India's Bandit Queen

A saga of revenge—and the making of a legend of "the real India"
"The Real India"

Phoolan Devi was born in Gorha Ka Purwa, in Uttar Pradesh, a remote, inhospitable hamlet not far from Behmai. It is so tiny that it doesn't warrant an appearance on any map. Built up from the banks of the sacred Yamuna River, it is little more than a cluster of mud huts with conical thatched roofs, where sacred cows and bullocks wander as if in a daze through narrow sun-bleached lanes. Like 567,000 other obscure Indian villages, where more than half a billion people live, Gorha Ka Purwa forms part of what was once the Gandhian ideal and is still habitually called "the real India." And Phoolan in her early years was not unlike "typical" Indian women—some 70 percent of whom are born and die in villages not unlike Gorha Ka Purwa.

The typical village woman in northern India receives her inheritance at birth: that of being an unwanted burden, because she is not a son. She comes from a peasant family that owns less than an acre of land, or from a landless family whose existence depends on a landlord's whim. She can neither read nor write, though she often would like to do both. She has rarely traveled more than twenty miles from the village of her birth. If she falls ill, she believes it is because of evil spirits lurking in trees. Her sole worth lies in producing sons and working in the fields—for a meal and the equivalent of fifty cents a day. She is born into a caste, a geography, and a poverty from which there is no escape. Once she marries, at fourteen or fifteen, her life is fixed: her future becomes her mother's past.

In her village practically everything will turn on caste, the refined form of apartheid introduced into India over 2,500 years ago. Its Brahmanical order will define, with few exceptions, the social, economic, and occupational status she will have for her entire life. Caste etiquette will specify what she and her family may eat, how her marriage will be performed, the length of her sari and what ornaments she may wear, whether or not she may draw water from the village well, and through which door she may enter a temple—if she may enter it at all. Caste even determines whether or not a man may carry an umbrella in "the real India."

Phoolan's father, Devidin, whom she described to me as a "simpleton," was better off than some in Gorha Ka Purwa: he owned about an acre of land. Even so, he had had to work as a sharecropper to support his growing family. He and his wife, Moola, had the terrible fortune to produce four daughters—Phoolan was the second oldest—before they finally achieved a son. And all manner of other frustrations befell Devidin. He had lost nearly all of his inheritance, including some fifteen acres of land, to an elder brother and the brother's son, Maiyadin, both of whom were far wilier and better connected politically in Gorha Ka Purwa than he was. But he was too old, too tired, too poor, he told his family, to struggle for anything. The young Phoolan was shocked and outraged.

When she was ten, she began an often lonely battle to reclaim the family land. A spirited and precocious child, with a sharp tongue and wit, she taunted her cousin Maiyadin in the village square, hurling profanities at him and accusing him of all nature of things in front of his upper-caste friends. Then, along with her elder sister, who had just turned twelve, she effected a sit-in on Maiyadin's land. It was short-lived. Maiyadin arrived and, according to Phoolan, beat her unconscious with a brick.

When she was eleven, at the insistence of Maiyadin, Phoolan was married to a widower three times her age from a distant village—in exchange for a cow. Despite her age, her husband forced himself upon her, and beat her frequently. She left him shortly after her twelfth birthday. Walking across an area the width of Texas, alone and terrified and usually in tears, she finally reached Gorha Ka Purwa. Her parents were distraught: women don't leave their husbands in the real India. "What can we do?" her mother wailed. "You have heaped disgrace upon us all. There is no alternative: you must commit suicide. Go jump in the village well!"

Phoolan didn't jump—though she considered it—and she came of age in Gorha Ka Purwa. Over the next ten years she alternately fled the village and returned. During adolescence she married one of her cousins, Kailash, who was already married; consequently the union did not last long. She cut the grass on her family's plot and grazed its water buffalo. She developed a reputation for promiscuity, and became known as a scorned woman, who bathed naked in the Yamuna alone.

All the while she continued her land battle with Maiyadin. When she was twenty, she argued her father's case before the Allahabad High Court. An old court stenographer, now retired, told me one afternoon that his most abiding image of that Phoolan was of an exceptionally animated girl with lively eyes and a flair for drama. She could have been a thespian.

The following year, in 1979, Phoolan, then twenty-one, was arrested on the basis of what she told me was a fraudulent charge of robbery at Maiyadin's home. She spent a month in police custody, where she was beaten and raped—as large numbers of Indian women are. Many of the policemen who assaulted her were men whom Maiyadin counted as his friends. That Phoolan was left "a whimpering piece of rubbish in the corner of a dirty room with rats staring me in the eye," Phoolan later said.

But it was the evening of the day of the festival of Sawan Dui, in early July of that year, that was the turning point in Phoolan Devi's life. She had heard rumors, as had everyone in the village, that a gang of dacoits, led by a notoriously cruel man named Babu Gujar, was encamped on the riverbank; she may or may not have received a letter from the gang threatening to kidnap her or to cut off her nose—a not uncommon punishment inflicted on women for a perceived indiscretion in the villages of northern India.

It was just past midnight, and Phoolan was nearly asleep in her family's home when she heard the thud of boots; men carrying torches sprang into silhouette against the hut's mud walls. What followed remains obscured, for Phoolan's own accounts have varied significantly.

Whatever the truth of that evening, Phoolan was marched out of Gorha Ka Purwa and into the ravines. Perhaps she had indeed been kidnapped. Perhaps Maiyadin had paid the dacoits to take her away. Perhaps she was trying to protect her young brother, whom she adored. Or perhaps she simply walked away from her life in the real India.

For the next seventy-two hours she was brutalized by Babu Gujar. Then, on the evening of the third day, his chief lieutenant and deputy, Vikram Mallah, who had admired Phoolan from afar over the years, shot Babu Gujar dead. Word of the killing spread throughout the ravines, as did the fact that Vikram Mallah—a member of Phoolan's caste—had not only slain his upper-caste leader but had assumed the leadership of the gang. Phoolan became his mistress, and in the villages and towns of the Chambal River Valley, where for generations people have taken their own revenge and settled their own scores, killing and maiming in the name of justice and God, women composed songs about the exploits of the low-caste village girl who became a dacoit and was vindicated, her honor restored.

Phoolan, for her part, had a rubber stamp made, which she used as a letterhead: "Phoolan Devi, dacoit beauty; beloved of Vikram Mallah, Emperor of Dacoits."

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