On Phoolan Devi

Phoolan Devi is a low-caste Indian woman heralded by the masses as an incarnation of the Goddess Durga. She rose from poverty, rape, abuse and degradation to infamy as an outlaw, avenging her honor, raiding the rich with her gang, and sharing the spoils with the poor. After 11 years in prison she was released on bail by the newly-elected low-caste government. Although she is illiterate, and 57 court cases of murder, robbery and kidnapping are still pending against her, Phoolan Devi currently holds a seat in Xi Lok Sabha, the Indian Parliament.

Without her permission, a film called The Bandit Queen, loosely following a biography by Mala Sen, has recently been released about her life. Phoolan has denounced it as an invasion of privacy (she was never consulted or even allowed to see the film before it was released) and a gross misrepresentation of her life that sexualizes and incriminates her, placing her at the controversial Behmai massacre of at least 20 men by her gang; the film was banned briefly because of its graphic scenes of rape and murder. Phoolan is afraid no one will know the difference between the movie and real life, and the film will be used against her; and judging from half the web sites about her, her fears are eerily well-founded. People present what they saw in the movie as if it were the real story about her, rather than the commercial venture and artistic interpretation that it is, and don't even credit the film. These sites are obvious, transposing many facts: saying, for example, that she was sold for a cow into marriage, and that she abandoned her husband: both are the other way around; more dangerously, saying she was without a doubt at Behmai, a beautiful mastermind of the bloodiest gang massacre in modern Indian history.

In I, Phoolan Devi: The Autobiography of India's Bandit Queen, Devi tells her own life; this has been my principal source of information. I don't want her to be condemned without trial on the Internet the way she was in India... it is my wish that her voice be heard through my brief synopsis of her story. I also want to convey some texture, to write about her simply because she is amazing; to see what face of the divine paradox she represents and examine the idea of avataras, or incarnations of the Goddess; and to share a poem about a dream I had of her.

Phoolan Devi was born in a small village called Ghura Ka Purwa, on the Yamuna river in Uttar Pradesh. She was born female, into poverty and low caste, a Shudra sub-caste of boatmen called mallahs. As a child she searched for the face of God to ask Him why her family had nothing, and others so much; why mallah children had to do chores for everyone in the village, hoping for a piece food in return. Mallahs were allowed to be beaten by thakurs, a ruling caste with wealth and land; Phoolan and her sisters were constantly beaten and insulted by her own uncle, Bihari, a mallah who denied her family their rightful inheritance of land. Her father was eternally pious, humble and submissive, seeking justice in the courts that never came. Her mother, on the other hand, was fierce in her own right: "'Stand up straight,' she always told me. 'Be proud of yourself. If somebody slaps you, slap them back... if someone beats you and you don't fight back, then I'll beat you.' And she always added,'Be fair; don't steal anyone's fruits or crops; be honest"(p. 145).

Wherever it came from, Phoolan's pride was firmly planted, and even as a child her sense of entitlement and justice extended beyond her own safety. Even as a young girl, she refused to submit to rules, systems, and humans that she could see were corrupt and unjust, even putting her life in danger. At no more than nine years old, for example, when she saw Mayadin, Bihari's son, leaving in the night with her family's tree, which was to be sold for her dowry, she leapt at his moving cart and grabbed the rope harness that ran through the nose of one of the bullocks, refusing to let go, no matter how much Mayadin whipped her from his seat.

At the age of eleven, she was married into rape and more abuse. Her husband abandoned her a few years later, sending her back to her village, where she was considered deviant, impure, and shameful, but was not openly shunned. She devised ways for the poor to make sure that they would be paid for their work; she made many enemies and got a reputation for using bad language, and being a troublemaker. "I was discovering piece by piece how my world was put together: the power of men, the power of priviledged castes, the power of might. I didn't think of what I was doing as rebellion; it was the only means I had of getting justice." (p. 144). One thing led to another- for standing up for herself, or for her family, Phoolan was always punished tenfold by the thakurs and village elders. Eventually the son of the Sarpanch (head of the village federation) came with a gang of men in the night to her house, and raped her in front of her parents. Seeking revenge, Phoolan broke again the code of silence regarding rape, and went to a thakur, a village chief from a neighboring village who had a dispute with the Sarpanch. The chief and his men went to the Sarpanch's house, but only the women were at home, so they drove them out, and beat them, and tore the sari off the Sarpanch's wife.

