|My copy of 'I, Phoolan Devi'|
I read this book to clear some doubts. When I watched ‘Bandit Queen’ by Shekhar Kapoor, I’d felt that something was wrong. That it was an upper caste, male narrative. Then I got to know that Phoolan Devi had moved court against the release of the film. So I bought her autobiography. Along with it, I bought ‘Outlaw’ : India’s Bandit Queen and me by Roy Moxham. My research list has grown bigger. I have more books to read before I – I don’t know – change the world?
What I found out, was that Shekhar Kapoor was being a complete mansplainer when he made the film. Roy Moxham was obnoxious in narrating ‘India’s Bandit Queen’s story.
The preface is succinct.
‘This book is the first testimony that a woman of my community has succeeded in making public. It is an outstretched hand of courage to the humiliated and downtrodden, in the hope that a life like my own may never repeat itself. I should be dead today, but I am alive. I took my fate into my hands. I was born an underdog, but I became a queen.
New Delhi, 1995’
Sexual harassment, rape, gender
In the prologue, Phoolan Devi speaks of the house she was married into, where she was raped as a child.
‘…The only good thing there was the food. I was allowed to eat four chapatis with every meal, and I only wished I could have saved some for my sisters and my brother…’
A child trying to protect herself from the abuser ‘husband’:
‘…I would wear my skirt and my petticoat as well as my blouse and wrap my sari over that, and then tie it so tightly he wouldn’t be able to undo it…’
In Chapter 8 we see how the society reacts to a child coming back home after she was raped by her husband. She was instructed not to disclose what her husband had done to her to anyone.
‘The neighbours entered and began to talk with my parents. Some of them said I ought to go back because it was dishonourable for a wife not to live with her husband. Others thought I should wait a few years at least. They all stared at me as though I had changed somehow in their eyes, and they were trying to work out what it was. I thought they couldn’t have known of the tortures I had been made to suffer. But I obeyed my mother and said nothing, without understanding why it would be me who would have the bad reputation, while he was the one who beat me and tortured me…’
‘. . . the whole village was busy deciding my fate – as though I belonged to all of them.’
‘. . . Nobody knew the real ages of the women of our villages. There was nothing to mark the time apart from the lines that formed on their faces. . .’
‘. . . Mayadin protested to my father that marrying me to another man would be a stain on his good name. When it came to land, we weren’t part of his family, but when it came to the disgrace of being a woman without a husband, I belonged to his family again. The men made the decisions and the women could weep however much they liked, their fears and hopes would always be carried away like the walls washed away by the rain.’
Here we see how courts are not people friendly. More specifically, not women friendly. See how the language itself is a problem for people seeking justice. About the judge who was hearing the case against Phoolan accusing her of robbing Mayadin’s house, she says,
‘He made some more comments in English to the other judges that I didn’t understand. Even in my own language, he spoke too well for me to understand much of what he was saying.’
After getting bail, while returning home,
‘In Kalpi, I had to ask my way several times as I couldn’t remember the road back to our village. As soon as they realised I was alone, men tried to take me aside. One of them threatened me with a knife, and I ran until I was out of breath, fearing that at any moment, I would turn the corner and see the red and blue sign of the police station again.’
After Phoolan and her family refused to pay the Sarpanch for drawing water from the well, she was again raped by upper caste thakurs.
After that, again her mother beat her. She said to Phoolan,
‘. . . she started beating me with her fists, yelling and cursing hysterically. It would be better if you died this time!’
And again, Phoolan describes what the saddening psychology behind it.
‘. . . I knew she didn’t want me dead, she was only beating me because she was powerless. It was all she could do. I was the only person she could beat and curse.’
Phoolan had to go to the police station alone to report rape. About it she says,
‘. . . I didn’t know how to tell a good policeman from one who beats and rapes, . . .’
She, therefore, went back to the police officers who themselves had raped her. And what happened there?
‘. . . He asked me for my name, and the first policeman began to type a report while the deputy superintendent asked me questions. But when I started describing the thakurs and telling him I had recognised some of them, the superintendent stood up and slapped me.
‘Even if they raped you, so what? Don’t you have any shame at all, coming here to accuse them?’
He had me thrown out into the dusty street.’
After this incident, the thakurs told people that Phoolan was a ‘fallen woman.’ People started coming to her house asking for her, to rape her.
‘We kept our front door locked. I had to hide all the time. I could no longer sleep at my house. I used to sleep in a tree instead, hidden up in the branches among the monkeys and birds, with fear knotting my gut and tears constantly in my eyes. There were so many thakurs coming around looking for me that the villagers began to worry about the safety of their wives and daughters and I was the one who was blamed. . .’
In Chapter 18:
‘I was even more afraid of thakurs than I was of the police. When I had asked the police to keep me in the lock-up, they had just joked that they would be only too pleased to keep me there . . .’
When she was taken by the bandits from her place,
‘. . . I found myself praying only that they wouldn’t rape me before they killed me.’
‘. . . And it seemed they couldn’t agree on whether to rape me or kill me.’
