The easiest way to make a teenager disappear is probably to hiss “historical fiction” at him or her. One could blame the education system for making history a litany of names, dates and what places used to be called before they became the places we know. Or, one might shake a fist at the drab, didactic fare that exists in the name of historical fiction in India. Which is what makes Devika Rangachari’s book stand out like a bar of rich dark chocolate in a bowl of celery sticks.
The Australian young adult author Kirsty Murray says in her historical novel, The Year It All Ended, “History as lived is a tapestry of daily rituals; of eating, cleaning, studying, playing, nurturing, working, loving and grieving”. And this is exactly what makes Queen of Ice special – it is not a retelling of wars won and lost; it is the story of a determined little girl who became one of the most powerful women of her generation.
The ambitious Queen Didda of Kashmir was real enough, but this is a fictionalized account of the life and reign of the ruthless monarch, told by Didda herself and her companion Valga. The story starts at her childhood and leads up to how she ruled a prosperous and powerful kingdom over five decades in the first century AD.
Though young Didda is blessed with both beauty and brains, she is despised and rejected by her father not just for being a girl, but also a deformed one. (Details of her actual physical disability are unknown – in the book it is only referred to as “lameness”.) Her handicap makes her an easy target for her cousin Vigraharaja, but despite being tormented by him and reviled by her father, she is showered with love by her mother and her maternal grandfather, King Bhima Shahi of Gandhara. They never stop reminding her that she is destined for greatness. And it is this belief that gives her confidence, making up for her physical frailty by sheer strength of will.
Unlike Didda, the book’s other narrator Valga comes from very modest beginnings. The oldest in an impoverished family, she is sent away to live with an unloving aunt and assist in her work as a seamstress in the palace at Lohara, where Didda is growing up. Since Valga possesses exceptional physical strength, she is soon appointed the princess’ carrier-girl, ending up as one of her closest companions. The trio of friends is rounded off by the young groom Naravahana, who has been brought to Lohara by Bhima Shahi to look after his horses.
Married off as a teenager to Kshemagupta, the ruler of Kashmir, Didda defies the antagonistic elements in court to stand by her husband in ruling the kingdom. She is catapulted into the role of a regent when Kshemagupta dies, and their son Abhimanyu is only a child. However, with Abhimanyu showing no signs of ever taking on the mantle of king, Didda is left holding the reins – a position she craves as her own some day. She is ruthless in chasing her destiny of greatness and does not baulk at cutting down anything or anyone who stands in her way. Known history implies that she had her grandsons murdered so she could be a ruler in name as well as deed, and, indeed, you feel a chill down your spine when Didda in Queen of Ice finally claims: “There is a difference between ruling in the name of another – and deferring to him, waiting in the shadows – and becoming a ruler in one’s own right. I have finally achieved the latter. I am now king and queen in one. Kashmira belongs to me and mine.” (p.149)
Devika Rangachari is a natural storyteller and one is effortlessly sucked into the court intrigues of first-century Kashmir. The juxtaposition of Valga’s narration with Didda’s has been cleverly used to give us a different perspective on what drove this extraordinary woman. Valga, in her unseen, unheard position in close proximity to Didda, first sees a young woman and later a redoubtable queen, in a way that no one else ever had an opportunity to. It would have been interesting to have had a third narrator in the form of Naravahana, considering how important he was to Didda.
As a historian, Devika Rangachari has done considerable work on the women that history – in this case, early medieval North Indian history – does not talk about, and Queen of Ice is a result of that research. This book depicts an unrepentantly ambitious and ruthless woman who sought power with single-minded determination. History also backs up Didda’s success as a ruler – she was “the last in peaceful possession of the Kashmir throne” (according to Mark Aurel Stein in Kalhana’s Rajatarangini). Despite the fact that she rightfully carved a place for herself in history, it still chose to ignore her. This book reminds us of that and of her.
My only complaint about Queen of Ice is that it feels abrupt in places. It is a short book (less than 200 pages of text), but spans many decades. Even though there is some amount of tension and intrigue – and the odd twist as well – there are certain points where it lacks a sense of continuity or build-up.
One must not judge a book by its cover, but the fantastic artwork of Tejashree Ingawle deserves mention. Overall, this is a terribly important book for young girls and boys because history and historical fiction rarely talk about the lives of girls, be they maids or queens. Puffin’s Girls of India series, which includes the work of authors like Subhadra Sen Gupta, has made an attempt in this regard, but Queen of Ice pulls off something of a coup: telling “real” history like a story and doing a damn good job of it!
By Payal Dhar
Author: Devika Rangachari
Subject category: Contemporary