The same evening, a council was held to decide what to do about Phoolan. The verdict was marriage to an old man, a servant of the Sarpanch. She rejected, as she would all her life, the idea that anyone should decide her fate like that: she ran away.

The elders then went to the police, and charged her with being a dacoit, a bandit, and looting Mayadin's house. Phoolan didn't even know what the word meant! She was arrested, gang-raped and beaten by the police, but there was no evidence against her, and she was released. When she returned to her village, the people knew what had happened to her in jail, and her reputation was really ruined. The villagers treated her like a pariah, like less than a dog. The Sarpanch told her family they would have to pay eleven hundred rupees to draw water from the well, because she was so dirty she would contaminate the water for eveyone just by drinking it: "The rich only wanted one thing from us: they wanted us to be their obedient slaves. They had provoked my rebellion, and now they were turning me and my family into pariahs because of it, with no wheat, no work, not even any water... We were born to serve others. 'Why is it my destiny?' I argued. 'They're no different from us, they have the same blood in their veins...so why us?'" (p. 199). Phoolan and her family had to barricade themselves in the house; every day was a new humiliation. Again she was raped and beaten in front of her parents; when she complained to the police, they just laughed at her, and called her shameless for telling such a thing at all.

Then there came a change, a breaking point, which is worth looking at in some detail, particularly in relation to the question of avataras of the Goddess. What is this phenomenon? Is it "real," whatever that means? Does it come from inside or outside? Are they born or made, and how?

After working with her father one day, the man refused to pay them, saying it was Mayadin's orders. Phoolan had had enough. "I gripped my sickle and started to scream. 'You bastard dog, you're going to pay us... or I'll cut you to pieces!'" (p. 204). The next day she marched to the Sarpanch's house, and to Mayadin's, screaming that she had a rifle, that she was going to kill them. "From that moment on, I began to breathe again. I walked through the village without shame. I went to the river to bathe whenever I wanted. I had no more fear. I told my parents their daughter was dead. My father was alarmed. I told him not to worry, I wasn't going to drown myself." (p. 206)

Phoolan's autobiography offers very little in the way of interpretation- she doesn't explain herself and makes no excuses. What did it mean? The person they had known before, the poor mallah girl destined to be everyone's slave and thank them for it, was dead. She would not compromise her natural sense of right and wrong to fit the rules of her community, whose actions and mores had nothing to do with justice or ethics. To save her true self, Phoolan discarded her worldly identity.

When a thakur came to her house to rape her, as they often did, she whipped him with a tree branch. "I had changed. My whole being had been fired with rage and rebellion by the nerve of the thakurs, by their contempt for us." (p. 208) More came a week later, and she calmly asked them if they had wives, sisters or daughters. "'Would you like someone to do to them what you want to do to me? Get out! Go back to your wives! If you set foot in here again, I'll kill you!' They were amazed. 'You must be crazy to talk to us like that...' He told his friend, 'She must have someone behind her.'" (p. 209)

Did she? Phoolan didn't even have a rifle herself, yet her power was obvious, just from her own claiming of it. "Word had got around and everybody was afraid of me now. Nobody from the village bothered me and nobody came from other villages to demand vile things of me." (p. 209) If we had x-ray eyes, what would this turning point, this change, look like? What did Durga give, and how? Perhaps the power, the energy, even the identity of the gods and goddesses is in us all, and we need only to claim it as Phoolan has. If there is no such thing, what does this phenomenon mean? If you are inclined to call her strength "willpower" or "courage" or "integrity," and give no credit to invisible hands, what is the difference?

Phoolan's family thought she was mad. She couldn't relate to them- she no longer feared her mother, she stood up to her and would not be controlled in any way. She resented her father for bringing her into the world, and even her little brother and sister had begun to annoy her. Sometimes she would wake from a nightmare, run to Mayadin's house, and scream at him to come out and kill her, and she could kill him, and it would all be over. "They all thought the only reason I had the nerve to behave that way was that I was under someone's protection. I used to howl with laughter to see them cowering from me." (p. 210) Phoolan doesn't claim to understand where her fearlessness came from, doesn't say if, why, or how the Goddess was behind or inside her; she lets her story, and maybe Durga, speak for themselves.