After Vickram killed Baboo when he was trying to rape Phoolan, it was written on a scrap of paper that ‘Baboo was killed in the name of Phoolan Devi.’ Phoolan was told that it was the rule. Now see how the notion of ‘gratitude’ works. Phoolan hoped that they would then let her go.
‘Bare Lal made a face. ‘he has killed in your name, Phoolan. You owe him your life. You must obey him now. Who knows what he will ask of you. You must be patient.’
An argument that we have all heard too many times. It means that the act that the person did, was not because they thought it required action but because they’d get something in return for it. There cannot be a feebler political stance.
The same kind of abuse was what was happening in the marriage that happened between Vickram and Phoolan. The first thing Vickram did after marrying Phoolan is make the members of the gang take a pledge that he shall be their leader from then and Phoolan shall be regarded as a mother or sister. ‘Protection’ was linked to marriage and it was yet another power play that enforced more gratitude on Phoolan.
Before marriage, Vickram asked Phoolan if she liked him. Look at what she felt at the time:
‘. . . I giggled, and I began to cry. I couldn’t help myself. I was disappointed and excited all at once. I had expected him to say I was free to go, perhaps even to bring me back in triumph, but I was still his prisoner, and I had no idea what he meant by his question.’
This is clearly abuse. Phoolan was around sixteen and this man, who was holding her captive was asking her if she ‘liked him’. And look how dangerous this is because what happens in the mind of a sixteen year old when she is shown even some kindness in the midst of abuse.
‘He came towards me and stroked my hair gently. ‘Don’t cry,’ he said. ‘Why are you crying? I’m not going to hurt you.’
His gesture was new to me as well. Nobody other than my mother and father had ever shown me tenderness. No one had ever touched me like that, certainly no man.’
And again here,
‘ . . . I had never talked to anyone like that before, for such a long time. I had never talked to anyone at all. It was always orders: come here, do that, shut up. Or insults. Talking was new to me, saying what was on your mind or in your heart, saying the things that choked you, expressing the pain that twisted your heart.’
When people mentioned ‘love,’ Phoolan didn’t understand what they were talking about. It was also because of the difference in dialect but I felt that it was true in the meaning of love as a concept itself. When they uttered the word ‘love’, Phoolan ‘thought it must have been something sweet and delicious because they said it would make me forget the bad things that happened to me.
‘. . . In my village, we spoke Bhundelkhandi, and Vickram spoke a dialect called Chaurasi. Many of the words were different, and I had trouble understanding him. I didn’t know the word love in their dialect. I thought it must be something to eat – because it was something you gave, something sweet and delicious from the way they said it. But I understood his gestures . . .’
This is perhaps the reason why while looking back at it all, as an adult, she thought this about the whole incident:
‘ . . . But many years later, thinking about it, I would ask myself why didn’t this man, if he loved me as he said, just let me go? Then I wouldn’t have become a bandit like him. I would have had a family, children, cattle in the shed, a fire in the hearth.
Or I would have died, and none of it would have mattered.’
In Chapter 21, she speaks about the way she felt about this ‘marriage’ with Vickram.
‘But to tell a man I loved him . . .
No, I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t bring myself to believe I belonged to him, that he was going to protect me.
I had told him I was sleepy, but I couldn’t sleep. I lay with my eyes wide open, staring in the dark. He had promised he wouldn’t hurt me, but she was strnger than me and he was a man, and a man for me meant rape. . .’
Soon, Phoolan realized that Vickram was already married and had children in that marriage. When Phoolan got angry with Vickram for keeping that from her, when she asked how many girls he had kidnapped and then married, he and his friends and relatives made Phoolan believe that it was a normal practice.
Phoolan Devi speaks as a mallah woman. When she went to take revenge on Mayadin, Vickram told her that she couldn’t do that to someone from her own community. They could loot a thakur but not a mallah. About these rules that were essentially made by men, she says,
‘It was to these rules, the unwritten code, that I owed my life. But I still couldn’t accept it, I couldn’t abide by it, because I was a woman. I had no place in this hierarchy of caste. I was lower than all of them, and the demons I had to slay were more devious. Whatever caste they belonged to, they were all men.’
And in Chapter 23, the following portion further explains what she thought about it
‘I watched a little bird with blue wings flutter away from the shore. He didn’t have to thank anybody except God for the insects he ate; he could sing and fly higher than the tallest trees, up towards the light; he could fly into houses and peck at grain in the stores, and drink water from the stream if he was thirsty. He didn’t have to obey the rules of men. But I still did. Compared to the bird, I was powerless.’
After she killed Mansukh, because Mayadin had escaped, the police put a reward on her head. About it, she says,
‘But what they called a crime, I called justice.’
And then, when she was really going to kill Mayadin, when she got a chance to, she was not let to do that by the males in her gang. Her father said the same thing. Chapter 23
‘ . . . Madhav woudn’t give me back my rifle, and the jackal Mayadin was trying to pay me his respects.’
When Mayadin offered Phoolan money and begged for her forgiveness, she rejected it this way:
‘Get out of here with your filthy rupees!’ I said. ‘I’ll give you your miserable life for nothing, because that’s all it’s worth, nothing!’
But Vickram accepted the money.
‘Vickram pocketed the fifty thousand rupees Mayadin had brought.’
