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The Unknown Warrior
Chalo Jhalkari, let’s go. Rani ji is ready to talk to you.” Puran called from behind. It had been his idea to introduce Jhalkari to Rani Lakshmi Bai. “It’s time to let her know. Have you made your decision?”
She was mesmerized by the swords that hung on the wall. There were few silvers shiny rapiers, few Ram Daos, and there was even a small kukri. But every time, her eyes kept returning to the gorgeous Firangi sword placed on the centre of the wall. It had been Jhalkaribai’s favourite since the first time she saw it. Its long sharp European blade with glinting edges and an Indian hilt urged Jhalkaribai to take it and give it a try. But she could not.
It was not because she was not allowed to, but because she knew that she was not ready for it.
While the other girls of her age did households and prepared themselves for marriage and even motherhood, Jhalkaribai, at the age of 15, practiced her sword skills. It was what had kept her engaged after her mother’s death.
“Not yet,” Jhalkari replied, turning her gaze away from her husband to palace window. The queen’s palace, the Jhansi Fort, was magnificent. It was tall and had a constant breeze of cool wind flowing through the windows.
Puran knew at heart that Jhalkari was the perfect match for the position Rani Lakshmi Bai was offering - advisor to the queen for the women’s wing of the army and even a trainer for the new recruits. He really wanted his wife to do what she was capable of.
“Our future, Puran. What about it? You know that like every other woman, I too have longed to be a mother.” She replied. “I don’t know what to do.”
“We have to forget about our future when our present is at stake. The queen needs an army!,” Puran said, looking right into her eyes. “The question is simple- do you want to do this?”
“Yes. Of course, yes. I want to do this, but here also stands the question of our family,” she said, losing her confidence by the end.
“Jhalkari, you were born to do this. All you have ever done, from archery to horse riding, is perfect for this position. Don’t back up now.”
Jhalkari hesitated at first. She was not afraid of dying, she was afraid of losing. Losing against the British. Everybody knew that Jhalkari was tremendously good at archery, sword fighting and even horse riding. However, she had never used her skills in a battle.
Then, she realised that this was everything she had ever wanted. A chance to prove herself. She could not let this opportunity just go away.
“I have made my decision.”, said Jhalkari, after a long pause, a prominent glint of determination reflecting from her eyes. “I am ready to take the position.”
It was the big day. While all her friends had had their second or even third child, Jhalkari was finally getting married, at the age of 23. It was the year 1853.
The huge garden had been beautiful decorated, with marigolds everywhere. They hung from the threads on the wall, on the dry ground and even on her head, placed askew.
She had heard that her husband was a part of the Rani Lakshmi Bai’s army. She had even heard that he was previously a well know wrestler of his village, but now had joined the army as the part of the artillery.
She came out of the dressing room, her friend holding her right hand to support her heavy dress. It was a traditional red saree, with heavy gold bangles and necklaces. It was the same dress her mom had worn on her wedding day. Eager and curious, Jhalkari stole a glance of her future husband, Puran.
Mangal Pandey, the face of the First War of Independence, had already been executed. That was the beginning of the Revolt of 1858, on 10 May 1858.
Rumours had reached the soldiers in Meerut that the new Enfield rifles’ cartridges were greased with animal fat. The soldiers had to bite the cartridges to load them. However, as they were greased with cow fat and pig fat, it offended both Hindu and Muslim soldiers. This agitated the soldiers and they rebelled against the British. They were soon being called The Nationalists.
The nationalists soon began to seize cities or towns across North India. They first marched to Delhi where they reinstated the Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Soon after, Lucknow, Sitapur and even Kanpur were seized. Next would be Jhansi.
The news had reached Jhansi and the Britishers came begging for help to Rani Lakshmi Bai, but they were refused. The nationalists did reach Jhansi, but when they saw it being ruled by Rani Lakshmi Bai, they left the city alone.
Soon after, wanting to expand their empire, the two neighbourhood city-states of Orcha and Datia attacked Jhansi. They were defeated by the Rani’s troops.
However, peace had still not completely taken over India, let alone Jhansi. Soon after the defeat of Orcha and Datia, news came from Delhi that the British had re-captured Delhi and the emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar had been imprisoned.
News followed that Nana Saheb’s army had also been defeated and now Kanpur was under the British once again.
The Rani knew that the next target would be Jhansi. So, to be ready for the British, Rani Lakshmi Bai increased the training exercises for her army and also recruiting in earnest. She had always wanted the army to have a women’s wing and she started recruiting for it as well.
The Rani decided to hold the Haldi-Kumkum Ceremony for all the women in Jhansi. She believed that this would distract the stress that hovered across Jhansi. The times were tough, but the Rani wanted to create a peaceful environment for her citizens. It was also a chance to announce that she would be recruiting female soldiers. Only Jhalkaribai had been selected till now, to lead the team and also hold the position as the queen’s advisor.
