|She who avows herself the reincarnation of Durga, goddess
of strength and power, is the heartless bitch Phoolan Devi. Her beauty is
legend, and she is said to have had sex with the men she murdered. These
days her plump face is like a limerick but the eyes still flash the beauty
of an Indian love poem. This rebel leader, known as a dacoit, survived rape
and beatings, lived among rats for eleven years in prison and laid flowers
on the grave of her friend Mother Theresa. She has covered miles on foot
to worship at the temple of Durga, and keeps a picture of Jesus on her TV
set in New Delhi. During her several recent years in Parliament, the Goddess
of Flowers has made significant contributions to ease the plight of the
impoverished. She is a legend who vindicated herself and her people with
sex and charm, bravery and brutality. She is the Bandit Queen of India.
Keen intelligence and political shrewdness characterized her behavior as
a child where she lived on the banks of the sacred Yamuna River not far
from Behmai in Uttar Pradesh. Her town lacks the dignity of a dot on a map.
Gorha Ka Purwa is nothing more than mud huts and sacred cows surviving scarcity.
Phoolan Devi was born to a caste so low that it doesn't warrant a name. Women of this caste are gender failures at birth. Her caste mandates that women yield to the sexual demands of their masters and work in the fields for a meal and the equivalent of a few quarters a day. Women remain illiterate and hope to marry at fourteen and produce sons. Phoolan Devi asserted her flair for drama at age ten, by staging a sit-in with her twelve-year-old sister to reclaim family land from her cruel uncle. Her old and dull-witted father lost almost fifteen acres of land, his entire inheritance, to this brutal and heartless brother and his son Maiyadin. Phoolan Devi was vicious as she hurled witty insults in the village square. She bravely accused him of imaginative and compromising atrocities in front of his upper class cohorts. When Maiyadin arrived on the scene, her twelve-year-old sister stood by helpless as he beat Phoolan with a brick until she blacked out. Maiyadin wasn't done with his revenge. He arranged for a local pervert to marry Phoolan, and at eleven she was his property. He moved her over a thousand miles away from Gorha Ka Pruwa and her family. Phoolan Devi withstood beatings and perversions for a year when at the tender age of twelve she set off on foot to return to the support of her family. She finally reached home to the dismay of her parents who upheld tradition by rejecting her as a daughter disgraced without a husband. Her mother insisted she commit suicide. She suggested that the fabulously beautiful woman/child jump in the village well. She ignored her mother's solution and after a brief marriage of bigamy to a cousin, she became the village temptress, bathing naked in the sacred river.
Eight years later, she argued her fathers case in the Allahabad court and during the trial Phoolan exhibited finesse and charisma and a brilliant sense of timing worthy of a great actress. She relished the attention and no doubt polished her style by spending hours watching Indian films. One of the greatest film classics of India, "Cholay" glamorizes the dacoit. Filmed in the sixties, it broke all box office records and still sits on the shelves in video stores today. In 1996 Mohar Sing, a dacoit rebel leader, starred in a film after killing four hundred kinsmen. The movie the "Bandit Queen," released in the 1990's, won prizes but offended Phoolan Devi. She brought a gas can to the theater and threatened self-immolation in protest. Later she abandoned the gesture when only one reporter showed up to cover the story. Part of her outrage may have come from jealousy and competition since her autobiography was in the works.
Her vicious cousin Maiyadin had the last word, and in 1979 Phoolan Devi was arrested, charged with the burglary of Maiyadin's home. She spent a month is police custody with many of Maiyadin's friends and was so brutally raped, beaten and degraded that she began to reinvent her identity in order not to go insane. One month later, the nubile Phoolan Devi she was kidnapped by Babu Gujar, who threatened to cut off her nose and kill her younger brother.
Phoolan Devi was shapely and luscious, and Babu Gujar ravaged her for three days. Finally, a lieutenant in his gang, Deputy Vikram Mallah, shot Babu Gujar and took Phoolan Devi into his arms as he assumed leadership of the gang. Phoolan Devi's honor was restored and she became the subject of songs and the glamour goddess of her people. In Jora, the market town that is a hang out for dacoits, there are seven cinemas and the film industry has a profound influence on the behavior and attitudes of the people. It is really their only form of entertainment.