Phoolan felt that she should not have listened to her father and that she shouldn’t have spared Mayadin. She felt that ‘There was no justice’ for her after all.
‘It was an advantage being eighteen years old but looking only fifteen. In a petticoat and lunghi I resembled any other village girl on her way to wash. They didn’t give me a second glance. Phoolan Devi had a reputation as a dangerous dacoit. Just like the villager in the fields, the police too imagined her to be twice as tall as me, armed to the teeth and galloping across the fields on a white horse.’
‘. . . I only knew how to read faces and how to understand what people said. I could tell the difference between an honest face and an untrustworthy one, between a promise that would be kept and one that would be broken, but that wasn’t enough.’
This is important because in many narratives about Phoolan Devi, one finds a narrative of Phoolan as a naïve woman, who did not know how to make decisions for herself. The truth is that she knew all it took to command people, wage wars and execute ambushes.
Later, in Chapter 35, while she was having talks with politicians about surrendering, she lays emphasis on this fact again.
‘It all seemed to be easy enough for them to understand, it was all just politics, but I had only my instincts to rely on for the truth. My struggle for survival had taught me to be wary. I didn’t know anything about politics, governments or states. All I knew was what I felt in my bones.’
And what a woman feels in her bones is important no matter how irrelevant patriarchy tells her it is. This could be the reason why, during her surrender, the man on the microphone was very nervous and worded it thus, as seen in Chapter 36
‘Phoolan Devi will now lay down her arms.,’ a man announced in the microphone. ‘The government has taken into account her decision to surrender of her own free will. We have accepted her conditions, er . . . No. She has accepted our conditions.
It was the same man who had made the mistake earlier. I couldn’t help myself. I smiled.’
She continues, about the plight of women,
‘. . . A woman couldn’t live alone in the city. She would be easy prey. Without a husband, she would be singled out, and without a family she would be considered a prostitute. With no one to defend her, any man could take her.’
After murdering Vickram, Shri Ram took Phoolan captive and raped her. He then made everyone in the village rape her. In the following portions you can clearly see how rape is a power crime and what goes on in the mind of the abuser.
‘I heard Shri Ram encouraging them, telling them to use me, to take advantage of me while they had me tied up like that.’
In Chapter 29 we see how Phoolan evolved with her experiences. She learned gender politics while she was in Vickram’s gang and you can see it in the decisions she took while she formed her own gang in order to take revenge.
‘. . . Balwan had about a dozen men. He offered to let me join him, saying we could run the gang together, but I didn’t want to get into a situation like that again. I didn’t need anyone’s protection this time and I wasn’t going to take orders from anybody. I was going to be the leader, I was the one who was going to be obeyed from now on.’
. . .
‘Since I didn’t want to join him, Balwan proposed to lend me money for arms and supplies. But I didn’t want to owe anything to anyone either. I knew that to be able to assert your will, independence was essential.’
I thought of many women who had said the same. M.D Radhika, feminist and ex-professor, Inji Pennu, blogger, Kani Kusruti, actor. I believe in this. Phoolan did too, and because people who asked for independence were not considered ‘womanly’ she put it this way.
‘. . . It’s simple, Balwan,’ I explained. ‘I don’t consider myself a woman any longer. I don’t want anybody’s protection, nor their help. I want to control everything myself. If I take a gun from you, I’ll pay you for it.’
Truly, this is the only way women can function in this society, in every sphere and profession even now.
There is also a portion that reminded me of the violence people do online to women. A very common phenomenon is that of addressing women ‘chechi’ [a term used to address one’s elder sister but becomes sexually coloured and sexist while in a debate. A sexually coloured form of ‘dear’ ‘darling’ ‘sweety’ used to put women down in online and offline discussions. So it brought a smile to my face when I read this incident where Phoolan was robbing a rich landowner who was robbing peasants.
‘No, no Bahanji, I haven’t done any harm. I haven’t hurt anyone. It’s my right!’
‘Don’t call me your sister! Where is the loot?’
Later in Chapter 32, she talks of how she gave the loot money to women. Another reason why representation is important.
‘Most of all, I liked to be able to give money to women. I very rarely gave it to men. They could work in the fields, go from village to village, find money somehow, but not the women. Nobody helped the women, not even their husbands. They didn’t give the women a rupee. Without money, women were forced to suffer hunger and humiliation, and even sell their bodies like sacks of flour, while the men spent their money drinking and gambling.’
Phoolan Devi also speaks about the fame and importance she received because she was a bandit. The Chief Minister of the state had to resign because of her. She was a living legend. And listen to what she had to say about it. In Chapter 33, she says,
‘. . .The radio and newspapers wouldn’t stop talking about me.
If only they had talked about me before, I thought, when I was being mistreated and I was the one crying out for justice. But the bad things done by the poor were all anyone ever talked about, not the bad things done to them.’
I thought of the six women who had gone to meet Hadiya. When they were released on bail, social media was busy calling them attention seekers. When will the world realize that people don’t enjoy it and the fame they are talking about is a result of their silence, the added collective silence of the society.
In Chapter 35, we can see how oppressed people look for similar people all around them. Phoolan wanted to meet Indira Gandhi, who was the Prime Minister then. She had a reason.