There were women from all age groups, Jhalkari noticed. There were five 20-year-old girls standing in the corner, next to a pillar, one of them holding a new-born baby. She saw another group of ladies, around the age of 30s. She even noticed a little boy, in a dhoti with no shirt, holding his mother’s hand tight, observing everyone just like Jhalkari.
The ceremony was being held in the centre field of the huge Jhansi fort. It resembled Jhalkari’s wedding day, full of marigolds and joy.
Rani Lakshmi Bai entered the field. She greeted everyone with a Namaste and then walked over to Jhalkari. Jhalkari fixed her yellow saree dhoti as she saw the Rani approaching her.
“How is everyone, Jhalkari? Do they look comfortable?”, Rani Lakshmi Bai asked.
“Definitely, Rani ji. They look incredibly happy,” said Jhalkari, noticing how genuinely loving their queen was.
“Jhalkari, thank you so much for organizing this.”, the Rani said, with a soft yet strong voice. “Let us begin our ceremony then.”
“Namaskar! Welcome to our Haldi Kumkum Ceremony.” The rani said, with a grace that Jhalkari had always admired. Everyone in the field greeted their queen and then began the ceremony.
The queen went to each woman, greeted them, shook hands, and even fed a ladoo from the plate she was carrying. Jhalkari did the same, exchanged gifts and of course, the haldi and the kumkum.
Many women genuinely agreed to join as female soldiers. They wanted to deliver as equally as their husband or brothers, and this was the perfect opportunity.
A sense of hope and pride rose in Jhalkari. Her eyes brightened when she saw a large group of women, mostly around the age of 20s, entering the training field with determination in their eyes and force in their posture. The women formed long lines, separated according to their age. Jhalkaribai stood in front of the lines, right next to Rani Lakshmi Bai. She was as determined as any other woman and tightened the knot of her yellow traditional saree dhoti.
Before the practice began, Rani made an announcement.
“Namaskar! It is such a pleasure to see you all here”, the Rani began, with her glorious smile. “First of all, I would like to introduce to your trainer and leader, Jhalkaribai.” The Rani cued her to speak.
“Namaskar aap sabko! My name is Jhalkaribai, and I would be supervising you along this wonderful journey of training and practice. But first of all, I would like to give out some details, for which I am in charge.” She paused to glance at the crowd. Everyone seemed, according to Jhalkari’s surprise, genuinely interested. “We all will be carrying out different actions. While some of you are going to be trained for horse riding and archery, the others will be taking care of the wounded.”
“And before we all start,” the queen spoke now. “I would like to tell you that we are just as good as the British, even better, and remember, we are not weak. Not at all. The British are nothing but cowards and usurpers, and we need to remind them that this is our Bharat. So, I want all of you to work with strength and pride!”
A loud applause followed and soon the training began.
The training began with a warm-up. The women for this group were chosen, based on their skills and age. It was a simple warm-up. Jhalkari didn’t want to put too much pressure on them on the first day. However, she warned them that much tougher exercises would follow.
Then there was a running exercise. They had to run around the field for around 20 minutes. By the end of it, Jhalkari could clearly see that more than half of them were exhausted. This was not good. The battlefield would not give you time to rest.
Jhalkari had to do something about it. She realised that she had a lot to do, from perfecting their stance to teaching them on how to use the weapons, which they might have not even seen before. She was their leader after all. She had goals to achieve, build a competent team and more than anything else, prove that she was capable, to the queen and to herself.
She went to meet her father after 2 weeks. The last time they had met, he had been rather ill. He was so weak and pale that he had stopped eating and speaking. However, today, he was feeling better. He could talk at bit and eat some food.
Jhalkari looked around her childhood home. How she had spent her time here, playing when she wasn’t practicing archery. All of a sudden, she realised this could be her last time in this house, the last time with her father. Maybe her father would never get to see her again.
“Beta, I heard that you are the queen’s advisor”, her father said, in a rigid voice. She noticed that his eyes were sparkling; she realised his eyes were smiling.
“Yes. It’s been surprisingly good so far,” she gave an earnest reply.
Her father nodded slightly. She got up from the chair next to her father’s bed and walked towards the kitchen. It was a small room. All the items were placed in the corner of the small room. Usually, the maid would take care of her father. But today, she had let the maid take a day off.
She added some fresh ginger she had bought from her own house to the boiling water. Then he added milk, sugar, and tea leaves. After 5 minutes, the fresh ginger tea was ready.
She walked to her father with two cups in her hand and handed him one. He was strong enough to hold it, but she insisted on helping.
It was around 7 in the evening. Both of them had talked a lot, and she had to return to her house. She was about to leave the room when her father said, in a cracked and tearful voice, “I am proud of you, Jhalkari.”
