India's Bandit Queen

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

As I waited in Phoolan's sitting room late one morning while she was doing a television interview in another room, her husband, Umed Singh, joined me, alternately shouting and whispering into two telephones. The campaign for the May elections was just getting under way, and elsewhere in the house a Buddhist monk swathed in saffron robes, who is one of Phoolan's advisers, was arranging a speaking tour; one of her lawyers was sifting through a pile of court briefs; and an uncle of hers from the village, a withered, shuffling man, came and went through the rooms, occasionally shouting into a telephone.

"I'm sorry—I'm sorry I'm late," Phoolan said as she burst into the room, dressed in a silk sari of intricate brocade. She looked like a prom queen of sixteen. Her voice was full of energy, and a torrent of words spilled out: "Politics is so astonishing! I'm getting so many offers from different parties, but what can I do? If I accept one of them, then the others won't court me anymore. And I've got to be friendly with all the parties at the moment, and antagonize none of them, because of all the court cases pending against me in Uttar Pradesh. I actually had dinner with the governor of Uttar Pradesh last night; he flew me to the [state] capital secretly, in a military plane!" She paused to take a breath, and then she ordered her husband into the kitchen to get her something to eat. I had been told that in Hindi she often refers to him as "my wife."

I reminded Phoolan that she had told me earlier that if she returned to Uttar Pradesh, she'd be killed. Now she was preparing to campaign there. She simply nodded her head in agreement, appearing to see no contradiction between the two statements.

When I asked why a parliamentary seat was so important to her, an adviser answered for her: "Parliamentary immunity."

Since Phoolan had threatened to immolate herself outside the Censor Board and at a movie theater where Bandit Queen was being shown if it was not immediately banned, I asked her what she most objected to in the film.

She didn't answer right away. Then she said, "It's simply not the story of my life, so how can they claim it is? How can they say `This is a true story' when my cousin Maiyadin, the major nemesis of my life, isn't even in the film? There's absolutely no mention of my family's land dispute. In the film I'm portrayed as a sniveling woman, always in tears, who never took a conscious decision in her life. I'm simply shown as being raped, over and over again."

"But you were raped . . ." I began.

She interrupted. "You can call it rape in your fancy language," she said, and her voice began to rise. "Do you have any idea what it's like to live in a village in India? What you call rape, that kind of thing happens to poor women in the villages every day. It is assumed that the daughters of the poor are for the use of the rich. They assume that we're their property. In the villages the poor have no toilets, so we must go to the fields, and the moment we arrive, the rich lay us there; we can't cut the grass or tend to our crops without being accosted by them. We are the property of the rich."

She fell silent, as if she were considering whether or not to go on. Then she said, "They wouldn't let us live in peace; you will never understand what kind of humiliation that is. If they wanted to rape us, to molest us, and our families objected, then they'd rape us in front of our families."

She looked away and then turned back toward me, and I asked what had driven her to stand up.

She said immediately, "Anger."

She paused, and went on, "When I think back, I lose my balance, and sometimes I feel completely lost. I wonder how all of this could have happened to me; how I could have suffered all that I have. My mind aches, and I become confused. I can't think of it."

"What about the happy moments?"

"Once I became a dacoit and started making lists of all the people who had tortured me, who had abused me, and I was able to pay them back in kind, that pleased me tremendously—when they were brought before me, and fell at my feet to pay obeisance to me. The fear of the gun is a powerful thing. I was the master, and those who had once abused me now worshipped me. I was actually happy most of the time that I was a dacoit. There was a song I used to sing: `Shall we kill you or shall we let you go?' It's from a Hindi film. I used to sing it very often in front of my captives, and I also sang it as we marched through the ravines. Being a dacoit was a hard life. We'd go from one state to another, walking the entire night. Then we'd have to survey the area, pay our informers, and bribe the politicians and the police. Our decisions on whom to kidnap, which villages and homes to raid, were not haphazardly made. We had excellent intelligence."

"What do you miss most about your life as a dacoit?" I asked.

"The power and authority," she said. "When people betray me now, like those bastards at Channel Four, [the filmmakers] Shekhar Kapur and Bobby Bedi, if I were still a dacoit, I could have taught them a proper lesson." She looked at me and smiled.

She became reflective, tilting her face and resting her chin on her hand. Then she said, "There's such a big difference between life in New Delhi and life in the Chambal Valley ravines. There are two codes, two sets of mores, customs, and legalities. In New Delhi people are so much more duplicitous: they promise you things, and then behind your back they do precisely the opposite. In Chambal they'll say things openly, they'll shout it from the rooftops, and then they'll follow through. City life is very different; you have law courts. But out in the valley you can do things your way, and by the will of God."

She fell silent, and her eyes studied the room. Finally she turned to me and asked, "What did you think of the ravines when you were there?"

"They're astonishingly beautiful," I replied.

"Did you meet my family?"

I told her that I had tried, but that they had been in her village at the time.

"Then whom did you meet?" Her entire demeanor changed, and she sounded like the interrogator she had once been.

"A number of dacoits, including Mohar Singh."

"What did he say about me?" she demanded, and I replied that he had not only claimed that she had never had a significant encounter with the police but also questioned whether she had actually been the leader of her gang.

She threw up her hands, and anger crossed her face. Then she said, "Let him come here and say it to my face. I dare him!"

"But were you the leader? And if so, how did you get to the top?" I persisted, adding that there were some, including Mohar Singh, who claimed that not unlike a host of women leaders across what was once British India, including Prime Ministers in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, she had simply inherited dynastic power from a man.

She looked somewhat startled, and then she said, "Of course I was the leader! And don't ever question me about that again. And let me ask you something: What's so strange about that? Wasn't Indira Gandhi the Prime Minister of India? Yes, if she had not been Nehru's daughter, she might not have been, but she lasted in office far longer than he did. And if Mohar Singh doesn't think that women should lead gangs, why doesn't he rise up against those who have raped? If all these gang leaders, who happen to be men, would fight against these atrocities, then they would end. It's not to earn money that a woman becomes a dacoit; it's for retribution and revenge. And you tell Mohar Singh that I had absolutely no problem in being the leader of men. Instead of calling me Phoolan, they often called me Phool Singh—which was a testament to my strength. They cleaned my guns, cooked my food, and every morning and every evening they bowed before me, and paid homage to me." She paused, apparently considering her next words carefully, and then she said, "For centuries every dacoit has honored the goddess Durga. And she is what sustained me: whatever she has, I have; whatever she wants, I want. And all of the men in my gang considered me to be a reincarnation of Durga."

Presented by

Mary Anne Weaver has written extensively about South Asia and the Middle East. She lived in New Delhi from 1982 through 1985.

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