‘I had heard of her and I had admired Mrs. Gandhi. She was a woman, like me, after all, in a world of men. I knew nothing about her life but I knew she must have had to overcome many enemies, like me. . .’
She also fought for the women in jail when she was there. In Chapter 38, she says,
‘For a time, there was a prison director at Gwalior who was as corrupt and heartless as them. He let the madwomen mix with the common prisoners and die like dogs, their skinny bodies eaten by rats. I couldn’t rest after seeing their half-eaten corpses. All the time I was there I continued to rebel and fight. I protested every day against the filth, the laziness and the corruption. I went on hunger strike twice, trying to obtain some decency for us, and I nearly died the second time but nobody cared.’
Phoolan Devi had to spend more time in jail than what was agreed upon during the time of her surrender. Dacoits who had surrendered before her were all let off before her. ‘Even in jail, a woman had to wait in silence.’ She said about it. It was after eleven years that she was finally out of jail.
Caste is the context in which Phoolan’s story has been told. Her uncle Bihari was from the mallah caste and according to Phoolan, he behaved like a thakur - a caste considered to be above mallahs. This was because he owned land that he won by cheating Phoolan’s father. Her father found it hard to find money to pay for lawyers and Bihari tortured Phoolan’s family. In Chapter I
‘To reach the field, though, I had to go along the path and by the big house that belonged to Bihari. And he always tried to beat me. He was old, cruel and mean. With a smile like a rascal pretending to sell sugar-cane juice, he used to call out to me as I went by. ‘Come, little girl, come Phoolan,’ he would say, ‘come and see your uncle Bihari…’ I was meant to obey my elders, but I knew that if I put a foot inside his yard, he would try to catch me and beat me. He beat Choti too with his stick. And he beat my big sister Rukmini if she was foolish enough to pass by his house. He even beat my mother if he was very angry with us. He pretended we were spying on him or doing something we shouldn’t. He was the one who was always spying – there by the doorway inside his courtyard stretched out on his bamboo khat with its soft straw matting. He didn’t work like my father but spent the days lying in wait for us, watching his servants sweep away the dust.
If he got up from his khat, it was usually just to shout at my mother over the walls. ‘Can’t you keep your filthy daughters inside?’ he would yell.’
‘…we were poor mallahs, with only what the river gave us to live.
If I crossed Bihari’s field with our cows, he beat me. If I passed his house, even if I just ran past to pee in the field, he tried to beat me! I didn’t know why he wanted to hurt us. My mother used to say that he was always complaining to her that we were causing mischief, that we were trespassing on his property, and that we were ugly and dirty.’
The incident at the Pradhan’s. He had ordered Phoolan to massage his head. She usually never spoke in his presence because ‘He was an important man, the head of all the villages in the district,’ and Phoolan was ‘too timid to utter a word.’ There was a big pile of mangoes in front of him. Phoolan was a child.
‘…Those were the best mangoes I had ever seen. I dreamed of tasting the soft pulp in my mouth and feeling the sweet juice trickling down my throat. Finally the smell of them was so strong, it overcame me.
‘Please can I have a little piece of mango?’ I asked.
The slap was so fierce I heard it resound in my head. I was stunned – I couldn’t see clearly, everything was spinning around me, and I fell over.
The Pradhan was furious. ‘How dare you ask me for a mango! Today you want a mango and tomorrow it’ll be something else!’
In Chapter 2,
‘…Our village had two temples, ne dedicated to Kali where my father went all the time to make offerings to the goddess and pray for help, and another, much more beautiful, dedicated to Shiva, where the rich went to give thanks for all they possessed. The Brahmin was the village priest. He looked after the temples.’
She says that the Brahmin was the one who taught them how to read and write. Phoolan discontinued her studies soon. The Brahmin was an impatient man who beat children. She also had to work. The following portion about Ramayana talks about caste and gender again.
‘…The only book I ever saw was the Ramayana, the story of Rama, the incarnation of Vishnu. The Brahmin used to read it to the villagers gathered under a tree. Sometimes he would ask other Brahmins to come and read some of it with him because the book was very big and the story very long and very beautiful. I only ever saw the book from afar. Women were not allowed to touch it.’
The first lessons about sexual violence was given to Phoolan by her mother. She told her that she and her sisters did not need education but warned them.
‘…She told me the main thing I had to learn was to stay out of danger. She was always warning me that I was going to get myself into real trouble one day, and I wondered what this trouble might be. It must have been something terrible as my mother’s eyes were full of dread when she said it.
And like God, it was everywhere . . .’
Later, in Chapter 7, while talking about her marriage to Putti Lal and rape, she says that while this danger that her mother spoke about was everywhere, it was performed as a good occasion in case of marriage.
‘All those dirty, ugly things he had done, I knew, were the danger my mother had warned us of. That was what happened to girls at the bend in the river. And they happened with everybody’s blessing when a man like Putti Lal said ‘She is suitable.’’
