(Subtitled: The true story of Phoolan Devi)

India's Bandit Queen, Mala Sen“There are various versions of what happened to Phoolan Devi after Vikram Mallah’s death. When I spoke to her she was reluctant to speak of her bezathi (dishonour), as she put it, at the hands on the Thakurs. She did not want to dwell on the details and merely said, “Un logo ne mujhse bahut mazak ki”. (Those people really fooled with me.) I was not surprised at her reticence to elaborate. First of all, because we had an audience, including members of her family, other prisoners and their relatives. Secondly because we live in societies where a woman who is abused sexually ends up feeling deeply humiliated, knowing that many will think that it was her fault, or partly her fault, that she provoked the situation in the first place. Phoolan Devi, like many other women all over the world, feels she will only add to her own shame if she speaks of this experience.”

This book investigates the story of Phoolan Devi. She was born into a low caste, and into a poverty that was brought about by her father having been swindled out of his rightful inheritance by a ruthless older brother. Her fighting spirit, her refusal to allow this theft go unchallenged, got her into trouble right from the start when her influential uncle and cousin ensured that she was brutally punished for her protests. The consequence was that she was married unusually young, to a man who turned out to be brutish and unable to protect her (as was the intention of her marriage) from the trouble that her uncle and cousin could and did bring.

To cut a long story short, she was kidnapped by dacoits (people living as outlaws in the ravines, surviving primarily on robbery and ransoms) and ended up becoming a bandit herself. She suffered unspeakably at the hands of various men, but at the same time was tough enough, sharp enough and clever enough not only to survive but to come out more or less on top – she had her revenge, she surrendered on terms that she has herself dictated, served her prison sentence and so escaped ravine life. (Postscript – after publication of the book, Devi was released from prison and later murdered, apparently by those she is said to have wronged in her bandit days.)

As for the book, I think this was a better one than Death by Fire in that there was much less in it of Mala Sen’s own personal feelings and difficulties. It is more objective. And that’s important, because Devi’s story is already complicated and confusing enough (often involving unresolved conflicts between different versions of events) without having to hear about how hot it was in the author’s taxi.

I do have some reservations about the book as a True Story, though – just because there has been so much controversy surrounding the film that is apparently based on the book.

In commenting on this, I am somewhat hampered because I will not watch that film. It reduces Devi to a rape victim turned revenging angel and spends too much time depicting rapes, rapes and more rapes. Rapes that Devi will not even talk about or admit to in any specific or explicit way. In a film made without even obtaining (not in any real sense) Devi’s consent and for which she was paid three-quarters of sweet FA.

More about the film:

  • Two contemporary articles by writer Arundhati Roy, who knew Devi and talked to her in detail about the film after it had been made. (Here and Here.)
  • A two-part article published after Devi’s death, detailing the views of Indira Jaisingh, the lawyer who helped Devi sue the film-makers for falsifying and distorting her life and for portraying numerous rapes without her consent. (Part 1 and Part 2.)
  • A contemporary review of the film by Madhu Kishwar. (Here.)

Given those massive problems with the film, and given that Sen willingly co-operated with the film-makers and (according to Indira Jaisingh) was the person who got Devi to sign up to the making of this film… how does that make me feel about Sen and her book?

In an Afterword added to the edition of the book I read, Mala Sen goes back to talk to Devi in 1994, at the time when the controversy about the film was blowing up.

In the Afterword, Sen downplays her role in the film, saying that it was “based partly on this book – and on other various sources – and directed by Shekhar Kapur.” She then details a number of Devi’s objections to the film, but does not mention the central objection that Arundhati Roy and Indira Jaisingh highlight – the fact that it portrays Devi as little more than the sum of her rapes and the vengeance she took for them.

Sen’s own comments on the matter? She was “saddened by the rift” between Devi and Kapur. She thought the film (despite the fact that it portrays her as being guilty of 22 murders that she had denied committing) would help in her fight for justice. She seems to dismiss Devi’s own position (“I felt bad watching – my mother felt bad – it’s wrong, all wrong”), saying that Devi “had made up her mind to take a stand” – with the implication that it was because of this that she refused to listen to reason – and then suggesting that her battle to prevent release of the film may not be in her long term interests. And then, perhaps tellingly, Sen ends by saying “I have yet to resolve the moral and political issues surrounding the film.”

So – although the book reads well, although it struck me as balanced and well-researched – there is just something that leaves me feeling… unsure.