Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Phoolan Devi the Bandit Queen of India

The Neem Tree

Phoolan Devi's father Devidin
Phoolan Devi's father Devidin

Phoolan Devi was born in the village of Gorha Ka Purwa in Uttar Pradesh, the second child in a family of four sisters and a younger brother.  Her father, Devidin, worked as a sharecropper and was considered cursed for having had so many daughters.  Although they were very poor, Phoolans family was not the poorest in the village because her father owned about an acre of land and the huge Neem tree that grew on it. 

A Neem tree
A Neem tree

In her autobiography, I, Phoolan Devi, she recalls that the Neem trees trunk was so large, she and two of her sisters together could barely encircle it with their arms.  The valuable timber that could be derived from the tree was, in effect, the familys nest egg.  Phoolan came to love that tree for its beauty and majesty and would often rest under its shade.

Phoolan's cousin Mayadin
Phoolan's cousin Mayadin

Her father should have been richer, but his crafty older brother Bihari had seized his inheritance of 15 acres with the empty promise that he would care for Devidin and his family.   When Bihari died, his estate was left to his oldest son, Phoolans cousin Mayadin.  Though just a child at the time, Phoolan distrusted Mayadin.  He had the face of a lizard: a flat nose with big wide nostrils and lying eyes, she wrote.  After his fathers funeral, Mayadin went to his uncle Devidin and told him that he was now the elder of the family and would be accorded all the respect that position deserved.  But it wasnt long before Mayadin showed his true colors. 

While Phoolans parents were away for a night, Mayadin sent a crew of workers to cut down Devidins prized Neem tree and sell the wood, taking the proceeds for himself.   When Devidin returned to find his tree gone, he did not protest.  After living so many years under his brothers subjugation, he knew the futility of trying to fight back.  Phoolan was stunned and appalled by her fathers passivity.

In Indian society, a woman would never dare challenge a man, no matter how offensive his behavior, but Phoolan Devi was fearless, headstrong, and provocative.   Though only ten years old, she already had a reputation for promiscuity and was known to bathe naked in the river in broad daylight, unconcerned with who might be watching.  She confronted her cousin and demanded that he compensate her father for the Neem tree.  He tried to ignore her, but she taunted him in public, called him a thief, and staged a sit-in on his land with her older sister.  Mayadin finally lost his patience and struck the impertinent girl with a brick, knocking her out cold.

The beating did not silence her.   She continued to harangue Mayadin, demanding justice.  To get rid of the little nuisance, Mayadin arranged to have her married to a man named Putti Lal who lived several hundred miles away.  Putti Lal was in his thirties; Phoolan was eleven.  Her reputation for promiscuity was totally unfounded, and after she was married, she had no idea what was expected of a wife.  Fearing his snake, as she called his penis, she refused to have sex with him.  Since he already had another wife, he accepted Phoolans refusal and relegated her to household labor.  She was so miserable she ran away from her husbands house and walked home.  When she arrived in her village, her family was horrified.  A wife simply did not abandon her husband, they believed.  It was unheard of.  Phoolans mother, Moola, was so ashamed, she told her daughter to go to the well and jump in to kill herself.  Phoolan was so confused and distraught she contemplated it.

In time, Phoolan recovered her sense of self and rejected her familys condemnations.   She continued to challenge Mayadin, taking him to court for unlawfully holding land that should have been her fathers.  In court she seldom contained her emotions, and her dramatic outbursts often left the courtroom stunned.

In 1979 Mayadin accused Phoolan of stealing from his house.   She denied the accusation, but the police arrested her anyway.  While in custody, she was beaten and raped repeatedly, then left to rot in a rat-infested cell.  She knew that her cousin was behind this injustice.  The experience broke her body but ignited her hatred for men who routinely denigrated women.

In July of that year a gang of dacoits led by a notorious bandit leader named Babu Gujar set up camp outside Phoolans village.   The people of the village naturally feared for their lives and their property.  Babu Gujar was apparently told of Phoolan Devis stubborn impertinence because he sent her a letter in which he threatened to kidnap her or cut off her nose, a traditional punishment for women who got out of line. 

What happened next is the matter of some debate. Phoolan herself has given conflicting accounts of the event.   The dacoits took her from her village and brought her into the rugged ravines.  As Mary Anne Weaver writes in her article Indias Bandit Queen, Perhaps she had indeed been kidnapped.  Perhaps Mayadin had paid the dacoits to take her away.  Perhaps she was trying to protect her young brother, whom she adored.  Or perhaps she simply walked away... She was brought to Babu Gujar who brutalized her for seventy-two hours.  Gujars lieutenant, Vikram Mallah, could no longer stand the young girls torment, so he shot and killed the dacoit leader.

Tall and unusually thin with a pale complexion and long black hair, Vikram Mallah admired Phoolan since he first set eyes on her.   In her autobiography she recounts her feelings about her rescuer:  I felt strangehappy but still frightened.  A man had touched me softly, he had stroked my hair and touched my cheeks...  I felt I could trust him, something I had never felt about a stranger or a man before.   Gradually I stopped sobbing, and my tears dried.  If I stayed with him, perhaps I would be happy: no more beatings, no more pain, no more humiliation.

Bonnie & Clyde
Bonnie & Clyde

Vikram took over as leader of the gang, and he and Phoolan became lovers.   The killing of Babu Gujar was considered shocking because Vikram belonged to a lower caste than Gujar.  It wasnt long before Vikram and Phoolan were as notorious as Bonnie and Clyde.  According to Weaver, Phoolan was so enthralled with her new life with Vikram, she had a rubber stamp made that she used on all her letters.  It identified her as Phoolan Devi, dacoit beauty; beloved of Vikram Mallah, Emperor of Dacoits.

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