Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Phoolan Devi the Bandit Queen of India

Back from Heaven

Vikram was Phoolans mentor in the ways of the dacoits.   She learned how to use a rifle and started carrying one wherever she went.  She dressed in the khaki, pseudo-police uniform that the bandits favored, and for once in her life, her bold and fearless behavior was valued as Vikram showed her how to kill, steal, and kidnap for profit.  Traveling an 8,000 square-mile area of jungles, ravines, and sandy ridges, their gang raided upper-caste villages and looted trains and bus convoys. 

Statue of the goddess Durga
Statue of the goddess Durga

Phoolan, however, was not in it solely for the money.   She saw banditry as a way to correct social inequality by toppling the oppressors and redistributing their wealth.  Like a pair of later-day Robin Hoods, she and Vikram gave away much of their ill-gotten gains to the poor.  She was motivated by the spirit of the goddess Durga, and before and after every raid she would find a temple and pray to Durga for strength and success. 

Their life together was a romantic dream filled with adventure, derring-do and tender intimacy, not unlike the extravagant, popular, Indian films Phoolan came to love.   Vikram took her to her first movie, and she instantly became enraptured with the spectacle and splendoras well as the bombastof Bollywood cinema.  Vikram bought her a cassette recorder, and she cherished listening to the soundtracks from her favorite films. 

But like Bonnie and Clyde their run didnt last forever.  While the law finally ambushed the American bank-robber couple, Phoolan and Vikram were undone by one of their own.

Vikrams guru in crime was Sri Ram, an older bandit who had run with Babu Gujar until his arrest.   Vikram had spent time in prison with Sri Ram and was an eager pupil. Vikrams sentence was shorter than Sri Rams, so when he got out, he scraped together 80,000 rupees to bail out Sri and his brother Lala Ram.   After Sri was released, Vikram invited him to join his gang, telling his men that Sri would now be their leader.  But many of Vikrams bandits were leery of the change in administration.  Sri Ram was a high-caste thakur while most of them were from lower castes.  Suspicion and mistrust were inevitable, and Phoolan shared these feelings.  Though the gang stayed together, they split into two factions: Vikrams men and Sri Rams men.

Some time after Sri Rams return, Phoolan and Vikram were invited to a wedding in a remote village.   The poor frequently invited them to wedding ceremonies, and Phoolan would often give money to impoverished parents who did not have proper dowries. On this occasion, Phoolan, Vikram, and their men were preparing to hike to the village. At the last minute the Ram brothers and their men decided to join them.  They set off after dark, marching by torch light. 

Along the way they stopped at the edge of field where a man was selling melons.   As Vikram was taking his first bite of melon, Phoolan heard two gunshots nearby.  She looked to Vikram, but he had dropped his melon and had collapsed to the ground.  He had been shot twice in the back.  Phoolan suddenly realized that Sri Ram was not with the pack.  He had fallen back and was still in the field.  Though she didnt actually see it, Phoolan had no doubt that he was the one who had shot her lover.

She ran to Vikram.   There was blood bubbling out of his back, his clothes were burnt, and there was a stink of sulfur, Phoolan says in her autobiography.  But despite the severity of his wounds, Vikram never lost consciousness.  Phoolan tied a cloth around his torso to staunch the bleeding.  He was taken to a doctor who, after examining him, declared that it would be too risky to remove a bullet which had lodged next to his spine.  The doctor did what he could, but he doubted that Vikram would survive.  Rumors spread through the region that Vikram had already died, and for the moment police efforts to locate him were suspended. 

After a period of recovery, Vikram defied the doctors prognosis and was able to get out of bed and walk.   With Phoolan by his side, he slipped back into the jungle and returned to his gang.  Oddly, despite Phoolans firm but unproven belief that Sri Ram had fired the shots, Vikram would not sever ties with the old bandit because Sri Ram still owed Vikram money for bailing him out of prison.  Though weak and in pain, Vikram was now determined to get back to business.  He had a rubber stamp made that   proclaimed, PHOOLAN AND VIKRAM ARE BACK FROM HEAVEN, and he stamped it on the doors of the wealthy like a curse.

The gang picked up where it left off, raiding and looting through the Chambal River Valley, but tensions within the gang festered.  Phoolan slept very little, staying vigilant through the night with her rifle close at hand.  On a doctors advice, she and Vikram slept apart so that he could regain his strength.  Despite their love for one another, they felt that this sleeping arrangement would be safer since they could not be ambushed together.  But one night after an exhausting raid on a village, Vikram asked her to stay with him.  She didnt want to put him in jeopardy, but she desperately missed lying by his side, so she agreed to spend the night.  Gentle rains pelted the canvas of their tent and lulled the weary lovers to sleep.

Sometime later Phoolan was roused from a deep sleep by the deafening explosion of gunfire.   My head was spinning as though I had been drugged, she wrote of the incident.  She reached for her gun, but she was groggy and lethargic.  Vikram whispered to her, Phoolan.  Its him.  The bastard shot me...

She looked up and saw the shadowy figure of Sri Ram holding a gun.   Phoolan was confused and disoriented.  She smelled something that made her nauseous.  Then she realized what it was, chloroform, which the gang kept on hand for kidnappings.  She later learned that Sri Ram and his men had chloroformed Vikram and his contingent to prevent retaliation.

Sri Ram and two of his men picked her up and hauled her out of the tent.   She tried to fight back as best she could, but Sri Ram clubbed her with his rifle butt, knocking her to the ground.  She was stripped naked and tied up.  They carried her to the river and tossed her into a rowboat.  As the boat pushed off the shore, she could see Sri Rams face looming over her.

Why didnt you kill me, too? she asked

Oh, you can still be a great deal of use, he said with a smirk.

She could hear the oars cutting through the water and feel the rain on her body.   She tried to fight the effects of the chloroform, but she couldnt make sense of what was happening to her.  Where are they taking me? she wondered.  What is the red-eyed devil going to do to me?

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