Caste is everywhere in the book. In the film, it is downplayed. Phoolan talks about Dalits while talking about the cruelties of Brahmins. She also lays emphasis on how it was even worse for women of ‘lower’ castes. In Chapter 2,
‘. . . It was as though even the ground that we walked on in the village was forbidden to our feet. We were almost as wretched as untouchables, who were less than animals.
And being a girl meant being even lower. A girl didn’t exist without her father, her brother, her uncle or her husband – or any man at all belonging to her family or her caste. She couldn’t even walk without fear between the village and the river.’
The Sarpanch’s son always harassed Phoolan. Once after she was groped in broad daylight by the Pradhan’s son, Phoolan’s mother complained to the Sarpanch. He shouted at her sent her off. That night, his son along with a gang, raped Phoolan in front of her parents.
‘. . . Two bodies; two hurried rapes.’
When a woman’s body is violated, the blame first goes to the woman herself.
‘My mother looked at me and shook her head. ‘What did I do to deserve a daughter like you Phoolan? Why did I bring you into this world? I’m ashamed.’
Her strong mother was blaming herself for bringing a woman who got raped into the world. This is a woman’s narrative. It shows how people start blaming themselves when a person whom they love very much is violated.
It is after this incident that Phoolan went to another village to talk to Phool Singh, a thakur, to help her. He and his gang went to Phoolan’s village and threatened the women in Pradhan’s house. Phoolan felt victorious but only for a short while.
‘I hadn’t broken the silence, after all, but as the joy of my triumph began to wear off, I realised I had done something worse. I had gone to ask for help from someone of a higher caste. I had betrayed my caste, and it only really dawned on me then that the thakurs from Narihan had taken my side purely because it was to their advantage. I remembered what Kunjan’s mother had said about Phool Singh having a dispute with our Sarpanch. If they had come, I realised, it wasn’t for my sake. I had just given them an excuse. But there was one comfort, at least. I had prayed so hard to the goddess, asking her to give me revenge, and this time she had heard me.’
After this incident, the Sarpanch tried to marry Phoolan to a widower. Phoolan was against this and she ran away from home. After this, Mayadin and the Sarpanch spread a story in her village that Phoolan was a dacoit. Phoolan did not even know the meaning of the word then. It was her brother-in-law who explained it to her. Mayadin had said that there had been a robbery in his house and that Phoolan was behind it. When she returned home from her sister’s place, she was arrested by the police. She was again raped in the police station. While raping her in front of her father in the lock-up, they asked her to admit that it was she who had robbed Mayadin’s house. She was threatened into agreeing that she was a dacoit. They asked her to keep shut about what they’d done to her. If she didn’t do so, they would rape her again, they told her.
She was raped by upper-caste thakurs after she drew water from the well against the Sarpanch’s orders.
‘Who do you think you are?’ the old man asked me. He tried to grab hold of me. ‘Girls of your caste are only good for one thing,’ he sneered.
It happened again. I was beaten, assaulted and humiliated – and again my parents were forced to watch.
I was less than a dog, one of them said.
When my mother and father pleaded with them to stop, they were beaten too.’
She also talks about how people from her own caste thought themselves superior till the upper-caste people showed themselves. After they raped Phoolan, the thakurs took her to Mayadin’s house. Then Mayadin became defensive. About this, Phoolan says,
‘I couldn’t believe it! He was embarrassed because the men who had beaten and violated me were thakurs, and we were just mallahs, even Mayadin. Because he had land, he thought he could behave like a thakur, he thought he could use them to scare me and my parents. But he was also afraid of them. . .’
‘I was beginning to realise it was not just our poverty that made us victims, it was being born in a lowly caste. I couldn’t accept it . . .’
Caste among bandits. While Vickram was a mallah, Baboo was a thakur. Thanks to a woman who became a bandit, we also got to know the rape culture of bandits. The descriptions of her bandit days are filled with incidents of rape committed by the bandits. Baboo raped defenseless young girls. In one incident, it is described that,
‘. . . He took the megaphone and used it to summon the gang, shouting that the police were on their way. Instantly, the men came running from every direction, some still clutching their trousers.’
Vickram killed Baboo when he was trying to rape Phoolan and subsequently became the leader of the gang.
‘. . . There were around twenty of them. Fifteen were mallahs, there were two Brahmins, and some who belonged to a caste of leatherworkers called chamars.’
When Shri Ram – Vickram’s ‘guru’ and Shri Ram’s brother Lala Ram came back to the gang, everybody was apprehensive. Phoolan too somehow felt that it was not a good sign. But Vickram had bailed them out, using the money Mayadin had offered Phoolan for forgiveness. [She declined the money but Vickram accepted it against her wish.] Phoolan says about the thakur brothers’ return,
‘ . . . It was the usual story: mallahs and thakurs could never get along.’
In Chapter 27, we see that this is true. The reason why Vickram was assassinated is explained thus
‘. . . They had planned it all right from the start, and the villagers who had come to us to propose the truce between Vickram and Shri Ram had been on it too. I heard Shri Ram asking for his money. They had collected funds to pay Shri Ram to get rid of us, because we belonged to a backward caste and we defied the rule of thakurs. We were a lowly tribe and we had been shown our place, they said. By killing Vickram, they had reminded us who gave the orders. They wanted to pretend I had done it to show I was disloyal – a whore! – and on top of it all they hoped to collect a reward and let the police share in the glory.’
