What to say about Phoolan Devi? Or rather, about her autobiography, I, Phoolan Devi? My reaction is more to her history, her story, and the situation than it is to a thing crafted according to a particular style– than it is, in other words, to the book itself.
To say this is a tale of overcoming hardships would be a ridiculously insulting understatement; this is no grand quest for truth that ends with a beam of sunshine and chords of victorious soundtrack schmalz crashing over our heroine atop Maslow’s pyramid. This is, in large part, an act of setting the record straight on the part of a woman who makes plain in several places that, although she doesn’t consider herself or her acts (which included a lot of killing and violence, both in self-defense and in service of vengeance) “good,” also refuses to apologize for acting out against much of the horror that took place over a lifetime– years of suffering all too familiar to the victims of long-standing assumptions about certain classes and genders in some (many?) parts of the world.
Above all, the book brings to the fore the question of violence. Is there such a thing as a legitimized use of it? I’d like to call myself a pacifist– but have a hard time arguing with a voice who, acting both for herself and others like her, really does have no other way– not even the ability to read, write, or count up to double digits– to right an entire system of wrongs other than by physically striking back at those who maintain that system. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. had solid educations, had connections, had the knowledge that a global press and inter/national allies could be powerful forces in their missions of change. And if nothing else, both had voices within their own communities. So, I’m not excusing Phoolan Devi’s use of violence-as-remedy– but I also can’t condemn it merely by pointing to others who’ve led highly risky, hard-fought, but largely peace-based campaigns for justice.
If nothing else, this one’s going to stay with me for a good, long while. The book might help me think through some larger questions– but then again, the more likely prospect is that it’ll do a good deal to muddy already murky waters.