Phoolan Devi, 1983 (surrender)I have just written a post here which is mainly a review of Mala Sen’s biography of Phoolan Devi but which also discusses, and includes some links to several very good articles about, the film that was made “of the book” and which purported to be a True Story of Devi’s life.

The film makes a good deal about the fact that Devi was (probably) raped on (probably) more than one occasion and that this contributed to her (possible) “revenge killings” of 22 Thakur men. It is not suggested that these men were her actual rapists, but only that they were of the same caste as her actual (probable) rapists.

But there is more to Devi than rape and retribution, as both Sen’s book and the various articles I linked to make abundantly clear (by Arundhati Roy, Indira Jaisingh and Madhu Kishwar).

She was a young girl growing up poor because of an unforgivable wrong done to her father by his unrepentant elder brother. She was a young girl fired by the spirit of protest at this injustice. She was a young woman given in a bad marriage, with the gumption to escape and face (with the support of her family) the stigma of being separated from her husband. She was a woman who even then would not let rest the injustice her family had suffered. She was a woman who was punished for her protests and her refusal to give in. She was, on being reunited with the husband, a woman abused by his second wife. Escaping again, she found herself kidnapped by bandits.

She survived. She became one of them. She was good at it. She led her own gang, and made enough money to survive. She took her revenge where she could, but there is only limited evidence that she was actually a killer. Many times she suffered, in many different ways. In spite of all that, she was never a broken woman.

After the murder of 22 Thakur men (in which she may or may not have been involved) she and her fellow bandits became the object of a massive hunt, and even then she stayed on the run for two years and escaped capture many times. As a result, she was a woman in control of her destiny and she chose both to surrender and the terms on which she would agree to surrender.

Probably we will never know the Truth about Devi’s life, because there are too many reasons to doubt the accuracy of any one version.

(Even her “own” version as it appears in Sen’s book is based on notes that were written for her – she was unable to read or write – by people in prison who she did not entirely trust, knowing that many people would read those notes, in circumstances where the final disposal of all charges against her was still outstanding.)

But I wanted to write something more about her here, because her story matters and because the media version of her story is so deceptively shallow. Devi was not shallow. She was a woman who did what she did for complex reasons. It is easy to characterise her as a wicked criminal, or as a just avenger, or merely as an illiterate woman of no account. But such glib characterisations are wrong, even if in some respects and to some degree they may be accurate. Whatever else she was, she was a remarkable woman who had what it took to survive with integrity. For that, I admire her.