Book Review | Rural India gets ready for a feminist romp

The Asian Age.  | Rupa Gulab

While the book starts off all sedate and serious, the author suddenly decides to let her hair down and turns it into a full blown romp

Cover photo óf 'The Bandit Queens' by Parini Shroff. (Photo by arrangement)

This is a not-so-grim fairytale about the problems women face in rural India. As we all know, it’s bad enough to be poor, but it’s far worse if you’re poor and a woman in a patriarchal society. So yes, the problems are indeed very grim, but the manner in which the author presents them is certainly not. In fact, while your heart may ache, your belly will ache just as much (if not more) with uncontrollable bouts of laughter. Humour, after all, is a great panacea. And revenge can be fun!
On to the story: Geeta’s husband Ramesh mysteriously vanished five years ago, and she pays the price for it every single day. Everyone in her village suspects that she murdered Ramesh, even though the cops had cleared her name. Women are scared that she will steal their husbands, children think she is an evil witch who will gobble them alive, heck, even her favourite aunt throws stinky garbage on her when she dares to visit.

The only things that keep Geeta going are her work (she makes mangalsutras), wildlife programmes on the radio, and Phoolan Devi aka India’s infamous Bandit Queen. Yes, Phoolan Devi is Geeta’s source of strength. She has read and heard enough about her to be inspired to take hardships head on. After all, Phoolan Devi had survived rapes and beatings by men, and, wonder of wonders, had extracted revenge on many of her tormentors before she was gunned down.  While Geeta herself has not paid back anyone who has mistreated her (including Ramesh who treated her like a punching bag when he was drunk), Geeta figures she is doing okay. “She no longer had friends, but she did have freedom.”

Geeta’s life takes a sharp turn when Farah, a member of her loan group, begs her to murder her husband who beats her and squanders her dress-making money on alcohol. Before she knows it, there is a queue of women from the loan group outside her front door practically screaming, “Make a widow out of me.”

Poor innocent Geeta who wouldn’t hurt a housefly (not even the creepy lizard that terrorises her at home), is cajoled, coerced and even blackmailed into this mess. Part of her is resentful — after all, these are the very same women who knew Ramesh used to thrash her but never lifted a finger to help because it was a “family matter” (ancient Indian euphemism for “Look the other way quick!”).

There’s another part of her, though. The part that is inspired by something she heard on the radio, about female bonobos in Africa: “…unlike apes, which were the other closest relative to humans, female bonobos, though not kin, forged alliances to obtain food and ward off male harassers. Two females in oestrus once fought an overly aggressive male, and bit his penis in half in the process.” Geeta has always wished that females of the human species were as supportive of each other as female bonobos are. Here’s her chance to give this female bonding thing a shot, right?

The men you encounter in these pages are mainly Rogues’ Gallery material. There are wife-beaters, stalkers, vengeful acid-throwers, kiddie fiddlers, etc. So it’s not surprising that while all the women, no matter how catty or nasty they may be, are given redeeming features, very few of the men have been spared. Oh but wait, there’s this really sweet bootlegger. Sigh.

While the book starts off all sedate and serious, the author suddenly decides to let her hair down and turns it into a full blown romp — a romp that’s so engaging you applaud her change of tone and even overlook another incongruity: the language. Sure, the book is in English, but to hear village women speaking like teens in an American sitcom, casually throwing in references like Nike’s ‘Just do it’ slogan, is a bit, well, odd.  Like, seriously. But all is forgiven, because the story is such a terrific nod to the sisterhood (and laugh out loud funny too) that you’re left grinning goofily and wishing that every word of it were true.

The Bandit Queens

By Parini Shroff

HarperCollins India

pp. 335; Rs.499