The misunderstood queenJunge, Junge, Junge—I never knew you were so contemptible—were my thoughts after I finished reading Sheeba Shah’s latest historical novel, ‘The Other Queen,’ based on the life of the fifth Shah king’s junior wife—Queen Rajendra Lakshmi.
Junge, Junge, Junge—I never knew you were so contemptible—were my thoughts after I finished reading Sheeba Shah’s latest historical novel, ‘The Other Queen,’ based on the life of the fifth Shah king’s junior wife—Queen Rajendra Lakshmi. In many school textbooks and historical novels, this ambitious queen is often scapegoated and slandered, baselessly as I’ve learned. She presided over two of the most infamous political killings in our history—the Kot and Bhandarkhal massacres—and yet, her story ends not with success but with banishment at the hands of her erstwhile allies and perpetrators of the famous killings—the Ranas. There is good reason to doubt the veracity of the image painted of Rajendra Lakshmi in the ensuing years—questions abound about the true nature, motives and the sheer scale of palace conspiracies—and author Sheeba Shah attempts to shed light on at least some of these questions in her new book. In doing so, she also manages to partly exonerate this misunderstood queen.
As a young girl interested in Nepali history, I was intrigued about this queen. I wanted to know the truth behind her infamy. Everything I had ever read or heard about Rajendra Lakshmi pertained to her anger, ego, vanity, and greed—she was a scheming and destabilising force that was rightly exiled, or so most history books tell us. This often made me wonder, was there really nothing about her deserving of admiration aside from her legendary beauty? Thankfully, Sheeba’s latest novel, although partly dramatised, delves deep into Rajendra Lakshmi’s life and tells of a far more complex character than what she is typically made out to be. The book traces the transition of Rajendra Lakshmi from a naïve and demure youth to a ruthless, ambitious and arrogant ruler. Even after reading the book, I continue to find this queen enigmatic—she remains an ambiguous character, magnanimous at times and at times callous, but one thing is for certain—upon her banishment and her enemies’ consolidation of power, Rajendra Lakshmi was a victim of what we can call character assassination.
The Other Queen begins with a disappointing and needlessly confusing prologue. I had to read it thrice to make sense of it. Although narrated in the first person by the queen herself, it was unclear who she was talking about: her husband Rajendra Bir Bikram Shah or her illicit lover Gagan Singh Basnyat?
From the very beginning, readers are made aware of the queen’s initially unrequited ‘love’ for her husband who is said to have hid behind the ‘pallu’ of her sister and senior queen Samrajya Rajya Lakshmi. In the book, the two sisters are brought from the far away and well-to-do royal family of Gorakhpur, although other sources claim that they were from Palpa. Rajendra Lakshmi’s contempt for the badamaharani is infamous, but for what it’s worth, the elder sister left no stone unturned in taunting and undermining the junior queen—the motives behind which are suggested to be both political and personal.
Shah, in her book, posits that the junior queen has been misunderstood by history. Rajendra Lakshmi had held no interest in administration for most of her life at court, the first part of which was marked by her desperate attempts at wooing the king and being rebuffed by him. Married at an early undisclosed age, the junior queen, formerly known as Rajya Lakshmi, was re-named Rajendra Lakshmi by her husband when they were children. They had grown up together, all three of them—the king, the senior queen and our heroine, the junior queen. Upon their growing up and the king’s assumption of the throne, the story takes quite a sinister turn. The ensuing years of ineffectual rule, abounding intrigue and hushed conspiracies have become the stuff of legend.
As they say, desperate times call for desperate measures. The junior queen and an ambitious upstart, Jung Bahadur, soon grow close. She refers to him fondly as Junge. They meet often in her chamber where Jung Bahadur discusses administrative details while Rajendra Lakshmi is more literary minded. Their exchange of poems leads to a short-lived, one-sided romance. Calculative Junge then pushes Rajendra Lakshmi onto Gagan Basnyat. The latter two eventually fall in love and engage in an illicit affair where Junge takes advantage of the queen’s naiveté. After this point, unbelievable things transpire, conspiracies compound and it all ends with some well-staged massacres, the banishment of a queen, and the total usurpation of power by Jung Bahadur.
For readers well-versed in history, the book is predictable. We know where the book is leading to—a sorrow story that leaves nothing behind but bloodshed and banishment.
The winner of the book, although I hate to say it, is Junge, who connives and becomes the favourite of both prince Surendra and queen Rajendra Lakshmi. Then, he murders his own uncle Mathbar Singh Thapa and Gagan Basnyat and carries out the Kot and Bhandarkhal massacres ostensibly to avenge the death of his dear friend Gagan.
The late writer Diamond Shumsher Rana has visited earlier the same territory as this book. He wrote extensively about the rise and fall of Jung Bahadur in his books Basanti and Seto Bagh. While reading Seto Bagh, I identified with Junge’s fall and the fate of his family, but The Other Queen changed my perspective. They say ‘you reap what you sow’ and I couldn’t come to terms with how he destroyed the life of his dearest friend Gagan, maternal uncle Mathbar Singh Thapa and Rajendra Lakshmi herself, all of whom were mere puppets in his live drama to rise to the top, eventually ruling the country as shree teen maharaj.
The book is rich in narrative, although it is often disjointed. For instance, Rajendra Lakshmi’s conversation with her bubu aama jumps to a conversation with her husband and then returns to the bubu aama. This leap across space and time can confuse readers. Often, I had to re-read entire chapters to figure out who had said what line.
That said, the characters are not caricatures but are fleshed out and well-drawn. However, its prose often feels hackneyed with exaggerated sentences and grammatical errors. Some of the lines in the book felt as if they were pulled straight from the best-selling EL James erotic novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, as in one instance when the queen strips naked and masturbates, putting on a show for a disinterested maharajdhiraj.
Having lived through the monarchy, I was also surprised, and a little uncomfortable, at the language the royals use with each other. The crown prince Surendra constantly refers to Rajendra Lakshmi as a whore, and others too curse frequently. For us ordinary citizens, the royals always looked poised and regal, but of course, who knows what happened behind those big palace doors? Was it just a façade of decency they put for people like us?
Despite a few faults, The Other Queen is one of the finest historical novels written in Nepal in recent years. The book grows on you. Sheeba stays true to her characters but doesn’t ever whitewash Rajendra Lakshmi or Junge. Although loosely fictional, this book has portrayed characters in a way that many historical writers in the past have failed to do.