Phoolan's "self" had undergone a vast transformation, at the very least. Do we change, or just become more fully what we have always been, growing from seeds inside? Are we actors in this world, or just vessels of a higher game, of lila? It is usually Shiva and his wife Parvati who are described throwing the dice that spin the world for their playful enjoyment; Durga is his wife too.

In the epics and other Hindu scriptures, avatars themselves are not always aware that they are the incarnation of a god. The action takes place on many planes of existence at the same time: sometimes a character may have a flash of insight into his or her true divine identity, a glimpse behind the veil of maya, and then return to the worldly way of understanding his or her identity; in a sense, both planes are real.

It is my instinct that the question of whether the gods and goddesses incarnate in human beings is not a yes-no question, as nothing really is; rather it is a matter of degree, a nonlinear question of how they manifest themselves and why; and beyond the literalness implied in the question of divine incarnation, this is an interesting metaphor for "ordinary" humans as well.

On the worldly stage, at any rate, Phoolan was afraid. She knew it was just a matter of time before the powers she was challenging would strike to keep her in line, to punish her and maintain their position. She went to the police and asked them to put her in lock-up, saying she was afraid of being kidnapped by thakurs. They laughed again, and said how happy they would be to have her in there. So Phoolan went home, and the same night they came for her, real dacoits this time, a gang of both mallahs and thakurs, sent by the Sarpanch to remove her from the village for good. She hid when she heard them coming; the bandits grabbed her little brother, and yelled that they would take him instead if she didn't come out, so she did. They kidnapped her and took her deep into the jungle, walking for days.

There were two factions in the gang of at least thirty men: the thakurs, led by Baboo Gujar Singh, and the mallahs, led by a man named Vickram. Baboo kept trying to touch her; again and again, Vickram defended her. "'Why are you trying to protect her?' asked one-eye. 'Why her? We've had so many other girls before. What is it about this one? You're on her side, is that it?'
'I told you not to touch her. She belongs to my community... If you touch her, I'll shoot you.'" (p. 222)

Eventually, it did come down to this. Phoolan goes with them on raids through villages, Baboo forcing her to watch him rape other women. Phoolan's position becomes a symbol of Baboo's authority over Vickram and his men, and by extension, of the authority of all thakurs. "'I'm not letting a girl of your caste get away, mallah. I'm keeping her. I can do whatever I like with her, and she's only good for one thing...'" (p. 234) Vickram tells Baboo to marry her if he wants her so much.

One night, the tensions within the gang came to a head when Baboo called Phoolan into his tent. "I heard Vickram's voice in the dark, telling me to do as Baboo said. 'Obey him. Go in there and lie down with him...'" (p. 237) Sobbing, she did as she was told. But as he was about to rape her, there was a sudden silence outside the tent:

I opened my eyes and saw Vickram and Bare Lal in the tent. Baboo was on top of me and he hadn't seen them. 'Where's my cigarette?' he growled.
Vickram was carrying his rifle. 'You miserable dog! Get up from her, or it's not a cigarette I'll give you but a bullet in the back of the head.'
The ogre scrabbled frantically to get up but his legs were twisted around mine. Vickram fired. (p. 238)

Baboo's men fled, and Vickram put a piece of paper in the pocket of the corpse that said he had been killed in the name of Phoolan Devi. It was the rule. Vickram and his followers adhered to a strict code of honor: "For Vickram's men, Baboo was more than just an embarrassment; he gave them a bad reputation, and bandits, I was beginning to learn, depended on goodwill. They needed people they could rely on for information and villagers willing to supply them with food." (p. 239-40) According to the code, Phoolan had to obey Vickram now, for killing in her name, even if it had been his own plan. "Vickram... was the first man who had ever been able to defend me. My father had only ever cried and begged impotently. Even if I was only the bait for their ambush, Vickram had avenged me! Even if I had to die, I thanked Durga and Kali and all the gods and goddesses for this one satisfaction." (p. 241)

News of Baboo's death spread rapidly, and Vickram was garlanded by villagers wherever they went; the villagers said he was courageous and fair, that he never mistreated women and gave money to the poor. Phoolan "exulted in a new and powerful emotion, the satisfaction of dealing out justice." (p. 242) She decided she would go and live with her older sister when she was free, help her take care of her children... she did not see herself an avatara yet, if she ever did.

