Pursuing her first story on the dacoits of Chambal as a rookie reporter, Annie Zaidi spots a notice on a bus headed from Gwalior to small town Shivpuri, reading, “Please do not carry loaded guns in the bus.” This little inscription, normalising gun possession and validating the hypermasculinity of the Hindi hinterland, propels Zaidi’s narrative of dacoits and banditry, with unexpected detours along the ravines of class and gender. Dacoits, now largely absent from public consciousness, held significant sway over the cultural imagination of pre- and post-independence India, routing all the way into the 1980s, through mainstream cinema and other pop culture representations.

Zaidi traces her own interest in the subject to an overload of Hindi movies from a bygone era and to a family legend passed on through her grandmother about her great-grandfather, a Kotwal at Allahabad, and a dacoit called Sultana daaku. The introductory essay in Bantering With Bandits, an anthology of “true tales of India”, has reportage, drama, and legend. It has local flavour and tidy little lessons in history and just as soon as you allow yourself to sink into what is an engaging narrative, it hits you with census data, details of gun licenses, annual crime numbers, the region’s geographical oddities, and the pervasive shadow of caste that hangs over the stories of the bandits the author “banters” with. The rest of the book follows a similar schema.

Indian preoccupations

First published in 2010 by Westland as Known Turf, Annie Zaidi’s Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales of India has recently been published by Aleph Book Company in a new edition with an authorial note that contextualises and re-affirms the relevance of the book, 13 years after its first print. Structured in seven sections, the book covers a diverse range of subjects. From banditry, Zaidi turns to the Indian preoccupation with chai, the strangeness of train journeys, food scarcity in specific regions and within specific demographics, the often undocumented issue of starvation, the lack of state intervention where it matters most, Dalit politics and the rise of religious sects in Punjab, the many complexities of religious identity in radicalised times, and the everyday experience as well as the socio-cultural dynamics of gender in India.

The “truth” of Zaidi’s tales is attested by her use of statistics, whether from the National Family Health Surveys or archived news items, journals and reports or interviews with scholars and specialists. Drawing on several years of journalistic experience, the book creates a space where the personal and the political fuse to paint an often uncomfortable picture of socio-political reality. Zaidi’s tongue-in-cheek humour sometimes acts as a palliative for the harsh truths in her essays. Her epigraphs are a curious mix of Bollywood homage, pop culture, and Sufi wisdom.

The chapter on bandits, for instance, starts with “Gabbar Singh ye keh ke gaya/Jo dar gaya, vo mar gaya” from a 1991 Hindi thriller – almost two decades after the movie itself – attesting to how the antagonist, Gabbar Singh had percolated into the collective memory of India’s Bollywood-obsessed population as a figure of menace and evil. An entirely different tone is struck with Krishna Sobti’s lyrical mediations on the homeland in a chapter that goes on to detail caste schisms in Punjab. Her occasional playfulness coupled with frequent references to personal anecdotes makes these “tales” eminently relatable.

Two significant sections of the book deal with contentious questions of religion and identity. Zaidi writes about a perceived Sufi resurgence in Punjab which is then parsed as a reaction to an increasing social anxiety amongst the state’s Dalit population, a sort of pushback in the face of caste oppression and economic exploitation and exclusion. Tracing the history of Sufism, she writes of its emergence as a response to injustice and its subsequent engagement with property laws, taxes, and caste oppression.

The supposed revival, however, has not always been about social justice for all. In a fascinating study of “deras”, including the controversial Dera Sacha Sauda, Zaidi delves into the origins of various sects and the reasons they continue to flourish and explores how the large numbers that flock to these sects are pursuing not spiritualism but a life of dignity, outside of religious prejudice.

Turning to her own life, in an intensely personal set of two essays titled “What Do You Fear” and “Something that Passes for Honest”, Zaidi writes about her experience of growing up with a Muslim identity in an increasingly polarised India. Her family, she writes, “had a tenuous relationship with Islam like a now-on now-off affair between lovers who don’t see eye-to-eye and shy away from the prospect of a conventional lifelong commitment. We used a multi-pronged fork to stab at orthodoxy, which used a social sabre in turn, to stun us into conformity.”

Her secular, liberal values do not protect her from the miasma of Islamophobia that has grown exponentially in the past decade in this country. The question of religious identity segues into larger questions of home and belonginess, and the reader, as much as the author, will find it impossible to escape the political overtones of that insistent Indian question, “Where are you from?”

The status quo and breaking out of it

The extensive last section of the book comprises six essays that engage with varying concerns of gender. Epigraphed with another Bollywood lyric offering, “Phoolan Devi ko daraao, to jaanein”, Zaidi grabs the proverbial bull of patriarchy by its pointy horns when she identifies powerful women, who break away from the confines of caste and class to claim their own space, as the greatest threat to patriarchy. They must, therefore, be subdued for the status quo to reign and hegemonies to remain intact. One of the essays here details the horrors of female foeticide/infanticide and punctures the myth of it being a rural phenomenon. The criminalisation of sex-selection in India, projected as a solution, remained only partially successful owing to loopholes in the law.

Zaidi also looks at the alarming intersections between dowry demands and women’s education and the terrifying hold that concepts of honour and virginity have on public consciousness, leading to a stringent policing of women’s bodies, choices, and opportunities, both within and outside families. Mapping the top one per cent of young, educated, often well-to-do Indian women, Zaidi points to chilling statistics of the prevalence of domestic and other forms of violence. There is no safety for women, the book asserts insistently. Zaidi has a solution, though. Or something in the vicinity of a solution.

Taking the Black Noise campaign of 2006 as a starting point, she proposes the simple step of staring back – of standing ground and taking up space and confronting fear. She also avers that the next big wave of protest leading to change will not come from those who live cushioned lives: “We might ride the crest and it might be our heads dashing against the rocks, but we will not start it. The trigger will come from those who are driven to despair and stridency. And feminism.”

There is no homogeneity of content in this anthology. There are, however, common motifs running through it. Two obvious ones are train journeys and Hindi cinema. The railways are, after all, the great leveller, pushing diverse people into the same, not-insulated spaces. The author is witness to unsettling, prejudiced comments, invasive questions and breaches of privacy, but also finds moments of rarefied meaning and human connection like this one, when she finds herself in what at first seems to be a hostile space: “It was not a comfortable trip. My back hurt and my head spun. There was no question of visiting a loo. For all that, I was glad to be here rather than in the air-conditioned dabba. I had begun to lose touch with my own people; begun to be afraid of the ‘general’ class, and I needed to re-learn a few lessons about where I really came from.” This same connection with the country and its people is what Zaidi and scores of others, across generations, have found in cinema.

When Zaidi writes about Sholay (1975), Dushman (1957), Mashaal (1984), or Matrubhoomi (2003), she forges a connection not just with the reader but also with images and ideas that are likely to have affected them in similar ways. Her descriptions of life in small-town India are perhaps a little more romantic than realistic but the searing honesty of her prose is at its best when she is detailing her personal experiences, whether with the bandits of Chambal, or the impoverished weavers of Benares. Annie Zaidi writes social critique in her tales. Like the chai she writes about, these essays are a patient brew that grows in flavour with each seemingly simple ingredient that goes into it.

Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales of India, Annie Zaidi, Aleph Book Company.