Chapter 29 is where Phoolan meets with the leader of a powerful Muslim gang, Baba Mustakim. She explains the situation of Muslims.
‘I Talked through the night to Baba Mustakim. Muslims were usually poor and had as much to fear from thakurs as my community. Baba Mustakim was determined to join me and it wasn’t until the early hours of the morning that he finally acknowledged my reasons for refusing his help.’
When she chose men from Baba Mustakim’s gang, caste figured again.
‘. . . They were all from castes of shepherds or leatherworkers, castes compatible with my own.’
Later in Chapter 33, Phoolan Devi remembers how she was saved from the police by the Muslim villagers.
‘. . . I had thought then my last hour had come, and the women wept for me saying, ‘Allah be with you!’ The Muslims were poor, as poor as mallahs. In a Hindu community, where everyone feared and respected Thakurs, I might not have been protected.’
‘. . . A poor person didn’t need to say he was poor.’
Caste based gender violence
Chapter 24, where thakur bandits Shri Ram and his brother Lala Ram had been brought back from jail by Vickram, Shri Ram treated Phoolan this way:
‘So this is Phoolan!’
He looked me up and down again, the way thakurs always looked at mallah women, twiddling his red moustache. . .
. . . ‘So this is Phoolan,’ he repeated. ‘And she sleeps with everybody! She’s the gang’s girl!’
And when Phoolan told Vickram how much she loathed Shri Ram’s behaviour,
‘Don’t let him stay here, Vickram. He was undressing me with his eyes!’
‘I told you he said he was sorry. I owe him everything, Phoolan. Please, come and sit with us. Don’t embarrass me in front of him.’
The harassment continued. Shri Ram cornered Phoolan after making sure that there was nobody around, he started calling her ‘Bahanji’ [sister / sister-in-law] Just like how Malayalee males call a woman ‘chechi’ [elder sister] and then sexually and otherwise harass her. He asked her,
‘Who do you think you are, you little bitch? You little piece of shit! You think you’re too good for me? How can people like you – backward caste people – think you’re better than us? One day I’m going to teach you to obey me!’
I ran in tears to Vickram as he shouted behind me. ‘She is lying! Why do you keep her in the gang? She’s a hussy. She keeps on tantalizing me. Get rid of her!’
‘Again Vickram’s men pointed their rifles at him and warned him not to speak to me like that. Vickram had to calm them, taking them aside and trying to play down what they all knew in their bones, that Shri Ram was a thakur and he despised them. . .’
Shri Ram shot Phoolan and pretended that he was aiming at a bird. Phoolan aimed her own barrel at his head.
‘. . . For an instant, our eyes met. In his I could see all the hatred and frustration of a thakur who couldn’t crush me or frighten me. I hoped he could see pride and contempt in my eyes. . .’
Vickram continued to try to appease the thakurs.
After Phoolan and Vickram went into hiding after Vickram was shot by Sri Ram, in Chapter 25, she narrates how upper caste appearance was considered to be ‘normal’ and beyond suspicion.
‘. . . but when the sipahi on duty saw a little woman with her head covered by a sari shuffling along timidly by the mud walls, accompanied by a well-dressed thakur, he didn’t think there was anything unusual about it.’
In Chapter 27, after Vickram is killed and Shri Ram gets everyone in a village to rape Phoolan Devi, she remembers he had said,
‘You piece of shit! Mallah bitch! You thought you could bully us around and give us orders. You understand now who you belong to? You remember now why you were born?’
‘Shri Ram said if he had his way, he would bring all the Thakurs in the world to use me.’
Shekhar Kapoor’s film Vs. Phoolan Devi’s Autobiography
Phoolan describes how her mother was a fighter in Chapter 1. After she was slapped by the Pradhan, Phoolan wet herself and ran back home. She was afraid her mother would scold her. When she said what had happened, her mother dragged back to the Pradhan’s house and shouted at him from the street.
‘You think we bring children into the world just to be your slaves? Instead of hitting her like that you should have just killed her! Go on, kill her! Then she won’t ask you for any more mangoes. Kill her if you want.’
Her father wasn’t like that.
‘When he came home and heard what had happened, my father was ashamed. He said it was our duty to serve them. That was how the world was. If we did what they asked without complaining and bowed our heads and touched their feet to show them respect, they would give us food. He said the world was like that because God made it that way.’
This is one portion where the film differs. Her mother is not portrayed in this manner. Phoolan even says that she was like her mother.
‘…I tried to submit as my father said I should, but I was unable. I was like my mother. There was too much anger in me.’
In the film, her mother is as submissive as her father.
In Chapter 11, Phoolan talks about the time when she had come back from Putti Lal’s place, after being raped. The whole village was deciding her fate because that was how it worked once a woman was without a husband. Mayadin thought it was a good opportunity to harass Phoolan’s family more.
‘. . . he harassed my mother whenever she passed his house on her way to the well. He called her all sorts of names, and threatened her with all manner of punishments, but all he ever got back was the growl of a tigress: ‘Go to hell! Leave us alone!’
