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NO ORDINARY FICTION

The Ravines: A Novel based on the life of Phoolan Devi By Dimitri Friedman, Rupa, Rs 395

The subtitle of the novel by Dimitri Friedman — A Novel based on the Life of Phoolan Devi, says it all. When one writes about a person who is already an icon, the task becomes tricky as well as difficult, because one also has to think about public sentiments. Transforming Devi’s life into fiction is certainly no easy task as she had her share of critics well as admirers.

Though she died young, Devi travelled a long way in her life — from battling poverty and caste atrocities to becoming the dreaded ‘bandit queen’ of the ravines. From the heights of notoriety she went on to become a member of parliament. Devi came into the limelight while protesting against the brutalities committed by the Thakurs which led to the infamous Behmai massacre. Devi met with a gory and violent end. All the details are documented in detail in the novel. But this is done in the garb of fiction to make the book more readable. Friedman, a journalist and former editor of the French edition of Foreign Policy, must have been fascinated by the life of this highly controversial bandit. The novel has also been published in French under the title Le dernier souffle de Phoolan Devi: reine des bandits. Friedman has certainly succeeded in writing the most readable narrative on her life. It is impossible for a reader to put the book down once she starts reading it. Friedman makes a dramatic beginning — he starts the narrative with Devi’s violent death. He immediately switches to her childhood days, recounting stories of deprivation, penury and child marriage. The way the plot unfolds makes the reader want to know more about Devi, who once made front page news. It is a work of reasonable length — Friedman divides the novel into four parts .

Some events and images brought up in the book haunt the reader’s imagination. For instance, Friedman narrates the story of Mustakim, the man who told a young Phoolan that she was destined to be a ‘queen’. The poor girl could hardly believe her ears. However, it sets the ball rolling for the readers who are acquainted with Devi’s trajectory. It is a clever manipulation on the part of the author to control the events, introducing characters and writing a narrative marked by an economy of expression. Certain images used by the author, such as a sketch of an old woman who describes herself as ‘ageless’, or the images of goddesses like Durga and Kali, are significant for understanding the novel as well as the mind of the protagonist.

There are innumerable characters in the novel. However, all of them pale in comparison to Devi. Surprisingly, there are very few dialogues, but this makes the narrative racy and discursive. There is no incident in the book worth remembering, because the writer does not go beyond the scenes or sketch characters that can make the reader wait and ponder. It is just a narrative of events that begins and ends by glossing over the characters, dialogues and the artistry of design. But the book, like its protagonist, cannot be ignored easily. Whether one loved or hated Phoolan Devi, feared or admired her, no one could have disregarded her. One can find faults with the characterization in the novel, but cannot give up reading it midway. The book creates a tension between the worlds of fact and fiction. It enthralls as well as informs the readers about a character that seems to have come straight out of the pages of a thriller. The Ravines is a well researched work and is definitely one of the most readable fictional accounts of Phoolan Devi’s life.