In 1992 I read in a British newspaper that Phoolan Devi was standing in a by-election for the Indian parliament. I had never heard of her before. She was doing this, the article said, to draw attention to her plight and that of the poor in India, particularly that of women. There was a description of her turbulent past and of her life as a bandit. She had surrendered under a deal where she would spend a maximum of eight years in jail, but this had not been honoured. The article said that, while in Gwalior jail, she had learnt to read and write.
Her plight struck a chord with me. That year, I had been to India for the first time. The poverty and the gap between rich and poor had shocked me. I had lived in Africa for several years but conditions in India seemed even worse. It was clear to me that the poor of India needed voices to plead their case. I also felt that Phoolan had been cruelly treated by fate. On an impulse, I wrote a letter to her- not a thing I’d ever done before, and am unlikely to do again. I wished her luck in the election and offering to give some help with her legal expenses. I’m not sure I even thought she would receive my letter, let alone reply.
Reply she did and we wrote many letters to each other over the next two years. Or rather, Phoolan dictated replies to letters that were read out to her. It turned out that she was completely illiterate and only capable of affixing her signature. She worried that she might be hung, and I reassured her that it could never happen; she vomited blood, and I sent her advice from my doctor brother.
By coincidence Phoolan was released from jail the very same week that I arrived back in India. I went to see her in the fortified house in north Delhi that she had moved into. Armed policemen sent from Uttar Pradesh by Mulayam Singh protected the approach to the house. Inside, the Delhi police, under instructions from the Supreme Court, guarded her. Phoolan’s lawyer, Kamini Jaiswal, had telephoned to arrange my entry. Even so I was carefully interrogated and searched.
I had no great expectations for our meeting. One can feel sympathetic to someone who has had troubles, but they may well turn out to be not very nice. I imagined that I would just meet her the once and that would be that.
I was somewhat taken aback when Phoolan entered the room. I knew the stories of a fearsome bandit marching fifty kilometres a day though the Chambal ravines, carrying a heavy gun and ammunition. I had imagined a powerfully built woman. But the woman across the room buried beneath a heavy maroon shawl was incredibly small. Moreover, I was expecting someone who, given the terrible humiliations she had endured and the eleven years she had spent in jail, would be bitter. Having seen some photographs taken at her surrender, I was expecting a permanent scowl. Far from it – her face was wreathed in smiles. Despite the vast difference in our backgrounds, and that we had to rely on interpreters, Phoolan and I instantly struck up a rapport.
Later that first evening I made to return to my hotel. Phoolan was appalled. She urged me to stay and would only let me go after had I promised to move back into the house the following day. That I did, although with some trepidation as the only space for me to bed down was on the ground floor of the converted shop, behind plate-glass. It did not seem to be the ideal protection should there be trouble. Trouble such as the police officer in command, who showed me from where he would fire his machine-guns, was half expecting.
There was no trouble. Occasionally a large crowd of inquisitive sightseers would have to be peacefully dispersed. Over the next days, a constant stream of people came to visit Phoolan. Apart from politicians and journalists, there were numerous delegations from the poor of the surrounding states. Although Phoolan had been depicted as being involved in a caste war, it was noticeable that many who came to pay their respects were not Hindus, but were Muslims, Christians or Buddhists. In this, as in many other ways, Phoolan did not conform to the image created by the media.
I stayed with Phoolan every year until her assassination and would see many other myths evaporate.
Roy Moxham - Author of Outlaw: India’s Bandit Queen and Me
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This article originally appeared on the Random Reads website