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 behalf...you 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.