I cannot evoke India without thinking of the Rani of Jhansi, Lakshmibai, both my heroine and all of India’s. During the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British had most unjustly made her their target. They attacked her.
This young woman, this dethroned widow, without support, had resisted with an incomparable courage, daring and heroism. I spent more than three weeks looking for her in Jhansi, in a city where, for the entire duration of my stay, I did not meet a single European.
As the British had burned all the archives in her favour, I went to question the descendants of her courtiers, her generals – only two generations separated them from this heroic time. All lovingly recalled Lakshmibai and recounted captivating, unexpected, poetic and fabulous family memories.
But, also, I searched for her soul, in the place where she had lived, in the ruins of her palace, a small pavilion on the banks of an artificial lake. Here or there, she was always present, as she is in all of India.
She was killed at the age of 31 during a battle against the English at the doors of Gwalior. Her corpse had been brought back to a small Hindu convent where I happened to be on that day. The abbey told me what had happened.
He was a Hindu prelate, portly, badly shaven, all in all rather dirty. He must have smoked some substance, for his eyes were red and his gaze glassy, but his story was fascinating, as what he described had transpired on the very site we stood on. His partisans had brought back the Rani’s corpse to the convent so that the monk could burn it, as otherwise the deceased would not have been able to move on to eternity.
The English, on the other hand, wanted to prevent the body from being cremated at all costs so that they could pollute it. They laid siege to the convent, and the monks attempted to defend themselves as best they could while others built and lit the pyre. But soon, they realized the British would have the upper hand.
Suddenly, the abbey had an idea. He had the doors of the convent opened and violently pushed out the herd he had brought within the walls for shelter. The bewildered water buffaloes left in full gallop, trampling everything in their path, British soldiers included, giving the monks time to finish burning the remains of the Rani of Jhansi.