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What would the Bandit Queen do?

Cover of The Bandit Queens
A review of The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff

“Remove my nose ring.”  Geeta hasn’t heard that expression in a while, but she immediately knows what the woman before her is asking: make me a widow. Geeta has been an outcast in her small Gujarati village ever since her husband Ramesh mysteriously disappeared five years ago. While Geeta most certainly did not kill her husband, she does little to dispute the rumors that she’s a killer, since it keeps the villagers at arm’s length. Instead, she glories in her hard-won independence which suits her prickly nature. But when Farah comes to her to seek help offing her violent and drunken husband, it represents a line that Geeta doesn’t want to cross. Still, while she doesn’t entirely trust Farah—or anyone really—Samir really wouldn’t be missed… Like her hero, the real-life Bandit Queen Phoolan Devi who massacred the men who wronged her, Geeta longs to strike out against the oppression the women of her village endure, and frankly, the man has it coming. But does she really have it in her to commit murder? And will it just stop at one?

Parini Shroff’s debut The Bandit Queens is a mix of darkly humorous crime caper and barely contained screed of feminist rage. Geeta and her circle are a raucous mix of profane and capable women with razor-sharp wit, intent on getting better lives—often in spite of their husbands, who tend to be, at best, financial sponges, and at worst, violent sexual predators. But while they are united in taking out the worst of the men, there isn’t a lot to hold them together. Caste, religion, wealth, loyalties all threaten to splinter the women apart.  And, as many a crime reader knows, friendship and conspiracy to commit murder typically does not make for a happy ending. Still, Geeta discovers some help where she doesn’t expect it, especially in the form of her long-estranged friend Saloni and the ever-capable Dalit woman Khushi. She’ll need to draw on all their strengths when someone she least expects shows up on her doorway and turns some of her best qualities back against her. It all culminates in a strangely comic standoff where Geeta discovers she has to rethink everything she thought she knew if she’s to have any future at all.

Shroff has a sharp pen and she wields it liberally, particularly in capturing the absurdities of the masculine culture in Gujarat’s small villages, but also unsparingly revealing the terrible consequences it has on women and families. Shroff takes on the entrenchment of caste, poverty and corruption—even microloan programs from the urban elite—all in a headlong rush. Shroff’s prose occasionally falters—some odd word choices (minacious?) and uneven pacing mars the otherwise heady mix of staccato dialog and the Indian terms sprinkled throughout. Some could say that the men depicted are largely two-dimensional, but as this is satire, such characterizations are to be expected. There are scenes of domestic and sexual violence, as well as depictions of physical and emotional abuse; Shroff’s depictions are not gratuitous or explicit, but sensitive readers should be aware the scenes are essential to the plot. Readers of satire and dark humor should find a lot to like with The Bandit Queens; the issues it raises of gender inequalities could make it a good candidate for book groups. 

Jul 7, 2023