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Biography

Firebrand unveiled

MITA GHOSE

A sincere portrayal of the bandit queen's life, one that empathises with the subject.



Outlaw: India's Bandit Queen and Me; Roy Moxham; Rider; Rs.599

Inspired by a newspaper article about a young woman forced into banditry by her circumstances and now languishing in an Indian prison without the benefit of a trial, a London-based archive restorer wrote her “a letter of support”, offering help with her legal fees. A fortnight later, he received a reply in Hindi, dictated by the woman who was illiterate. He had the letter translated and wrote to her again. The thread of communication thus established would grow into an unlikely friendship between two individuals from disparate worlds.

Though Roy Moxham and Phoolan Devi had little in common, their rapport was instant when they met following her release from jail. Disarmed by her warmth, the diffident Englishman would end up as her guest on that particular occasion and on subsequent ones, sportingly adapting himself to her chaotic household of numerous and noisy family members.

Connections

The two would keep in touch through the years, with Moxham travelling back to India often to see his newfound friend and continuing to extend support as her “respected brother” and advisor until her assassination in New Delhi in 2001. Drawing on personal notes and correspondence, Outlaw: India's Bandit Queen and Me is an account of Moxham's evolving relationship with the bandit who had once ruled the ravines along the Chambal River, unleashing terror on neighbouring villages before her surrender to the authorities in 1983. Both admired as a “champion of the oppressed” and vilified as a mass murderer who had allegedly gone on a killing spree in Behmai, a village in Uttar Pradesh, to avenge, along with her gang rape and humiliation by upper-caste landowners, the murder of her bandit lover, Phoolan had become a legend of sorts, polarising opinion in India and abroad.

Lionised by the underprivileged who embraced her as one of their own and helped her rise in politics, celebrating her election as a Member of Parliament, the former brigand invited scepticism and righteous anger from the upper classes. Certain members of he media projected her as a shrewd manipulator and a nymphomaniac, the reason for Phoolan's lifelong distrust of journalists and writers, including Mala Sen, whose well-researched and remarkably impartial book, Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi, remains an invaluable reference for many, including Moxham himself.

While not in the same league as Sen's exhaustive account, Moxham's version offers an intimate portrait of Phoolan in close-up, etched with a sincerity and compassion that lend it an endearing appeal. Outlaw deals with the period prior to and following the former bandit's release, covering her changing political fortunes, the uncertainty of her fate at the law courts, her on-again-off-again relationship with Umed Singh, the man she would marry following her release, and her assassination, followed by its aftermath. Visiting India months after her death, Moxham would be appalled by the internecine “war” being waged by her family over Phoolan's assets, primarily, royalties earned from the many books based on her life and from the film she had condemned as misleading and exploitative — the controversial, Shekhar Kapoor-directed Bandit Queen that would bring her plight into international focus.

Trying to “unravel fact from fiction”, Moxham deftly summarises Phoolan's early years, proclaiming his subject to be “a historic figure” who deserves to have the record about her past set straight. Despite the interesting asides about his travels in India and his work as a conservator, the book's raison d'être is, undoubtedly, Phoolan herself, a woman, apparently, of many parts: the firebrand who could be both fatalistic and foolhardy, refusing to follow Moxham's advice to steer clear of politics, an arena that would inevitably draw the attention of her enemies; the “highly intelligent” and charismatic campaigner who won over crowds with ease; and the cheerful, domesticated peasant woman , who was generous to others while remaining Spartan in her habits and betrayed strong maternal instincts in spite of being denied motherhood, the result, apparently, of the sexual abuse she had suffered as a child bride and later, as a victim of abduction.

No answers

Given the cloud of conjecture that still obscures the truth about her life and her death, no account about Phoolan is likely to be conclusive. Predictably, Moxham too, fails to answer some of the questions that have intrigued us, including the crucial one concerning the bandit's direct involvement in the Behmai killings. The author cites the two survivors who had corroborated Phoolan's claim of being absent from the scene at the time. But there are others who hold her guilty. As for her own assassination in Delhi, the case remains unresolved even nine years later.“She has most certainly paid an exorbitant price,” Sen wrote in her book, unaware of how prophetic her statement would turn out to be a decade later. Sadly, Phoolan paid it in vain. For despite the best efforts of well-meaning individuals like Moxham, her record is unlikely to be ever set straight.

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