Sunday, October 10, 2010


Publisher: Rider
Published: 3/6/2010

India has seen any number of truly remarkable women over the years - Rani of Jhansi, Indira Gandhi, Kiran Ahluwalia - just to name a few, but none have been so fiercely loved or hated as Phoolan Devi, India's Bandit Queen.

Phoolan was born into the lower mallah (boatman) caste, in the small village in Uttar Pradesh, India.   When Phoolan was ten years old, her cousin, Mayadin, became the head of the family.  Mayadin arranged to have her married to a man 20  years her senior and who was already married.  Phoolan, as the younger wife, was relegated to household labour. It all became too much for the 11-year old when her husband sexually molested her even though she had not yet  reached puberty  and she ran back to her village.  Sadly, because she left her husband, she was forever treated as a social outcast and even her family was forced to reject her.

A few years down the road Phoolan became embroiled in a conflict with some richer relatives over family land.  The relatives arranged for her to be kidnapped by dacoits  that lived in the local ravines around the village. The gang was led by one Babu Singh who raped Phoolan, but he in turn was shot by his deputy, Vikram Mallah who then became Phoolan's lover.  Together, Vikram and Phoolan participated in the gang's activities, which consisted of looting high-caste (Thakur) villages and kidnapping  landowners for ransom. 

Sadly, the Vikram, Phoolan partnership was not to last.  Vikram was shot dead by a Thakur member of the gang (who wanted Phoolan for himself) .  They (the Thakurs) locked Phoolan away in a place called "Behmai"  where she was gang-raped mercilessly.  After three weeks, she managed to escape and gathered together a gang of Mallahs (men from her own caste) that she led with Man Singh, a member of Vikram's former gang.

In 1981, seventeen months after her escape from Behmai where she was raped, Phoolan and Man Singh returned to the village, to take her revenge. The Thakurs in the village were preparing for a wedding.  When Phoolan's gang failed to find all the kidnappers/molesters even after an exhaustive search, they lined up twnety-two Thakur men in the village and shot them.  Sadly, most of the men shot and killed were not involved in her kidnapping or rape. Later, Phoolan Devi claimed that she herself didn't kill anybody in Behmai – all the killings were carried out by her gang members.   

After the killings the police launched a huge manhunt using helicopters and thousands of men, but Phoolan Devi' evaded capture by hiding out in the ravines. Finally Prime Minister Indira Gandhi  authorised the Madhya Pradesh government to negotiate a surrender deal.  In February of 1983, with most of her gang dead and her health failing, Phoolan surrendered.

Phoolan Devi at her surrender with her lover, Man Singh

The agreed terms were that her family be given a plot of land; that she not be hanged; her gang must have prison quarters that were separated from the rest and that all charges must be dropped once they had served eight years in prison. Sadly, the Indian government reneged on all deals. Instead of eight years, Phoolan served eleven years and would have languished in prison longer had a mass movement by the coalition of socialists and "Untouchables" in Uttar Pradesh in 1994  not forced her release. 

It is while Phoolan was serving prison time that Roy Moxham, first contacted the Lady Bandit.

In his own words:

“In June 1992, I did a very strange thing. I wrote to a bandit in an Indian jail,”

After reading an article in the British newspapers about Phoolan Devi and her troubled past, Roy Moxham ( a book and paper conservator living in the UK) was moved to write to her. Initially he just wanted to lend her a listening ear, but as he got to know Phoolan better he was also compelled to send her a little money, dole out advice, and given that Phoolan spoke no English, write to influential people on her could say he was to Phoolan, both, a kindly friend and an agent.  As the years went by he and Phoolan got even closer and she referred to him as her brother.

