The rani embraced Damodar at the gates of the palace, with the British officers and soldiers looking on.
Then she turned to face Major Ellis. Her expression was grim, almost forbidding.
‘May I know the reason for your visit, Major Ellis?’ Her tone was casual, but her eyes were stormy.
Major Ellis bowed, feeling unusually nervous. ‘I bring a message from Lord Dalhousie, Your Majesty.’
‘Follow me, then.’ The rani strode into the palace and the soldiers hurried to keep pace with her.
In the main audience chamber, she seated herself on the throne and gestured to Major Ellis to speak.
The major cleared his throat several times before he felt able to utter a word. But speak he did because he had to. ‘Your adopted son, Damodar Rao’s right to rule has been rejected. So, by the Doctrine of Lapse, this kingdom now belongs to the British.’
‘Main apni Jhansi nahi doongi!’
The queen’s voice rang out, firm and true. It echoed all around the royal audience chamber and even along the corridors beyond. The Jhansi officers and guards who heard it sprang to attention and stiffened their backs with pride, almost without realizing it.
‘What did she say?’ the British officer behind Major Ellis muttered to his companion.
The other officer, who understood Hindustani well, translated quickly: ‘She said, I will not yield my Jhansi.’
Major Ellis was clearly uncomfortable, more so when Rani Lakshmibai turned her gaze on him. He had never seen the young queen look so angry. Her face was flushed, her eyes glittered with rage and her fists, partly hidden by her pearl bracelets, were clenched so tightly in her lap that her knuckles shone white.
She sat, proud and erect, on her throne, silently demanding a response from him. He turned his eyes away, unable to justify the decision made by the British.
She went on, her fury unabated. ‘Is this how the British repay loyalty? Generations of Jhansi rulers have supported them—have supported every step they have taken in this country, whatever our private feelings on the matter. So tell me, Major Ellis, what have we got for our pains?’
‘Your Majesty,’ he replied, his voice low so that those around had to strain to hear it. ‘I am a friend of Jhansi and a true supporter of your cause. But my hands are tied. I have no other option than to follow the orders of my superiors.’
‘You witnessed the adoption ceremony!’ she lashed out. ‘And you carried the news of it to your superiors. If they now doubt its validity, then it is clear that they don’t trust their own people. Don’t trust you. Yet you bend to their will and follow their unjust orders?’
Her words rankled but he had to answer. ‘I am sorry, Your Majesty,’ he said steadily, ‘but the British will now take over the governance of Jhansi. You will receive a monthly pension and may stay on here at the palace. I need to lock up the treasury and the military stores. Your money and weapons belong to the British from here on. All your soldiers will be dismissed, except a few that may remain for your personal safety.’
All eyes were on the queen; it was as if the very chamber was holding its breath. Sounds drifted in from the soldiers amassed outside the building—the murmur of voices, the clearing of throats, the shifting of feet—harmless in themselves, but indicative of the British military might mere steps away. It gave the rani no option but to obey.
To Major Ellis, the rani’s silence was more ominous than her words.
Her face was white and her hands trembled slightly as she signalled to her elderly prime minister, Dewan Rao Bande, to hand over the keys to Major Ellis.
This was a terrible blow, indeed. The British had been sniffing around various kingdoms, hoping to pounce at the first sign of weakness, which is why it had been so crucial to adopt Damodar and have it ratified. And all had seemed to be well for a while. Now her anger was directed equally at the British and herself. How could she have let her guard down and been so complacent! She should have known that the British would not give up so easily. Yet anger would not get her anywhere, she quickly realized. She would have to think fast and on her feet. She would not give up, she vowed to herself. Somehow, she would get her throne back and ensure Damodar’s succession.
Right now, Jhansi was like an ant before an elephant. But ants could bite and she would make sure this one bit hard . . .