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For women, it is important that they find their tribe. And the women in this book do find their tribe and they are the stronger for it.
Trigger Warning: This deals with domestic violence and graphic violence against women, and may be triggering for survivors.
I am mostly accused of not reading enough books by Indian authors and it is one of the changes that I promised I would be making in my reading habit this year. So when I came across a news item saying this book had been longlisted for the Women’s Fiction of the Year award, I thought let’s bring on the change, one book at a time beginning with this one.
The setting is Kohra, a small, upwardly mobile village somewhere in Gujarat. Geeta, who has been abandoned by her husband five years prior to the events of the story, quietly exults in the freedom that the not so hushed rumours of her having done in her husband, bring to her life. She is free to do as she pleases, unencumbered by the demands of a male in the house. The women use her ill-repute to scare their errant kids into submission, and her business is looking up as no one can afford to not buy her wedding necklaces lest she curse them otherwise.
She mostly avoids company or companionship, but if she wants to avail the micro-finance the government is handing out, she has to come out of her self-imposed exile. It is time for her to understand that she is not as reviled as she believes, but rather revered as one who took off her proverbial nose ring. When other women start coming to her to do the same for them, what she did for herself, it leads to a story filled with dark humor, improbable turns of events and an exposure of the fault lines that make up a village, a microcosm of communities found in most places in India.
“Because we’re middle-aged housewives. Who’s more invisible than us? We can get away with murder. Literally.”
This debut from Parini Shroff is basically a book about women, and she deftly displays this through a host of problems that women in a small town or village can face. So we get to have glimpses of domestic abuse, casteism, sexual exploitation, male-dominance, acid throwing and even the Indian penchant for a son, even if it is from a mistress rather than the lawfully wedded wife. They could have easily bogged down the narrative, but strangely it comes together in a cohesive whole riding on the shoulders of the eclectic bunch of strong women the author has created.
Geetaben leads the pack of this fiesty group of women who plan the deaths of their no-good husbands while gleefully applying henna on their hands for an upcoming Karwa Chauth festival, the same festival where they fast for the long lives of their husbands. With her idol as Phoolan Devi, the one who took revenge on all the men who violated her, she is comfortable in her status as the churail who boils and eats little children for her enjoyment.
There is Kushi, the dom widow who has taken up the mantle of her dead husband burning the dead, and thinks nothing of cremating a muslim man when asked by a woman in distress.
There is Farah, the single tailor in the village of Kohra, who knows that once a man takes to hitting and hooch, there is no escape other than death. And thinks nothing of asking for help in delivering that much deserved death.
There is Saloni, who has spent much of her childhood in penury and her adult life trying to pay off an imagined debt, even when it drew a wedge between her and her best friend.
There is the lady Inspector Sinha trying her best to bring the murderer to justice in spite of police apathy and corruption, but primarily male entitlement.
The men make for a poor but true to life contrast, being given to exploiting and dominating their women, with instances of acid-throwing and even a couple of unsolved rape cases thrown in. They think nothing of isolating the women, hitting them, purloining their money and spending it on drinks, in the company of other men, indulging in vices and keeping each other’s secret. The don who can’t maintain peace between his wife and his mistress and decide upon a moniker for himself, provides comic relief. Only until he too takes to violence to prove his point, like other men.
Only Karem bhai, the Muslim who sells the liquor to the menfolk is shown to be someone with an iota of compassion towards Geeta. His complex situation are replete with difficult choices but his eagerness for some connection with Geeta, make him human and likable. But nothing trumps the dog Bandit Geeta saves from the clutches of the don, the one who would rather molest itself than act as a guard dog or attack an enemy.
The prose flows smoothly and some sentences make you take note. The less than desirable language of the women, with the continuous shower of swear words both in English and the vernacular, had me stopping in my tracks for a moment, but I have seen women give stiff competition to men in the swear department when riled. It would not be amiss to say the women have ample reasons to be riled with the lives they live.
I enjoyed this dark comedy much more than I had expected to. The situational comedy at the climax might be off putting to some, but the don who can’t make up his mind regarding the moniker BB, reminded me of the movie Andaz Apna Apna and Crime Master Goga. Of course, it soon veers into a proper masala movie ending with all the women rallying together with a not so subtle statement from the author for religious and caste unity. But as we know, for women, it is important that they find their tribe. And the women in this book do find their tribe and they are the stronger for it.
If you’d like to pick up The Bandit Queens written by Parini Shroff, use our affiliate links at Amazon India, and at Amazon US.
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Image source: book cover Amazon
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