In front of the men, Vickram asked Phoolan how she felt about him him; if she thought he was worthy of her. Such unfamiliar tenderness made her laugh, and then cry. "Vickram's uncle told me not to be afraid. 'If you don't like him, we'll work something out so you can stay here, but you won't have to live with him. Tell us.' I took a deep breath. 'Yes, I like him.'" (p. 246)

Vickram made the men vow loyalty to him as their leader, and to respect Phoolan as though she was their mother or sister. They performed rituals in the jungle to cement these vows; Vickram and Phoolan were married, exchanging garlands and him making the mark of teeka on her forehead. Because of the way she had been treated by men, it was a long time before the marriage was consummated; Vickram took her to his old village, and introduced her to his family as his wife. Their wedding was not at a temple, but Phoolan certainly paints a different picture of their relationship than the movie, portraying it as little more than a romantic sexual alliance.

The gang went to see an ash-covered sadhu, a holy man, that they had visited before. According to the dacoit code, one-third of their profits went to the gods. When Vickram prostrated himself, and told him the circumstances of Baboo's death, a devotee said the sadhu was pleased. "Then he opened his eyes that burned like coals in that white face and spoke to me. 'You have vanquished the demon, you are the incarnation of Kali the goddess herself!'" (p. 257) Phoolan prayed for a long time, thanking the gods.

The gang was near the village of the man who had molested her, beat her and kept her tied up in the cowshed when she was a child. They found him and beat him; Phoolan stabbed him where he had stabbed her. They led him naked and bleeding through the village, and left him close to death by the side of the road with a letter that said, Warning: this is what happens to old men who marry young girls! Judging from passages like the following, Phoolan was beginning to feel the identity the sadhu had seen.

As we left Maheshpur, I swore to myself I would do the same thing to all the bastards like him. I would crush them! Otherwise there was no justice for girls like me. The only thing to do with men like that was to crush their serpents, so that they could never use them again! That would be my justice! The jungle was going to be home, my village, and the men I marched with, my family. (p. 262)

Vickram trained her to be a dacoit, showed her how to use a rifle and scramble up the ravines. Phoolan marvelled at the fact that without laws and restrictions, these bandits behaved respectfully; whereas in the villages, with all their customs and duties, men so often acted like dogs. Through Vickram, she was learning the dacoit code, and the art of leading a gang. When they looted a village, they had to announce themselves through a megaphone: "'The rich are the real enemies of the poor! You've made life miserable for these poor people, now we are going to make you pay!...I am Vickram Mallah, and Phoolan Devi is with me!'" (p. 268)

The gang would travel at night; during the day, Vickram often read from a holy book. He told Phoolan to pick an emblem, and she chose Durga. "Like the goddess, I was driven by my hunger for justice, for revenge over demons. That was what gave me my strength. When the rich did bad things, our duty as dacoits was to make them pay." (p. 272) Phoolan made a conscious decision to represent this goddess. Some would argue that this fact alone shows that she is not a literal incarnation, that for a real avatar there is no choice involved. Again, I don't think it is so black-and-white. Phoolan's life had undoubtedly become a holy war, but whose rage had been unleashed? Durga's? Phoolan's? The peasants', the rape victims'? You may say, who is she to judge, to deal out punishment? But then, who is everyone else to keep quiet and do nothing? This too is judgement, action by default. Is passive resistance always an option?

For Vickram it was a caste war, and the rules were specific: "A mallah could loot a thakur if he was rich, and punish or kill him if he was a rapist. If the thakur was honorable, than the mallah would respect him. Vengeance could only be exacted on behalf of someone of your own community...he couldn't take revenge against someone of his family or his community." This way of thinking, in my opinion, enforces the very divisions between humans that have caused the problems in the first place, and does not take sexism into account at all; for Phoolan the code of honor meant she would never get the revenge she wanted on Mayadin, who was sending the police constantly now to beat her parents and steal their supplies. "It was to these rules, this unwritten code, that I owed my life. But I still couldn't accept it, couldn't abide by it, because I was a woman. I had no place in this hierarchy of caste. I was lower than all of them, and the demons I had to slay were more devious. Whatever caste they belonged to, they were all men." (p. 277) As a sorry substitute, the gang brought Phoolan the policeman who had overseen her torture in prison, under Mayadin's orders. She shot him and left a note owning the deed; the next day there was a price on her head. The bandits slept in a field, and in the morning woke to a stream of villagers, led by Phoolan's mother, bowing and praising her as a goddess, bringing her offerings and apologies. Phoolan was furious: they feared her now because she had killed the policeman, but when she was poor and helpless, they had only humiliated her. Was this fury based in ego, in her former identity? If Phoolan was born an avatara of Durga, the villagers' cruel behavior had actually targeted a goddess, it was even more reprehensible... mostly Phoolan expresses contempt, saying "They were afraid of power - any kind of power. That was the only thing they truly worshipped." (p. 288)