Jhalkari noticed that the women were improving. Rashmi, a twenty-year-old, mother of one, with long black hair, and bright amber eyes had already learnt the correct posture of shooting and now, she almost never missed. Ganga, another lady, around the age of 19, with short brown hair, and glinting brown eyes did a great job in self-defence and horse riding. 2 weeks of practice, and the women were already performing well.
“They just need more and more practice.” Jhalkari told Rani Lakshmi Bai later that day, after the practice. “They are doing well, but it is not enough.”
The queen looked at the Jhalkaribai with pride. “Well done.”
The queen had never said so before. It felt like an accomplishment for Jhalkari. She nodded and smiled.
“I would like to talk with them tomorrow and watch the training session.” The queen said.
“Ji, Rani ji.”
In early April 1858, the British led by General Hugh Rose attacked Jhansi.
It was late night, and at the queen’s quarters, the situation was tense.
“Are the troops ready?”, the queen asked. The other advisors nodded.
Then she looked at Jhalkari. “Are the women ready?” This was sudden. Were they ready? Would they be capable of fighting the British? “Yes, yes. Yes, they are ready.”
“Good. Let’s go.” The Rani said. Jhalkari realised the queen looked worried. Not scared but worried.
The troop were sent to the front of the fort. The women and the men, both looked fierce. Jhalkari was so impressed because just one month ago the women had been cooking and cleaning, but now they stood at the front, protecting their glorious Jhansi.
The moment was tense. Nobody knew what was going to happen. Would they win? Would Jhansi survive? Would they be able to defeat the British?
The troops saw the British approaching. Leading was General Hugh Rose. He rode a magnificent horse, a white one. His eyes shone, eager to fight. He was determined to destroy Jhansi.
Jhalkaribai saw all of this from the upper part of the fort. They were waiting for Tantia Tope’s help. But news came that he himself had been defeated. The situation had suddenly turned worse.
Jhalkari again looked outside the palace window.
“Oh no!” she exclaimed.
“What, now?” the queen asked.
“Rani ji, they are here. They are here. Inside the fort!”
“How is this possible? What now?” She demanded.
The other advisor spoke. “Rani ji, you need to go. You need to escape!”
“Nahi! Not at all! I can’t leave Jhansi.”
“Please understand, your survival is more important! You need to stay alive to lead your people.”
I will go instead.” Jhalkari said. Her voice was fearless. Her eyes were glinting. She walked to the queen and said, “Rani Ji, you can leave. Just hand me your pagri.”
The queen carefully removed the pagri and handed it to Jhalkari. Jhalkari carefully placed it on her head. She went to the other room and wore one of Rani Lakshmi Bai’s clothes.
Gasp! Everyone was shocked. She looked exactly like the Rani. The same eyes, the same fierce stance, the same features. The queen was shocked herself.
Rani Lakshmi hugged Jhalkari and said,” Stay safe!”
Jhalkari walked down the stairs and got on her horse. As she galloped out she saw the British. They were attacking in full fury. Her troops were fighting back valiantly.
With a fierce battle cry, she plunged headlong into the battle.
A thought at the back of her mind reassured her. The Rani would have had sufficient time to move away.
She fought. Fought with all her might. She kept fighting. She cried in pain as she got hit. Droplets of sweat trickled down and blurred her vision. Her sword flashed and an enemy soldier fell. Her rage was fuelled by the agony. She let out another big war cry and with her Firangi sword stabbed a British soldier. He screamed and fell off to the muddy ground.
Her left arm felt numb. Her right leg bled. She didn’t stop.
General Hugh saw Jhalkari fighting. He wanted to seize the moment; he wanted to take down the queen of Jhansi. With another companion, he rode rapidly towards Jhalkari, whom he saw fighting with one of his soldiers.
She saw two British soldiers, one of them the General, approaching her. She struck the soldier she was fighting and rode toward them. “You!” she shouted in agony. She raised her right arm with all her might, but instead the pagri fell off.
They gasped. They could see her face clearly. It was not Rani Lakshmi bai.
General shouted. “Troops, the Rani isn’t here.”
Jhalkari realised what had happened. She charged. As she lifted her sword, a bullet struck her. Then another two in quick succession. Bang! Bang! Bang!
Her mind willed her to move, but she wasn’t able to.
“Jai Bharat!”, she exclaimed. She fell from her horse.
Jhalkari in the clothes of Rani Lakshmi bai, lay on the ground. Her face was covered in dirt, her beautiful eyes slightly open. There were three bullet holes on her chest. An arrow was in her left arm, and another one in her right leg. She was covered in blood, her pagri had fallen off. On her right hand was the sword, her favourite sword, the Firangi sword. She closed her eyes
A couple of soldiers hurried up. They gently lifted her, the first female Dalit martyr of the Revolt of 1857, and briskly moved away.