I loved that.

Thinking about the story makes me emotional. (I actually teared up a couple of times.) When reading it, it's easy to think of it as a fictional story. But thinking of it later, knowing that it's about a real person, hits me in the heart. I couldn't stop thinking of the book and that's why I'm here, writing this review.

This is the tragedy of Hindustan: our disunity. Our enemies have used it against us over and over.

Rani Jindan's story took place at a crucial time in Hindustan's history so we see those important events unfolding as well.

The book shows how Hindustan's biggest weakness led to the surrender to the British. Sarkar Ranjit Singh inspired his people and united many areas of the country. After his demise, the unity was lost and people started fighting for power. It led to many battles and betrayals within Hindustan which weakened us.

Maharani Jindan's story shows how merciless the British were. According to the Last Treaty of Lahore, Rani Jindan and Maharaja Dalip Singh were to receive pensions and retain their personal properties. However, the treaty was broken and neither was given to them. They were separated for years and weren't allowed to meet their people.

Rani Jindan requested that her ashes be placed in Sarkar Ranjit Singh's samadhi. The British didn't allow it and her ashes were kept in Bombay until her granddaughter moved them to the samadhi years later.

Dalip Singh was stripped of all of his inheritance and brainwashed by the British. He was given incorrect information about his mother and his people. Until Rani Jindan patiently corrected things after their reunion, he lived in admiration of Queen Victoria and wasn't aware of how his rights were denied.

Not many things make me enraged but Indian history easily does it. Remnants of a Separation made me angry because of the devastation the British left behind. The Last Queen enrages me because of how they came as merchants and ruthlessly destroyed lives, families, and our traditions.

Will I ever not be angry over the colonisation of India? I don't think so. It hasn't even been a century since the Partition and we are still affected by those events. There's a reason we are a third-world country and the rupee's value is much lower despite having a lot of resources.

The British are used to wresting away everything and, afterwards, returning a small portion to the dispossessed as though they are performing a great act of charity.

Other than the British annexation of Punjab, The Last Queen also tells the story of how the British took the Koh-i-Noor diamond.

I knew that the Koh-i-Noor was taken from a child king but I didn't know that it was Maharaja Dalip Singh. When the jewel was mentioned in the book, I was like "oh!!!" I was already upset with the little information I knew. After reading this book, it has increased tenfold.

If you are unaware, the Koh-i-Noor is one of the largest cut diamonds in the world. Sarkar Ranjit Singh took it from King Shah Shujah and it eventually went to Maharaja Dalip Singh when he was crowned at the age of 5.

After Punjab's annexation, the Last Treaty of Lahore was signed which officially ceded the Koh-i-Noor from the Mahara of Lahore to Queen Victoria. At the time, Maharaja Dalip Singh was 11 years old.

Now, tell me this. A Treaty is signed on behalf of an 11-year-old which cedes all of his assets to someone else. An 11-year-old who has been separated from his mother and barely understands what's going on. The British's defence is that the diamond is legally theirs but when the context of an 11-year-old is added, it crumbles.

As I said earlier, there's a reason India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh struggle despite being prosperous at one point. It is not because we gambled it all away. There have been no reparations for everything that we lost.

Quoting from Wikipedia: In July 2010, while visiting India, David Cameron, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, said of returning the diamond, "If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. I am afraid to say, it is going to have to stay put."

I'm not a British hater but it's hard to not be angry when I read about my people being treated so badly. It's hard to not be angry when I know that another country prospered only because they forcefully took it from us.

When one has to leave behind almost everything, it hardly matters what one takes.


I loved The Last Queen and highly recommend it to everyone. I have already convinced one of my friends to borrow my copy and read it. Hopefully, this review convinced you as well.

The author has done her best to do justice to Maharani Jindan's story. It's easy to read and engaging. It teaches a lot about our history as well. I hope more people pick it up and learn about Rani Jindan.

In case you're curious about the history and don't want to wait till you read the book, here are a few links:

love something—or someone—so much that you would willingly sacrifice yourself. I want to be brave like that.

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Did you know of Rani Jindan before reading this post? Have you read The Last Queen? Have you read any book on history that made you want to cry and rage?

Have you read any books that depict Indian history well? I'm looking for recommendations so do share them in the comments!

photo of Sumedha

Sumedha spends her days reading books, bingeing Kdramas, drawing illustrations, and blogging while listening to Lo-Fi music. Read more ➔

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