A few years after her heroic death, folk memory — in the form of songs and poems — waxed eloquent of Rani Lakshmibai’s valour in the battlefield. At the same time, stories of her alleged “intemperance” spread far and wide, with the British calling her sexually promiscuous, a liquor addict with a violent temper. In sharp contrast to this stands Begum Hazrat Mahal’s absence in public memory or recollection.
These are two women who never met each other, but led similar lives, with a common goal: to overthrow British rule in India. While one has been hailed a nationalist icon, the other remains shadowed in forgotten accounts. Right from their eventual rise during a pivotal moment of India’s colonial history — the Revolt of 1857 — to their heroic yet poignant deaths, author Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s latest non-fiction work, A Begum & A Rani — Hazrat Mahal and Lakshmibai in 1857 , (published by Penguin), captures what makes them feminist icons.
Mukherjee has been researching the 1857 uprising for nearly 45 years and this is his sixth book on the subject. His area of research was largely on Awadh and Kanpur, but this time, he decided to shift his focus to Jhansi.
“I noticed the contrast — Lakshmibai was treated as a nationalist icon, whereas Hazrat Mahal, also a woman leader of the rebellion in Awadh, was relatively a forgotten figure,” speaks Mukherjee of the inception of the book.
The seed has been in Mukherjee’s mind for at least five to six years. “It was when I became housebound, with all this archival work here with me, that I decided to give it a structure,” he recalls, adding that he started writing in February 2020.
Through the narrative, he examines this anomaly and at the same time highlights the achievements of these two remarkable women, who fought tooth-and-nail not only against the British, but also the oppressive, patriarchal norms that plagued mid-19th Century India.
Chronologically, their stories run parallel but the trajectories are different, says Mukherjee. The first contrast that struck him was that Lakshmibai was a late entrant in the uprising of 1857.
“She didn’t turn a rebel till January or February of 1858. But Hazrat Mahal was a rebel since the uprising was taking place in Lucknow, end of May/early June 1857. The second contrast that is equally intriguing is that Lakshmibai died on the battlefield, fighting. Meanwhile, there is no sighting of Hazrat Mahal even though we know that she was sending directions as a general. Unlike Lakshmibai, she fled to Nepal where she died in penury and obscurity,” says Mukherjee.
He asks questions on whether the manner in which both died has anything to do with their differing popularity. “The other suggestion I make is that one was an upper-caste queen, from a royal family whereas Hazrat Mahal was a slave’s daughter who caught the fancy of the king of Awadh. She becomes somebody only when her 12-year-old son is put on the throne by the rebels.” The different social standing, Mukherjee believes, had an impact on the way people saw these women.
It was as a research student in Oxford University that Mukherjee started looking at 1857. “One of the motivating factors was that I wanted to move away from the narrative that dominated the writing which spoke about what the British did — their suffering, heroism and so on,” says Mukherjee. He started with Awadh, to see how the people of Awadh responded to the annexation by the English. “My interest has always been to look at the uprising from the point of view of the people or the rebels. The British hardly enter my narrative..as the people who suppressed the uprising,” says Mukherjee.
Largely pinned on years of archival research, the narrative of A Begum & A Rani takes on a different hue towards the end, as Mukherjee meditates on their afterlives by analysing public memory.
“I see history as an exercise in retrieval of the aspects of the past. The more aspects we retrieve, the richer our understanding of history becomes,” he concludes.