Phoolan Devi with Roy Moxham, Holi 1994

Whenever Moxham made his annual visit to India he would stay at her house in Delhi. Sharing such close space with Poonam and her family allowed Moxham to see and share a side of Phoolan that most of us had never seen.  He tells us how she was loathe to hire househelp and loved to cook and clean the floors herself.  Also, she was passionately fond of kids and spent any number of hours looking after her sisters' children, but that same family also tried to use her - wanting a share of her new-found wealth and prosperity.  He also shows us what life was like for her when she joined politics, how she almost embraced Buddhism and how, as she got wealthier, she simply gave stuff away to people.  She barely tolerated the security that was given to her and as the years went by she used fewer and fewer bodyguards.  Moxham is sure that had she had more security she would not have lost her life prematurely.

When Moxham was asked why he wrote this memoir, "Outlaw: India's Bandit Queen and Me",  he claimed it was to set to the record straight on Phoolan.  According to him, people's impressions of Phoolan have been  shaped mainly by Shekhar Kapur's movie "The Bandit Queen" (based on the book by Mala Sen).  Now while the movie is sympathetic to Phoolan, there are scenes in the movie that she vehemently protested.  One was the depiction of the brutal rape scene and the other was how Kapur had the actress that plays Phoolan,  paraded naked around the village well. Phoolan thought  it was cruel and insensitive to depict her that way. She made Moxham write to Channel 4 several times to stop the movie from being released in the UK, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. Moxham, the true friend that he is, supported her dislike of the movie and could never bring himself to watch it, until he set out to write the memoir, that is.

Another reason Moxham wanted to write this book is because it's the only account of the former MP's life after her release from jail in 1994. The book is based on extensive correspondence between the two, even though Devi did not know English. The correspondence led to an unlikely friendship that lasted till the time Phoolan Devi was assassinated in 2001.

What can I say about Moxham's writing?  Well, it's basic to say the very least, but this is an entertaining read and you can tell, right from the get-go that his interest in Phoolan's welfare is kindly and honest.  When he's not visiting her in India he is travelling the country, usually little towns and villages in the North and his descriptions of these little towns made for welcome reading.   More importantly, reading about Phoolan's life drives us to ask:  would she have become a bandit had she not been an uneducated woman, in a backward village with so few choices?  I think the answer is NO!!!  She was spirited, charismatic, but poor and uneducated.  To make matters worse she was born into the wrong caste and in the wrong gender.  All these factors conspired to make her who she became.  Her story is truly one worth reading.



Veens said...

That's a totally different view from what I had. Sadly my views about Phoolan were really based on disjoint news stuff I read. This is such an eye opener.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Veens!!! You're not the only one! :) I didn't think very much of Phoolan Devi before I read this book. It was nice to have her presented as a human being and a woman instead of a ruthless dacoit. I forgot to mention, but I also revisited the Shekhar Kapur movie, "The Bandit Queen" and saw it with fresh eyes. An excellent movie IMO!

Sanjay said...

Thank you for a wonderful review Lotus. I did see the movie that Shekhar Kapur made, but I also recall a lot of this happening back when I was still in India, and I never quite bought the narrative as it was.
I think one can never discount the cast, economic and other realities of the time, that contributed to her becoming who she was. Mind you I do not excuse any of the crimes, just saying that all of the factors make for a story that is not as simple.
BTW you have a label of "adoption in India", just curious as to what it may have to do with the review? Maybe I missed something.
Is there anything that shed light on how the two could form such a friendship when neither spoke a common language?
You make a great point about her fate being what it was due to being uneducated.
I do believe that societies where women are able to be on an equal footing with men and where women are empowered will more than likely be more equitable and progressive places.
Thank you for this review, learned a lot of new things.

Birdy said...

Wow amazing review! I never knew much about Phoolan except the fact that she was a notorious bandit. On the other hand, I had a sort of admiration for her to lead such a life in what is considered a man's sphere. I feel there are so many women like her even today, especially in the North. Uneducated, married off young to vulture-like families, which ruins their lives. I am sure if such women nay girls, are educated to some extent and given a way to find a job at least some of them can get away to make a life for themselves...

This book would definitely be an interesting read.

