The lady dacoit strikes again, though not as forcefully as in her Chambal days. It’s a tough act resurrecting a public figure of iconic proportions, doubly so if a dozen or so predecessors have already had their say in print and celluloid. But in the sweeping saga, The Ravines, author Dimitri Friedman succeeds in shaping the life, times and persona of the (in)famous dacoit queen Phoolan Devi, with a commendable degree of freshness.
There is not much that is unknown about the late Phoolan’s life, courtesy the fanfare in the media, and Friedman’s novel brings back the memories. Eleven-year-old Phoolan, belonging to the Mallah community, is married off to a much older man by her impoverished parents and scheming uncle. Within the first few weeks of her marriage she is ravished and brutalised by her husband. Rescued by a couple of well-meaning neighbours, Phoolan returns to her parents, only to be reclaimed by crippling poverty and social rejection. Wrongly accused of committing dacoity and robbery, Phoolan is arrested and then begins a fresh lot of atrocities at the hands of policemen. She is finally let out on bail — the bail amount borrowed from a neighbour by her penniless father — but comes home to find her entire family ostracised by her kinsmen.
On a strike by actual dacoits, Phoolan is abducted by their leader Babu Gujar, brutalised by him repeatedly till something in her snaps and with the help of her silent admirer, second-in-command Vikram Mallah, kills Gujar. Heading the gang of dacoits comprising both Thakur and Mallah men, Phoolan is the new dacoit queen and she goes about plundering one village after the other. High on her agenda is rage and revenge on all those who exploited her in the past.
Cutting across the years spent in the jungles, Phoolan’s very public surrender to the police and jail term makes for a disconcerting change of scenario and, after this point, the recounting of Phoolan’s story takes on an entirely journalistic tone. Her transformation from a hesitant speaker ill-at-ease before a crowd to a roaring orator and subsequently, the darling of the masses is deftly brought ou,t as is her foray into politics. The roles of novelist Mala Sen, filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, the Samajwadi Party and author-social activist Arundhati Roy in shaping the bigger picture of Phoolan’s fate are touched upon briefly.
The entire story is told in the flashback mode as an assassinated Phoolan lies bleeding to death on a street in Delhi. The acknowledgements page informs us that the author, a seasoned French journalist, had travelled extensively to speak to Phoolan’s family and subsequently, interview Phoolan. Which probably explains the unswerving empathy evident as the author charts Phoolan’s travels down unspeakably horrific trails. There have been many attempts to demystify the dacoit queen, many attempts to malign her, but this particular novel comes across as championing Phoolan all the way. There is, mercifully, no attempt to sensationalise/romanticise/titillate the reader, an easy temptation for any author given the nature of the novel’s subject. Friedman writes about the brutalities meted out to Phoolan with impersonal brevity even as the story surges forward, refusing to dwell on sordid details of the heinous acts. Phoolan’s intensely private conversations with the goddess Kali are new and interesting and her endurance levels, enabled by her faith, gives an entirely new meaning to the word ‘spirituality’. Which makes one wonder if, like Joan of Arc, Phoolan was also guided by the inner voices of schizophrenia? The presence of mind-reading seers (three in number) is the only fanciful digression that the author allows himself; Phoolan’s philosophical outpourings to her dog and wise doggy replies provide the only spot of humour in this grim tale.
The media is very well portrayed as a hungry, desperate, greedy (for news) and paradoxically conscientious entity, and the part where a foreign journalist steps in to interview Phoolan and is entertained by her mastiff till the lady returns, could well be autobiographical. There is the initial trepidation on the part of the reader: will a firang gaze get a desi persona right? Will his sensibilities falter when talking about the intricacies of life in the rural belt; will the writer stumble into the usual snake-charmers-and-elephants trap of exotica while dealing with a rustic heroine? But no such thing happens in the case of Friedman. He writes in a calm, sparse hand shorn of unnecessary descriptions or atmospherics. An important story has to be told and with pressing urgency. A story of great injustice and greater courage. He delivers.