Mayadin came grovelling to her in a poor man's clothing, offering her fifty thousand rupees. Phoolan's father implored her to spare Mayadin, and insisted that he would only take five bighas of land, instead of the eighty his father had left him. She refused the money; she wanted to kill him, but another dacoit had taken her rifle. Vickram accepted the money, a betrayal she didn't forgive him for some time. Even now, she had to obey the rules of men. Her father implored her to calm down. "'Promise me to forgive, Phoolan. Ask the gods to help you. The gods know how to forgive. If you are the reincarnation of Durga, you must forgive...'" (p. 287) She gave in to him, but always regretted it afterwards. From this she learned, among other things, that there were still compromises to be made, that she was still subordinate to and dependent on Vickram, and that "there was nothing in this world that would give me peace." (p. 288)

Vickram used the money from Mayadin to bail out his old prison friend and dacoit guru, Shri Ram, and made him the leader. Shri Ram was a thakur, which didn't sit well with the men, and he made lewd comments and advances at Phoolan from the moment he met her. Vickram made him apologize the first time, but tensions continued to increase: when they went on raids, Shri Ram made a point of beating and insulting mallahs. The men began to rally behind Phoolan, instead of Vickram, or quit the gang altogether, seeing trouble ahead; meanwhile Shri Ram had gotten a dozen thakurs to join.

Vickram proposed that they settle accounts and split into two gangs. Shri Ram cried, appealing to his loyalty and honor, saying he should get rid of Phoolan; Vickram relented, and the next day Shri Ram shot a bullet just past Phoolan's head, claiming it was meant for a bird. The first time he shot Vickram, he was able to get to a doctor, thanks to the protection and money of the poor. The newspapers, however, were all saying Vickram was dead to discredit him and his supporters; the police even dressed up the corpse of a shepherd for the photograph, and then told Vickram's family they had cremated him. When Phoolan and Vickram returned from his recovery in Nepal, he had a rubber stamp made: "PHOOLAN AND VICKRAM ARE BACK FROM HEAVEN...He stamped it all over the doors of the rich like a curse." (p. 328)

They continued with the bandit life, waiting for an opportunity to get revenge on Shri Ram. A message came saying Shri Ram wanted to negotiate, and make peace; Phoolan didn't trust it, but Vickram agreed. They met, and talked for days. Vickram was having horrible premonitions, asking Phoolan what she would do if he died. That night Phoolan got up and woke Vickram's bodyguard. "'Vickram cried a lot today. Let's kill those two...[Shri Ram and Lala Ram]. 'No. You have to tell Vickram first. We can't do it alone.'" When Phoolan woke him up and asked him, he said it was against the code. "'Phoolan, they're asleep. I'm not going to kill somebody while they're asleep. And it's for me to do, not you.'" (p. 339) Ironically, this is just how Shri Ram killed Vickram, two nights later, and took Phoolan prisoner.

It is this dacoit code that give their actions nobility and righteousness; this separated them from common criminals, made them heroes, and gave credibility to the idea of Phoolan being an incarnation of Durga. Yet it was Vickram's code, not hers. Phoolan had her own rules, like the goddess; she would conform to only her own ethics.

Phoolan was beaten, tortured and raped constantly by Shri Ram and his men; She was led on a rope, naked, from village to village, displayed to thousands. Finally a poor man and an old Brahmin helped her and two others from the gang to escape, by tricking Shri Ram into thinking he wanted to rape her; for this he was doused in gasoline and burned alive, along with the rest of the village.

Phoolan's strength had just begun to return when they found themselves cornered by the police, and dying of thirst. But a snake spoke to her silently, as they had done since she was a child: Phoolan followed it to a hidden water source.

Return to Page 1