Now listen to how Phoolan describes her own rise as a rebellious woman. It all started from her going to work. Phoolan and her sister, Choti, joined their father in the masonry work that he was doing. He was paid twelve rupees a day and they were paid two-and-a-half rupees each. According to Phoolan,
‘. . . We labored from dawn until the sun went down, and the work changed me.
As my strength returned, my confidence grew. I was no longer the submissive young girl who accepted whatever others decided. . . I stopped caring that tradition had left me abandoned. All that mattered was to earn enough to eat. And that meant getting paid for our work. All too often, Thakurs who hired us forgot to pay us. ‘Come back tomorrow,’ they would say, waving us away. And when we returned they said they had already paid us with food, or that we hadn’t worked on certain days, and they would deduct it from our wages. . . I started asking for my wages day by day, to be sure.
‘I worked today,’ I would tell them, ‘and I want my money today!’
My father was afraid of this sort of talk. He would tug me by the arm and whisper to me to be quiet and not to say such things. But more often than not they gave in and paid what they owed. And if they refused, I found ways to blackmail them. Choti and I would sneak up on their cows or goats, untie one and set it loose in the fields. Or else I would lead the animal back to our house, and then go see the owner.
‘Are you going to pay now?’ I would say to him, ‘or shall I keep your goat?’
People threw me out, calling me insolent and saying I had been raised badly. They complained that I used bad language. But as far as I could see I was doing nothing wrong, simply requesting the money I was owed for my work. It wasn’t bad language to ask for it loudly, with my head held high, and without fear.
I had been through so much, I had been so often in the grip of terror, that I had nothing to fear from them. I don’t think I was afraid of fear even. I certainly wasn’t afraid of confronting them. . .’
Phoolan says she even confronted physically those people who hurt her physically. Her sister Choti would run away but Phoolan thought she couldn’t be hurt more than she already had been. Again, her mother stood with her in her rebellious nature while her father asked her to behave.
‘. . . ‘Phoolan is right,’ she told him. ‘We work hard and sweat blood for them, so they should pay us.’ And if someone who owed us money came to complain about us taking his animals, she would say, ‘God is punishing you for not paying my daughters. You’ll get your goat back when you’ve paid what you owe.’
Later she says, talking about the time she started her fight with the upper caste males and landowners,
‘I had found a strength in me that I hadn’t suspected, a force I drew from my mother. ‘Stand up straight,’ she always told me. ‘Be proud of yourself. If somebody slaps you, slap them back; if someone throws a stone at you, throw one back; if someone beats you and you don’t fight back, then I’ll beat you.’ And she always added, ‘Be fair; don’t steal anyone’s fruits or crops; be honest.’
Later, after her first arrest and release on bail, the Sarpanch tried to make Phoolan’s family pay for drawing water from the well because she was ‘impure.’ [And it was his own son who had raped her.] The Sarpanch knew that it would bankrupt the family. See how Phoolan’s mother reacted in Chapter 17:
‘. . . My mother threw him out of our house. She screamed at him all the way back to his little shop.
‘I don’t care what the Sarpanch said, we aren’t paying anything.’
She screamed so fiercely that the villagers scurried back inside their houses to hide.’
The film has completely erased this woman from the narrative.
Phoolan invented tricks to get people to pay her. When her father built a house and the owner delayed the payment, she and Choti destroyed the house at night, when it was raining. She told the man that it happened because he had not paid them. People were superstitious and this worked in their favour.
Phoolan further describes her metamorphosis thus:
‘I was discovering piece by painful piece how my world was put together: the power of men, the power of privileged castes, the power of might. I didn’t think of what I was doing as rebellion; it was the only means I had of getting justice. But it was then that my rebellion began, when I was fourteen or fifteen years old and struggling to survive by any means I could. I was a woman who belonged to a lowly caste. Faced with power and rupees, I used any trick I could. I encouraged the other girls to sabotage the crops if the landowner wouldn’t pay us. I reminded the landowners that we were the ones who ploughed their fields, we spread the manure, we sowed the seeds and gathered the harvest, and they had to pay for our backbone and sweat. I warned those who refused to pay what we asked that they would see nothing growing on their land the next season. I didn’t realise that by doing this, I was making many enemies.’
The film does not mention that Phoolan was raped by the brahmin Pradhan’s son. Nor does it mention that the first time Phoolan was arrested on charges of robbery, she was being framed, as is clearly depicted in the autobiography. It had happened after the Sarpanch tried to get her married to a widower, after she was raped by his son. She had run away to her sister’s place and there she found out that Mayadin and the Sarpanch had spread news that Phoolan had robbed Mayadin’s house. When she returned to her village, she was arrested and was raped by the police. The film does not mention these incidents. It makes it look as if Phoolan had gone to the bandits herself.
The film does not mention the rape that took place after Phoolan refused to pay the Sarpanch for drawing water from the well.
When people started using her status as a ‘fallen’ woman to not pay her and her father for the work they did, one day, Phoolan decided to react. She held a sickle in her hand and told them that she’d kill them. That was a beginning. She says about that incident,
‘Because they lived in fear, I realised, all you had to do was frighten them! Because they used violence, you had to be violent too!’
