An excerpt from the book, The Teenage Diary of Rani Laxmibai by Tanushree Podder.

‘So, why does Tatya Dikshit want to meet me?’

‘Why do you ask so many questions?’ Maushi sounded exasperated as she applied kajal in my eyes. ‘All you need to know is that he is here on an important mission that concerns Jhansi.’

She continued parroting instructions that were to be followed. Don’t run into the room. Walk daintily. As if I could run with the nine-yard sari dragging me down. Don’t laugh loudly. Don’t snigger. Don’t talk unnecessarily. Don’t argue. Just reply to the questions they ask. Most importantly, don’t talk back. There were so many rules a girl had to follow. No one ever told Nana or Tantia to walk gracefully, and not laugh loudly.

They were busy discussing the current situation at Jhansi when I reached the hall. It would have been nice to know what they had been discussing, but all conversation ceased the moment they heard the musical tinkle of the anklets around my ankles. Perhaps this is why women were made to wear jewellery, I thought. The jingle of bangles and anklets announce their arrival to everyone.

Irritated because of maushi’s insistence on proper behaviour, and the burden of the sari and jewellery, I walked across the hall with a sullen expression on my face.

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‘Here comes the brightest star of Bithoor,’ Peshwa Saheb called out. It was he who had indulged and spoilt me. ‘Come and sit next to me, Manu,’ the Peshwa Saheb beckoned.

That was all the encouragement I needed. Forgetting maushi’s instructions, I flounced into the room and beamed at him.

‘So, this is Manikarnika?’ asked an elderly man with kind look in his eyes.

‘Yes, Tatya Dikshit, this is our Manu,’ responded the Peshwa Saheb proudly, as I settled next to him and tried to behave in a lady-like manner.

‘I have heard a lot about your talents, beti,’ said Tatya Dikshit. ‘They tell me that you can beat Nana and Tantia in fencing, horse-riding, archery and martial arts.’

‘Not just that, Manu can recite our scriptures and epics better than everyone,’ replied the Peshwa, who never tired of praising me. ‘She’s also learnt account-keeping and can speak a smattering of English and Persian.’

The Peshwa sahib was a very affectionate man and I was fortunate to have his blessings. Not many girls my age are able to do the things they would like to do. In fact, most of them are married off by the time they are eight or nine years old.

Tatya Dikshit looked at me intently. His piercing eyes under a pair of bushy eyebrows were rather disconcerting, but I stared back without flinching.

One of the gentlemen sitting by his side laughed and remarked, ‘It is not often that one meets a young girl who is skilled in fencing and horse riding. We seem to have a female warrior among us.’

I bristled. The sarcasm in his words provoked me. ‘Girls can do everything if they are given a chance. They can ride, fence and be good at them, too. Why should those skills be reserved for boys?’

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‘Because girls are delicate. God made them so,’ laughed the gentleman. The scornful look in his eyes rankled me no end. ‘They are better in cooking and keeping the house. That’s an area men wouldn’t want to venture into.’

‘I disagree with that viewpoint. There’s nothing wrong in girls being trained in warfare, Madhav Rao.’ It was Peshwa Saheb, who responded to the gentleman. ‘These are not easy times. In fact, we should start training girls to fend for themselves and fight for the country. The firangis won’t find it easy to rule if our women joined the fight.’

The reply did not seem to go down well with the gentleman called Madhav Rao. ‘There are enough brave soldiers to fight the firangis,’ he retorted, busying himself with the hookah. It was obvious that he didn’t like the idea of women warriors. ‘God help this country if we have to depend on women to fight for the motherland.’

‘Manikarnika, what are your views about women warriors?’ Tatya Dikshit wanted to know.

‘I agree with what our respected Peshwa Saheb has said. Women can do everything and they can do it better than men.’ I replied boldly.

‘Do you also agree that they can fight the firangis?’

‘Yes, women can fight the firangis. We can do everything to defend the motherland.’ The frown on my father’s face made me realize that I had raised my voice.

‘That’s a very interesting viewpoint,’ nodded Tatya Dikshit. ‘Supposing you had to fight the firangis one day, how would you go about it?’

Although he seemed quite serious, it was difficult to determine if he was trying to make fun of me. I didn’t care. It was a subject close to my heart and the men in the hall had managed to annoy me with their low opinion about women, so I continued to speak. ‘I would train girls and organize an army of women warriors. We would be ready to go to battle with the enemy anytime.’

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‘That’s interesting!’ was all Tatya Dikshit said. My outburst seemed to amuse the men in the gathering. Peshwa saheb was the only one smiling indulgently, I noticed. ‘It’s nice to see such passion for the country, and in someone so young,’ Tatya added after a thought.

Image Credit: Tanushree Podder/  Speaking Tiger

Excerpted with permission from The Teenage Diary of Rani Laxmibai by Tanushree Podder,  Speaking Tiger.

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