In her now-canonical essay “The Crane Wife”, CJ Hauser writes: “To keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work. She never sleeps. She plucks out all her feathers, one by one.” It is such tremendous writing that you hate it for its clarity of truth. The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff attempts to reimagine what carving out a life as a woman under the oppressive social regime of rural India could look like, and is a triumph in both its sensibility and handling of the story.

The setting is a nondescript village in Gujarat, where Geeta’s husband Ramesh abandoned her one ordinary Tuesday night five years ago, and she has been branded a “churel” ever since. The lack of a husband condemns her to the life of a social outcast: she is at once a boogeyman, a bringer of misfortune, and as we find out, a subject of some envy.

Geeta has found a way to sustain her fierce independence through her small jewellery-making operative of one. Part of a micro-loan collective that lends women money to support their small businesses, she pretends indifference to its other members, like Saloni, once Geeta’s closest friend – not just on the same team but “the same player” – but now estranged, who is the daughter-in-law of the village sarpanch.

Unusual business

One day, Farah, who is a member of this group and runs her own sewing business, lures Geeta into helping her “remove her nose ring” (kill her husband). There is a risk to her own life and business if she does not help, Geeta surmises, and the fact of his being a money-squandering, wife-beating alcoholic immensely helps the moral calculus. But bad husbands are a somewhat ubiquitous species, and Geeta suddenly finds herself faced with more demands for husband-killing. In demand though the services of a consultant murderer might be, it can be a consuming job: there are many loose ends to tie up, and the imperative to ensure that the door to return to normal everyday life never closes.

There are also other accomplices: Khushi, a Dom woman, from the sub-caste group tasked with handling dead bodies in Hindu society, who has found that the only way to survive this injustice of birth is to play the game her way, and twins Priya and Preity who parrot each other with ritualised ease.

The women together form a motley crew that you would want to be friends with – in a society where female joy is taboo, they create spaces to laugh, like cracking jokes about each other’s weight, and then gingerly retreating when they realise it has hit a tender spot. This is not a friendship necessarily based on always liking each other – at more than one point in the story, the women argue whether what they are doing to one another is blackmail or extortion – but more often a result of recognising that the fabric of female experience is taut with tragedies small and big, and one another is all they have to lean on.

Violence and violations

In the course of the story, Shroff deftly makes it clear that while these women are strong, make choices, and have a clear sense of right and wrong, the matrix of their choices is always determined by men. Recurring throughout the story is the motif of Phoolan Devi’s life, famed Indian dacoit and Geeta’s personal hero of sorts.

Married off at 11 to a man in his thirties, Phoolan Mallah was a Dalit girl who suffered violence and sexual abuse at the hands of man after man. But Phoolan was made extraordinary not by her tragedies, but by the spectacular revenge she rained upon all those who wronged her. Over the years, through massacre and plunder, Phoolan settled each score, eventually surrendering to the police on her own terms. On coming out of jail after 11 years, she served as a Member of Parliament until being assassinated at the age of 37. But unlike many creative representations of the storied figure in media, Geeta thinks of Phoolan as a woman, one whose choices were between “violence and violation.”

Shroff is a remarkable writer of character; even in her hardships, you see Geeta is her full humanity: her rejection of all desire, then its slow acceptance when she meets Karem, the willingness to abandon the knowledge of experience for the lure of a traditionally acceptable life, and eventually the shattering realisation of its shallowness.

The writing in The Bandit Queens is fast-paced, the to-and-fro of dialogues embodying the tone and rhythm typical of a Bollywood movie. This likeness is perhaps most clearly apparent in the climax – a letdown – where the scrawny pack of villains is almost comically incompetent, getting irritated at the women’s mocking and behaving childishly in a manner that behooves characters clearly meant to take the blow that makes heroes right before the curtains go down.

Shroff brings humour to macabre subjects and elicits laughter from her reader without making trivial either the circumstances that she is writing about or their inhabitants. To make a home out of womanhood in India is to push against the body, wearing it down bit by bit until it gives in to the contours of familiar expectations. This is why there is something refreshing about a story of female suffering that delivers happy endings for its protagonists, without adhering to conventions of what riding into the sunsets means.

The Bandit Queens, Parini Shroff, HarperCollins India.