Later, when she was abducted by bandits, in one of the raids they conducted, Phoolan describes how she was ‘initiated’ into the world of bandits.
In Chapter 18:
‘That morning, they had divided the village up into ‘sectors’. Vickram and his men had gone to the other part of the village but Baboo had made me go with him, and now I was sitting on a cart, guarded by tw of Baboo’s men, taking part, terrified, in my first pillage.
Some of Baboo’s men were running around the house looking for girls, the rest were barging into rooms and dragging out trunks that they burst open by firing at the locks. They were stuffing handfuls of gold and silver jewellery and bundles of rupees into their pockets, and battering any women who screamed in protest. No one tried to resist them. The men who lived there had all run away to hide when they heard the rifles. I could only see shadows fleeing in the dark and hear panic-stricken cries.
Suddenly Baboo shouted to the men guarding me, ‘Show her what to do.’
After this, she was shown into a room where she was asked to beat the women and take their jewellery. She refused to do it. She also says that they took a girl just as old as herself, around sixteen, and raped her. She was unable to bear her cries and covered her ears.
In pictures, is a photo from the day of her surrender. About it she says,
‘. . . We were given new clothes. The uniform that I wore in the jungle – the boots and shirt that smelt of the forest, of sweat and freedom – fell in a heap on the ground. I am wearing a new, clean, well – ironed uniform. Man Singh – my lieutenant, my friend, my brother – is beside me. (Ludwig/SIPA Press) [This can be found in Chapter 36 as well. ‘. . . The uniform I had been wearing, the shirt and the boots that smelled of the jungle, of sweat and freedom, and of the anguish of the last few days, fell in a little heap on the cement floor.’]
This is another place where I felt that the director had denied Phoolan representation. It mattered to her to mention this detail about the uniform. But it has not been shown in the film. This is all part of violence and abuse. How people look at things, objects, people after they emerge out of it. If a woman says that clothes mattered to her, it has to be noted and acknowledged.
There is no mention of Vickram’s other wife and children. There is no mention of how the patriarchy worked within Phoolan’s and Vickram’s relationship. When Mayadin offered money as compensation, Phoolan was dead against taking it but Vickram took it. About it, she says later,
‘. . . Vickram had paid eighty thousand rupees to bail them [Shri Ram and his broter Lala Ram] out; at least that explained why he hadn’t spat at Mayadin’s money. . .’
In Chapter 28 there is a portion that Phoolan Devi describes as being a decision making one. I felt that the omission of this from the film wasn’t good. In it, she was stating how something that sounded superstitious or like a hallucination mattered to her. If such personal experiences are struck off according to the director’s whim, what is the point in making a film on a true story?
‘. . . A large snake with black and yellow scales slowly uncoiled his body and raised his head in front of me. . .’
. . .
‘All of a sudden, he turned and slithered towards a rock. He pulled himself up on top of it, looked away in the distance, and then he turned back to me. Twice more he made the same gesture with his head, looking away in the same direction and then turning back to me.
‘I should go that way?’ I asked him.
. . .
‘Is it true? You will show me?’ I bowed to him with my hands together in relief and prayer. ‘Whoever you are,’ I said, ‘don’t abandon me now. Watch over me and give me the strength to survive.’
Majestically, the snake slithered away.’
In Chapter 37, Phoolan talks of what she felt about filmmakers and her being depicted in art without her permission. If Shekhar Kapoor had read the book, which he should have, before making the film, he wouldn’t have made these mistakes.
‘On the third day, a man came saying his name was Ashok Roy. He said he had made a film called Kahani Phoolan Ki and that he had been waiting to see if I was killed or put in prison to finish his film. He began to show me photos. I lunged at him and grabbed him by the collar of his shirt.
‘How dare you? What is all this film business? What is it you want?’
His collar tore away in my hands as I shook him. He ran away in alarm, taking his photos.
I wanted to know how he dared to take these pictures of my life without my permission. I had been to the cinema once in Nepal, but I still didn’t know what a film was. Before the man came, some of the prisoners had told me that it was a bad thing, and that I would have very big problems with a film. It was bound to be full of lies, they explained, but people would believe all of them.’
In the Epilogue, she leaves no room for doubt when she speaks about the way she was portrayed by people, including filmmakers and what she thought of it. Next time you hear someone praise the film ‘The Bandit Queen’ by Shekhar Kapoor, be sure to mention that the director was wrong to have made it.
‘I had seen all kinds of bandits. Assassins had tried to take my life, journalists had tried to capture me on film. They all thought they could speak about me as though I didn’t exist, as though I still didn’t have any right to respect. The bandits had tried to torture my body, but the others tried to torture my spirit.'
She continues, about her autobiography,
‘Now, for the first time, a woman from my community has been able to tell the truth about her life, and testify in public to the injustice we all had to suffer. It was my hope that my testimonial would give help to others: other women, my sisters who have been humiliated, and my brothers who are being exploited.
I want to prove that we all have our honour, whatever our origins, our caste, the colour of our skin or our sx.
I wanted respect
I wanted them to say, ‘Phoolan Devi is a human being,’ because then they would say it about others.’