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Bandit queen

Mala Sen would rather talk about the here and the now than go back to her years of youthful rebellion and her acclaimed book on Phoolan Devi

Mala Sen: `You see political corruption in everything.' — Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.

YOU WOULD expect someone who's written Phoolan Devi's biography to talk about it for a lifetime. More so if it's been made into a film (acclaimed and controversial) and even someone like Arundhati Roy, who damned the film as the Great Indian Rape Trick, had words of sarcasm-free praise for the "complex, intelligent, and human book". But not Mala Sen. You call her asking for an interview to talk about Phoolan and her biography, and she laughs: "But that was so long ago! I've written another book after that and I'm now working on yet another."

Past glories

Mala, in fact, has an endless treasure of past glories to draw from if she wants to. She has, after all, led a life of adventure not many can boast of. She chose a life away from the comfortable circumstances and followed writer Farukh Dhondy, the man she was in love with, to an uncertain future in England. It was the mid-Sixties, the years of the international political movement of the young people. She worked with Indian Workers' Association in Leicester and the Bengali Housing Action Group. She was part of the group that took over vacant council houses in East End in London and moved homeless, Bangaladeshi labourers into them. Writing about her book India's Bandit Queen, a reviewer says that Mala was "a bit of a bandit herself when fighting for workers..."

You draw her into talking about those years of spirited rebellion, and Mala simply says: "Yes, the multiculturalism of England has a long history of struggle... But I was only part of it. It's not as if I did anything on my own." She talks briefly about the years of "shocking racism" and anti-Vietnamese protests, the years when she went "in and out of prison cells". She took part in a protest march in Bombay too. "There was one particular slogan I really liked..." Mala takes a drag from her cigarette as she tries to ferret it out of her memory. "It was Hamara naam, tumhara naam, Vietnam, Vietnam. Isn't that a nice one?"

More recently, she has taken part in anti-Iraq war demonstrations. "You think anybody would be interested in Iraq if not for the oil?" she asks. And Blaire administration's part in it has been disastrous on "both moral and tactical" grounds, she says. "As someone said, it's his Waterloo." Back in the Labour-governed England, homeless is on the rise, even among the white population, she says. Discontentment and protests are bound to follow. "What else do you do when you have your back against the wall?"

Book on HIV

And that takes Mala to what's currently occupying her mind, her book on HIV-positive people. She talks of the huge demonstrations and protests in South Africa by victims and activists to free anti-retroviral drugs from American MNC patents. "They've worked. Today these drugs are more easily available." AIDS is an area of great global attention, but what led Mala to this area of research was a personal experience. She was visiting India for her second book on sati (Death by Fire) when she heard that her friend had been admitted to All India Medical Institute for abdominal cancer. She later learnt that he was also HIV-positive. He put her research work on hold and stayed with him for three-and-a-half months. That was when she was exposed to the "horror of prejudices" against HIV. It was in 1995, a time when most hospitals wouldn't admit HIV-positive people for even giving oxygen.

"Things may have improved since then, but there is a complete lack of seriously all way round. Tell me, which political party in India had health on its agenda, all the way from left to right, in the last election?" she asks. "And it won't do to just install condom-vending machines in red-light areas. A prostitute who insists on condoms won't get clients..."

She talks of pioneering works of people such as Ashok Rao of Freedom Foundation in Bangalore and Hema Bedi in Kadri in Andhra Pradesh in rehabilitating AIDS victims. It was to meet Dr. Rao that she was in Bangalore. "Journalists should be writing about them rather than about which celebrity ate what salad in which party!" she laughs. Mala's own book, like her earlier books, will tell personal, human tales of victims and activists. More so of people who are no longer simply victims but are facing life with a fighting spirit.

Question remain

Like the dacoit who decided to fight back rather than be a sitting duck, you ask, dragging her right back to Phoolan. But Arundhati Roy thought she fell victim to an opportunist filmmaker, didn't she? "Look, I think it was a landmark film in India for its subtle handling of violence against women." Mala met Phoolan after the controversy and tried to convince her that the film wouldn't harm her case. And when Arundhati Roy's name was mentioned, Phoolan had said: "Now, don't even take her name." Mala has a series of angry, rhetorical questions: where were all these people when Phoolan was a forgotten undertrial? Where were they when Mala and friends were fighting against her extradition to Uttar Pradesh? Now, does anyone want to know who her real killers were? Aren't people more interested in playing with words rather than knowing what pushes women ("some even graduates") to turn dacoits in the Chambal valley to this day?

"You can't push rape under the carpet just as you can't push AIDS figures under the carpet," she says, and goes right back to talk about how AIDS is being underplayed in India. "My friend's death certificate did not even mention that he had AIDS!" And the alarming rise in tuberculosis cases in India is linked to AIDS, since immunodeficiency often leads to lung-related problems.

Kachra on the track

"You see political corruption in everything!" You encounter it while checking through AIDS figures and while travelling by train. She was travelling by Udyan, and encountered Railway Minister Lalu Prasad's ingenious economy measure. "He has done away with dustbins and has ordered that holes be bored on the floor of the train to drop kachra on the track! So, all safaiwalas are out of work!"

But why are so many NRI writers so keen on writing about Indian conditions? People have had carping things to say about "India-centric NRI scholarship". Mala would rather not pay heed to such "cheap nationalism", a "BJPish attitude to culture". But shouldn't she also be writing about the country she has chosen to live in? Why not a book on the spirit of the Sixties and Seventies?

"Right now I want to give voice to those who can't tell their own tales," says Mala. "I don't have to do research to tell my story. It's all buried in my memory. That too will come, some day... I'm also getting old, you see."


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