Vision Thing

Vision Things
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  • Bandit Queen
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  • Bandit Queen by Emily Prager

    "Child-care subsidy," the President said, and the next thing I knew the religious right hung Monica Lewinsky around his neck like an albatross and all talk of subsidy had vanished. I took it personally. I've got a four-year-old I support. I despise having to choose between being there for her and earning money to pay for her daycare so I can earn more money to pay exorbitant rent costs. In fact I earn enough to support a village in rural India for the next 10 years, but it's not enough to pay my bills and buy her shoes in Manhattan.

    But when I feel down, I think of those less lucky than I. Lori Berenson, the American woman in prison in Peru—I think of what she must have to eat when I have to skimp on groceries. And, I think of Phoolan Devi, Bandit Queen of India.(1)

    Phoolan Devi Phoolan, a girl born of low caste in a rural Indian village, began her childhood by sitting-in on a piece of land her upper caste cousin, Maiyadin, had stolen from her aged father. Maiyadin beat her senseless with a brick and had her wed, at age 11, to a wife-beater thousands of miles away from her village. The wife-beater raped her and beat her and, against all custom, she left him and walked all the way home.

    Her parents were shocked but she tended their remaining land and then, at the age of 20, she argued her father's case against her cousin Maiyadin in Allahabad High Court. I don't know if she won, but the next year, Maiyadin had her falsely arrested for robbing his home. She spent a month in police custody, was beaten and repeatedly raped until, by her own account, she was barely recognizable.

    Then she was kidnapped by dacoits, bandit rebels who hid out in ravines. For three days she was brutalized by the dacoit leader who was then shot dead by his deputy, Vikram Mallah, who had fallen in love with Phoolan. Together, they robbed and murdered the rich until one night, Mallah was murdered and she was kidnapped by two dacoits in revenge for the leader's murder. She was taken to a hut where she was tied up and repeatedly raped until she lost consciousness. A friend finally rescued her and she bounced back and formed her own gang and went back and massacred the men who had raped her.

    In 1983, offered what she thought was a good deal, she surrendered to authorities and they double-crossed her. She spent eleven years in prison. When she emerged in 1994, a movie was made about her exploits which she hated so much, she tried to immolate herself in front of the theater.

    As if this weren't enough for one life, a friendly minister had all the robbery cases pending against her dropped, and she ran for Parliament and won. Her platform was the rights of untouchables. But her enemies did not rest. They appealed in court in '97 and had the cases against her reinstated. And then she was on the run again. Unbelievable. The woman is a complete triumph of spirit over experience.

    So when I'm down, I think of Phoolan Devi. And I ask myself: Would Phoolan worry about distant dangers like TV violence or perverts in cyberspace? Would she feel shame if she couldn't afford to get her winter stuff out of cleaner storage before spring? And I feel stronger.

    (1) For still more on Phoolan follow these links, and don't miss Mary Anne Weaver's article in the Atlantic Monthly archives

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