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Phoolan's pen pal


Outlaw By Roy Moxham Random House 214 pages, Rs 599

Nearly a decade after her murder, the riddle of Phoolan Devi endures. Was India's most famous outlaw really the Robin Hood that she was made out to be? The conflicting versions of the tribulations of her early life, which apparently drove her into banditry, also make an independent assessment difficult.

But India's Bonnie Parker, born into a lower caste community of boatmen, exploited by the upper castes and raped by fellow bandits, was a feisty, brave and charismatic woman who struck terror in the hearts of her adversaries. The story of her rise in the ravines, surrender, prison life, and a short-lived, thriving career in politics, is the stuff of legend, and truly deserves a good telling.

Unfortunately, Roy Moxham, an English conservator, fails on all counts. In 1992, he writes a letter to Phoolan, who is languishing in an Indian prison. She replies and more letters are exchanged. Her replies contain the insecurities of a wronged, hounded woman who is disbelieving of her protectors and her family, and worries about her failing health. More letters and some months later, Moxham travels to India to meet his pen pal. They forge an unlikely friendship, and Moxham, by his own admission, becomes her confidant of sorts.

What promises to be a riveting insight into Phoolan soon becomes a plodding memoir about her eventful coming out - her surrender, stormy marriage, and her tryst with the treacherous world of caste politics before she is killed, allegedly by a vengeful caste rival.

Moxham meets with Phoolan's lawyer, an accomplished Delhi lawyer, and tells us how he becomes an intermediary between the bandit and her lawyer. (Nowhere is it explained why Phoolan was writing letters about her problems to an unknown Englishman in faraway London, and not directly to her lawyer in Delhi. Had she stopped believing in Indians?) Moxham also advises her on everything, from curing her ulcer to her marriage plans, lobbies British film authorities to stop the release of the controversial film Bandit Queen (without success) and sends her money.

Moxham writes that he wondered why Phoolan "needed to use me as an intermediary, but, nevertheless, [I] was pleased to see she valued my judgement and trusted me to act for her". So he meets people like Mala Sen (writer of a book on Phoolan), attends the lavish wedding of Mulayam Singh Yadav's son after Phoolan is elected on Yadav's party ticket.

In the end, Moxham's labour of love becomes a trite diary of an Englishman in awe of an Indian bandit. We are treated to inanities - like the time he wrote to Phoolan saying he had a girlfriend and not a wife, and wondered what she would think of it. "My giving the impression that I had a regular girlfriend was playing with the truth. Although over the years I had a variety of girlfriends, I had no intention of adding Phoolan to the list. I thought this white lie would be the best way to allay any idea that Phoolan might have that my interest in her was other than platonic. " Phew.

Later, in a tabloid moment, he makes it patronisingly clear that he has no sexual interest in his friend, though there is no evidence that Phoolan was attracted to him. One morning, writes Moxham, "Phoolan took out a bottle of scent and rubbed some into my arms and neck. It took me aback. I hoped that it was a normal Indian politeness and did not signify anything more intimate. I was determined to make it plain that I had only a brotherly, or perhaps avuncular, interest in her welfare. " And some of Moxham's Professor Higgins-like efforts to "civilise" his good friend make you cringe - "I taught her how to butter toast", he writes.

Bloomers and wayward observations sink the dull narrative further - the Janata Dal, Moxham writes, had its origins in "opposing the corruption and authoritarianism of the Congress government of Indira Gandhi", he is questioned about why he is loitering around in a Delhi neighbourhood - where Phoolan lived - by the "district's magistrate's security advisor", and he travels by Shatabdi Express, a "train used mostly by wealthy businessmen and their families". Clearly, the Bandit Queen didn't deserve such a sloppy epitaph.

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