On another note: To give due credit, Ammaniti's review was written by my best friend SoulMuser who is also part of LifeWordSmith :) Good to know you will be in India AND shopping for books! :) Do try Landmark too, they have a huge collection.

Susan A said...

Dearest Angie,

Phoolan Devi really knew how to live her life didn't she. Really sad for her about her rapes. Life is never in black and white. There's always other reasons why things happen. You're right about her lack of education and poverty that made her, who she was. She must have felt very wronged and grieved. I remember reading about her capture. You too have written a lovely review, Angie without a doubt. Meticulous, thorough, well-thought out and you have presented the notorious if not legendary heroine in an objective light without being emotionally engulfed in the story, and yet forcing the reader to observe a necessary kinder aspect to Phoolan Devi as she may have loved to have been known by.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Sanj!

Yes, this was being played out in the '90's and made big news in India. I remember being at once, in awe of and appalled by Phoolan Devi, but after reading Moxham's book, I have to come to realize that living the way she did wasn't her choice. As a woman and as an outcaste, really, what did she have to look forward to? The fact that she made such a successful bandit is testimony to her guts and her will to survive.

Sorry about the, there is nothing about adoption in this story..I must have added it inadvertently while typing up something else. Glad you pointed it out, I will correct it.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Birdy!!! You are absolutely right. Phoolan's story is not unique. There are 100's of women that share her plight but we are unaware of them. Every now and again, you hear of one desperately brave village girl who dared to accuse a constable or a school master of rape, but those stories die down even before they have had the chance to make an impact. What happens to those girls? I can only presume they are beaten down and defeated and are forced to accept their wretched lives.

I have to wonder if, had Phoolan lived and been successful in politics, she would have done something for women like herself? I guess we will never know. It's a question I would like to pose to Roy Moxham actually.

My compliments to Soul Muser...that was an awesome review! Does Bangalore have a Landmark too, do you know?

Lotus Reads said...

Dearest Suse, your words warm my heart as my aim was to be as objective as I could. I didn't want to turn Phoolan into a heroine, nor a villain, because she is neither.

This is the story of a woman who was born at a time and in a place where women are unfortunately not given due credit and how that impacted her life and the path that she had to choose. When she did have the opportunity to turn it around she did, but because her life was cut short we never did discover to want extent she may have taken her new role to.

I know it's a long review so I am grateful you took time to read it. Thank you!

Birdy said...

We can only take guesses at Phoolan's life... Well, better to think that she might have done something if she had the chance! :)

I stay in Bangalore and I am a regular at Landmark :) It's located in Forum Mall in Koramangala. If you need some company browsing books do let me know :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Birdy, now that you mention it, yes, I have been to the bookstore at Forum ( I had forgotten what it was called!) I will definitely make the excursion there this time again (we're in the cantonment area so it's a bit of a trek) and yes, I would LOVE the company!

You can always reach me here:, twitter or even FB. Hope to see you, and thanks!!!

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

From the moment I read the first line of this post, I was hooked. I couldn't let go until the last word. thanks for bringing this insightful memoir to my attention.

Lotus Reads said...

What a wonderful comment Nana, thank you so very much!!! I'm glad you enjoyed reading the review and I have no doubt you will enjoy the book too! You may also want to check out Mala Sen's book on Phoolan, titled, "India's Bandit Queen". I haven't read it myself, but for a long time, it was the only biography on Phoolan (there are a few others now). Thank you so much for stopping by, always nice to hear from you!

apu said...

Good review, Lotus. I was hoping to read this book myself, though I've never seen the movie. Given how angry Phoolan Devi was with the movie which she claimed never had her consent, it is sad that she could not see this more sympathetic book. While not condoning her crimes, as others have said, I think it is important to remember the horrific kind of society from which she emerged. And of course, post release, she had her own agenda in politics - just like everyone else!

Nana Fredua-Agyeman said...

@Lotus Read... thanks. I would check them out.