Thursday, October 1, 2020

Review: Phoolan Devi, Rebel Queen by Claire Fauvel

When most societies are already firmly patriarchal, how much harder is it to be a woman when you are also of a low caste and from a poor family within that caste to boot? Would you fight back against the injustices meted out to you? Would you stand up for other women and children mistreated, raped, and abused as you were? Would you become the powerful woman whose name was whispered, then lauded, then shouted? Phoolan Devi was one such woman. Claire Fauvel has essentially adapted Devi's dictated autobiography (Devi was illiterate) in her graphic biography of the famous, late dacoit (an armed robber).

Phoolan Devi was a child who spoke out against injustice, even when that injustice was perpetrated by her own extended family. But a girl child doesn't have a lot of power and so she was punished, married off at the age of 11 to a much older man who raped her, spat upon and reviled for fleeing her abusive husband. When, as a young woman, she finally escapes her village in the company of dacoits, she changes her own life, earning power and respect from the other outlaws, and enabling her to take revenge on the rich and powerful who abused and destroyed the women and children in their lives. She became a courageous and avenging symbol of justice to many, eventually being elected to the Indian Parliament before being assassinated by extremists in 2001.

Fauvel illustrates the story of Phoolan Devi's life in earth tones and dark colors, reflecting both the despair of what she endured and the land she spent so much time living and hiding in. She doesn't shy away from graphic depictions of the rape and abuse that Devi endured and she depicts the extremes of emotion very well even if the faces of her characters are sometimes rather oddly drawn. Fauvel has chosen to use Devi's own words in the story, wanting the simple but direct language of the woman herself but that means that she cannot fill in pieces of Devi's life that are covered less extensively or not at all in the autobiography, such as how she went from a regional rebel to a nationally well known dacoit who inspired fear in others, or the years she spent serving in government. The rape by her husband is brutal and several pages long, as it should be as a (the?) major catalyst for her life's decisions, but it is also hard to read and view. The story here is a pretty fascinating one. I had never heard of Phoolan Devi before but I wish her life had been a little further fleshed out so that I had a better sense of her as a real person rather than a character.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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