If Quentin Tarantino were from a South Asian background, and a woman, and a feminist, and a novelist, he would probably have written something like The Bandit Queens.
The Bandit Queens: A Novel
The novel starts in a village in Gujarat, where a group of women are waiting for the loan officer to arrive and collect their payments. But one of them, Farah, is missing—and hence they are Rs.200 short. The group is fractured: little love is lost between Geeta and Saloni, who had been childhood friends, but whose lives have run different courses since then. Saloni has married an affluent man, and produced children, while Geeta, childless, was bullied by her husband, who has since disappeared. Farah’s inability to pay has to do with a drunk, abusive husband too, and Geeta, against her will, is forced to help her.
But it is an unusual kind of help. Geeta is the “churel” of the village: the woman who does not have children and is rumoured to have killed her husband, or made him disappear in some nefarious manner. Geeta has become used to this reputation, which comes with some advantages, such as not being pestered by village urchins or needing to haggle too much. Now Farah seeks her help to get rid of her husband.
When Geeta, after struggling to get out of it, suggests a method that works—after a couple of hilarious failures—she acquires a guilty conscience. Not so Farah, who is happy to be rid of her violent husband. Too much heart-wringing on the part of Geeta makes Farah send a pointed warning to her. This forces Geeta to confess to Saloni in order to solicit her help in dealing with Farah. It is then that she discovers that other women have abusive husbands, too, and would not mind getting rid of them. In order to keep from getting incriminated, she ends up becoming an accomplice to another murder. Then, even as the women oscillate between rancour, mistrust, and solidarity, Ramesh, the missing husband, returns to complicate matters.
Something needs to be done, and it is done, the details of which and how it unfolds need to be kept out of this review—for it is in the process, with the women’s interactions and their debating references to all kinds of violence in India, most of it aimed at women—that the novel gains its strength and interest. This explains its long-listing for the prestigious Women’s Prize for Fiction. It has twists and turns and neat little asides at men and society that keep the reader engaged.
The sustaining joke of the novel is what Geeta, the most nervous and unwilling of the conspirators, is told by Saloni when she asks how they can be sure of not being caught: “Because we’re middle-aged housewives. Who’s more invisible than us? We can get away with murder. Literally. Once you realize that, you’ll stop whimpering like an incontinent baby raccoon.”
The bandit queens, with their bickerings, come across as feisty women, and manage, finally, to achieve a happy ending. Or rather, an ending that is happy for them—not for the atrocious men in their lives, thankfully.
Interestingly, the idiom of this novel is colloquial and pithy, and, despite the occasional “something is black in the lentil”, also glaringly American. This, in a rural setting where no one speaks much English. Recourse to this kind of cosmopolitan register and Americanised idiom makes the novel pointed and funny at times, as when Geeta, faced with a second request to arrange a death, asks Saloni: “When did everyone in this village get so casual about murder?” And Saloni replies, “They do a million things worse than murder to us everyday all over the world, and no one blinks.” To which Geeta objects, “We’re not the gram panchayat that we can decide fates like this.”
But, almost as often, at least for an Indian reader, there is a jarring dissonance. Not just urban and metropolitan, but also American sensibilities seem to poke through the thin veneer of verisimilitude far too often, even in the language employed: “It’s sweet he’s so involved, though, right? He, like, cares.”
- The novel, set in rural Gujarat, centres on a group of women.
- The women’s interactions and their debating references to all kinds of violence in India, most of it aimed at women, give the novel its strength.
- However, there is a dissonance between social realities as experienced by Indians and the ways in which they are narrated here.
- The entire narrative seems to have been consciously coated with an American and metropolitan sensibility, which is likely to appeal to NYT-type readers.
Even the backgrounds given to the two main characters, Geeta and Saloni, do not mesh with their portraits as adults in the novel: “Saloni had grown up a severe brand of poor. Geeta’s family was ordinary poor: vegetables with rice or chapatis. In Saloni’s family, they rotated the days half of them wouldn’t eat, always favoring the boys. She was sent to school due to the state’s Midday Meal Scheme, which offered a free lunch.” There is a dissonance in such cases between social realities as experienced by Indians and the ways in which they are narrated, and sometimes the dissonances seep into the mentalscapes of the characters too.
Perhaps the two areas where this dissonance is most evident throughout the novel is the way the women, particularly Geeta, swear and the ways in which caste both appears and disappears. Having grown up with some access to rural speech in Bihar, and, later, Punjab and Haryana, I am aware that, despite what our sanskaris want to believe, some working women in India swear like sailors. Actually, many of our languages are liberally endowed with cuss-words. We seem to have a kind of national genius in swearing, and women can be just as good at it as men, especially in the villages. As such, when Saloni says “Quit fucking around” or Geeta says “Fuck you,” what one experiences is not shock but disappointment. I am sure the real Geeta out there in a village would have cussed far more imaginatively, and at length.
“The idiom of this novel is colloquial and pithy, and, despite the occasional “something is black in the lentil”, also glaringly American.”
Similarly, while the narrative builds on the history of the ‘Bandit Queen’, Phoolan Devi, and has regular references to caste oppression, it always tells the Phoolan Devi story without reference to its central caste-conflict moorings: the Phoolan Devi in the novel is essentially a woman, a Durga-figure, who avenged male injustices. This makes her a simpler figure. It makes an Indian village a flatter place.
All these and many other instances of dissonance are obviously not just slips or errors, as the entire narrative seems to have been consciously coated with an American and metropolitan sensibility, which is likely to appeal to NYT-type readers but will leave even sympathetic Indian readers like me divided equally between smiling and wincing. Of course, there is a kind of justification for such a broadened and accelerated narration, for, as the author notes in a three-page “Note” at the end, “The unfortunate status quo is that it is tough for women everywhere, and female friendships are what will carry us through the darkness and absurdity of life.” It is through this idiomatic coating that genuine problems faced by women in rural India are refracted, often with good effect, to “women everywhere”.
This is what reminds me of Tarantino, whose films take a generic element, such as gangsters in Pulp Fiction, and refract and exaggerate them into a different cosmopolitan idiom, which sometimes illuminates and mostly entertains, without totally erasing the problems. But if that was the conscious intention, then Parini Shroff simply did not do enough: she should have had her bandit queens kill many more husbands and with far more gore and far greater abandon. It would have improved the novel. As it is now, The Bandit Queens seems to hesitate between verisimilitude, which it cannot always sustain, and a Tarantino-type cosmopolitan and off-key idiomatic look at a foreign world.
Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who teaches in Denmark.