At this writing Phoolan Devi has a dog she describes as the incarnation of a significant personage, which one might assume to be Vikram Mallah. He taught her everything he knew about banditry. They had excellent intelligence. They had cash and jewels for bribes. As, they swept through the countryside, they sang, "Shall we kill you or let you go?" from a popular Indian film. Once a snake crawled onto her lap at a campsite, and she ordered the gang to put out the fire and flee. Shortly thereafter enemies arrived on the spot; her intuition had saved their lives. Phoolan Devi became increasing convinced that she was the reincarnation of Durga, and amazed everyone with her ability to interpret signs and omens and keep the gang safe. The lanky, tall, handsome Vikram Mallah made love to her with all his heart.
In August of 1980 following the festival of Sawan Dui and amidst the monsoon dampness Phoolan Devi read the mystical signal of a cow sitting on a tree stump at the edge of their campsites a warning sign. Who can explain why Vikram Mallah flatly refused to concede to Phoolan's pleas to leave the campsite? Back in the tent, their rifles had been removed and the firing started. Vikram was shot twice and died with his head in his beloved Phoolan's lap. Sri Ram and Lala Ram, the upper class assassins, could have shot Phoolan too but they decided torture was more to their liking. Phoolan Devi at the height of her beauty was mercilessly gagged, bound and kidnapped. Sri Ram and Lala Ram stole her spirit. They transported her by boat in the filthiest conditions. She arrived at Behmai where she was held captive in a dark stinking hut for three weeks. Each night she was raped by lines of men until she lost consciousness. Exactly twenty-three days later, the perpetrators dragged Phoolan, half-mad with delirium and her hair matted and clotted with dirt into the Village Square for public humiliation. Sri Lam demanded that she fetch water from the village well as the townspeople looked on. In a genius act of courage, Phoolan Devi refused. Lala Ram ripped the blanket off her naked body revealing bruises and cuts and kicked her. She limped naked to the village well and the crowd jeered at her and spat on her. That night the village priest rescued her and nursed her back to health as Sri Lam and Lala Ram escaped to the ravines.
One can only speculate what went on during the next seventeen months, but some feel it was a significant lull in the Bandit Queen's life. It would appear that she did a great deal of praying at this time and actually reinvented her life. She donned the jewelry of Sikh and studied Christianity and Buddhism along with her ever-deepening faith in the Hindu goddess Durga. The portrait of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, a writer of the Indian constitution who was the most prominent leader of the "untouchables" graces homes of the poor as an idol who catapulted out of his class restraints by converting to Buddhism. She reflected and healed, and developed a master strategy that would channel her rage and recapture her honor. Perhaps unwittingly, Phoolan Devi embarked on a curious path toward ego surrender and altruism that would bring her to legitimate power far exceeding the scope of any of her oppressors.
What happened next is history. Phoolan Devi led one of the three bloodiest massacres in the history of India. The St. Valentine's Day Massacre happened when Phoolan Devi was twenty-one years old, and although it was a cold winter evening, she wore only a brown blanket. A .315 Mauser hung on her small shoulder. She allegedly murdered twenty-two upper caste thakurs that night, avenging her rape and searching to kill her enemies, Sri Lam and Lala Ram. Rumor spread that for every man she killed she slept with two. Her sense of timing and drama made her irresistible charm helped her enlist the aid of police and some of the highest elected state officials. She eventually surrendered before the then Madhya Pradesh chief minister Arjun Singh in 1983. She spent nine years in the Gwalior jail although many members of her gang of higher caste got off with lenient sentences she was forced to serve an additional two years in Delhi's famous Tihar jail in 1992. She survived eleven years in jail without a trial. At age 36 she was released, having used up most of her childbearing years in jail. At age 38, her political career began under the tutelage of the UP Chief Minister and she was elected a Samajwadfi Party Member of Parliament. It must be noted that the Prime Minister of India himself, H.D.Deve Gowda is a member of a lower caste. Although Phoolan Devi enjoys parliamentary immunity from the remaining charges against her, lawyers are still surveying affidavits to the courts against her. With 130 warrants out against her, she is forced to move frequently to avoid arrest. In spite of a life lived in nearly constant fear and a health condition some believe to be cancer, Phoolan Devi has survived nearly half a decade so far in the urban jungle of Indian politics. The world of politics is subtle; insidious lies are committed against Phoolan Devi and she must don a gloved hand to retaliate. This isn't as dramatic or immediately gratifying as her former style of operation. But she adores the attention. Today she lives in New Delhi with her husband Umed Singh, a real estate entrepreneur she refers to as "the wife."
Editor's Note: Since the publication of this article, Phoolan Devi has died.