Monday, April 8, 2013

No-Nonsense Nonfiction: The Bandit Queen of India

I'd been contemplating going on hiatus from this blog, but I found something that I absolutely must review today, due to recent world events.  As luck would have it, I finished this book today.

As you may have heard, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher, died of a stroke this morning at the age of 87.  Regardless of what you might think of her policies and actions, there is no denying that she was a remarkable woman.  She was the only female Prime Minister Britain has ever had.  Women leaders, or women in any sort of role of authority, are unfortunately rare.

Much more common are the downtrodden and the abused.  Also newsworthy of late are all the rapes that have been occurring in India.  While the West certainly has its own problems regarding the culture of rape (see also the boys in Ohio who were convicted of such felonies, and how the media boohooed over the loss of their bright futures - and said little of how the violated girl's life must be in turmoil), India has been having problems.  There was the young medical student who was gang-raped on a bus and later died of her injuries.  Tourists have been raped in campgrounds and hotels.  And that really is only the tip of the iceberg.  Rapes happen in India for all sorts of reasons, including caste differences and other social conditions.

How do these two news items come together?  The book I want to discuss tonight is The Bandit Queen of India, an autobiography of Phoolan Devi (with Marie-Therese Cuny and Paul Rambali; Phoolan never learned to read or write).  This is the story of an amazing woman who was repeatedly raped, yet took justice into her own hands - and eventually was elected to a position of political power.

Checkouts: Not available
Typical reader: People who like biographies, stories of charismatic criminals, and/or Indian history
Source: Interlibrary loan

Synopsis: Phoolan Devi tells her life story, from her tumultuous childhood to her release from prison.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

Phoolan Devi was born to a poor family of the lowly mallah caste.  She and her family endured hardships caused not only by their status but also by her father's brother, and later that uncle's son, in various ways.  Phoolan was married at the age of 11 to a widower in his 30s; while she should not have gone to his abode until age 16 or so, he insisted that she come with him to be his housekeeper.  That wasn't true; he locked her in a dark room and repeatedly beat and raped her.  She escaped repeatedly, until finally her mother gave back everything the man had given the family to renounce the marriage.  But after that, her family could not find a new husband for her.  Not only was she damaged, but she also was rebellious and had a penchant for talking back.

Eventually, she was betrayed and kidnapped by a gang of bandits.  This ended up being to her advantage, however, because one of the leaders, Vickram, fell in love with her and protected her.  They worked together, and she took revenge on not only her wicked husband but also many of the men who had raped her over the years.  She became a sort of female Robin Hood, taking from the rich and giving their rupees and goods to the poor.  She exacted revenge on many members of higher castes (mostly thakurs) who had stolen from, raped, or generally mistreated her fellow mallahs or others from the low ranks of Indian society.

All good things must come to an end, however.  Vickram was murdered and she was gang-raped yet again; she took revenge, but her banditry gradually tapered off as her gang grew smaller and police pressure increased.  However, she surrendered under her own terms.  She spent more than a decade in prison.

After the tales in the book and her release from prison, she went on to be elected to the Indian Parliament.  There she served until her assassination in 2001.

I read this book because it was a selection for the public library's book club.  I finished it because it was so enthralling.  Phoolan's narrative is fascinating.  At times it seems like a fairy tale - a very dark fairy tale, true, but when she wins the love and protection of Vickram and is later able to be a source of justice for the poor of her home state and the surrounding areas, it seems to have a fantastic air.  And Vickram is one of the most romantic guys to grace the pages of a book.  He treats Phoolan as no one has ever treated her before: he asks her how she feels.  He gives her space.  He protects and defends her, and tries to teach her.  Their partnership may not have been lovey-dovey, but he stands out as a wonderful man.

Phoolan Devi may have been a bandit and an outlaw, a thief and a murderess, but she brought justice to herself and to many others.  She enjoyed sharing her rupees with those she felt deserved them.  In a land where the lower castes were - are - untouchable unless they're being raped, she was righteous and vengeful.

The world needs more women like her.  There needs to be justice of some sort for the poor and the wronged.  Phoolan may not have gone about it in the best way possible, but she was effective in her little corner of the globe.  Her tenacity was admirable, and should be instilled in more future leaders.  The princesses being raised today do not have that.


  1. Sounds interesting, reading your review made me want to check this out! I'm so glad that Indian engineers invent 'anti-rape' underwear which gives attackers electric shocks and automatically texts police for help.

    Ann@Blogging Profits

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