Read an excerpt from Parini Shroff’s novel “The Bandit Queens”, longlisted for the prestigious Women’s Prize for Fiction
The book “The Bandit Queens” by Parini Shroff is a razor-sharp debut of humor and heart that readers won’t soon forget.
Five years ago, Geeta lost her no-good husband. As in: She actually lost him-he walked out on her and she has no idea where he is. But in her remote village in India, rumor has it that Geeta killed him. And it’s a rumor that just won’t die. As it happens, being known as a “self-made” widow comes with some perks. No one messes with Geeta, harasses her, or tries to control (ahem, marry) her. It’s even been good for business: No one dares to not buy her jewelry.
Freedom must look good on Geeta, because now other women are asking for her “expertise,” making her an unwitting consultant for husband disposal. And not all of them are asking nicely. With Geeta’s dangerous reputation becoming a double-edged sword, she has to find a way to protect the life she’s built-but even the bestlaid plans of would-be widows tend to go awry. What happens next sets in motion a chain of events that will change everything, not just for Geeta but for all the women in the village.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
While Geeta regarded herself as a self-made woman, she was not, in fact, a self-made widow. Contrary to neighborhood chatter, she did not “remove her own nose ring” by killing Ramesh. She never had any desire to destroy him, just parts of him. The part that drowned himself in drink, the part that was quick to fury but slow to forgive, the part that blamed her for their childlessness, though it could’ve just as easily been him. But little was monochromatic in marriage and even in abuse, because there were other parts, too, parts she’d loved, parts that, when she wasn’t vigilant, still drew drops of unwilling tenderness from her.
But missing Ramesh now was more habit than compulsion; the memories she had felt like someone else’s—all soft focus and cinematic. Like when his parents first came to inspect her suitability, and he’d saved her skin by properly roasting a papadam for her. How, for the first year of their marriage, he’d slept with one hand on her shoulder, her hip, her stomach. The time he’d tried to teach her how to whistle with her fingers. The way he’d laughed, his eyes folding at the corners as she failed, spittle shining on her chin and hands.
But there were other things Ramesh had taught Geeta, too: how not to interrupt him, how not to oversalt his food, how to correctly apologize in the event she failed at the aforementioned (You’re right, I’m wrong, I’m sorry), how to be slapped and not cry out. How to feed them on half a typical budget because he’d siphon their money to Karem and still demand a proper dinner.
She no longer needed such lessons. In the time after Ramesh left, Geeta blamed first herself, then Karem. She associated him with the smell of her husband’s bootleg alcohol: sweet yet repulsive, cloying as it enveloped the bed, the house, her. She wondered whether Farah ever felt suffocated by the stench. Did she, too, learn to breathe through her mouth? There was that pesky urge again, the desire to share and listen, to compare survivor notes with Farah.
If she was this lonely, Geeta berated herself, she should get a damn dog.
Ramesh hadn’t possessed the decency to leave after a huge row; no, he absconded after a cloudless Tuesday evening—she didn’t interrupt him once, the undhiyu was not salty, he peppered her jawline with kisses before bed and she’d fallen asleep smiling. Like a goddamn idiot. His final blow: sneaking away and leaving only his debts and her dusty womb, so that everyone took turns whispering as to which terrible vice of hers had driven him away. That is, until Ramesh didn’t send for the rest of his belongings, or lay claim to their house. Even his elder brother, who lived in a bungalow a few cities away and took care of their parents, was unable to contact him. Then the whispers shifted toward foul play. Ramesh was clearly dead, there was no other explanation.
The police descended with their questions and unsubtle hints that they could be paid to focus on another case. Upon realizing Geeta had little to either her married or maiden name, they scampered away. The village, however, remained unconvinced of her clean chit, and gave her the wide berth bestowed to any social pariah. There were rumors she was a churel of old folklore: a witch roaming on reversed feet, targeting men for revenge, her twisted footprints ensuring they ran toward her rather than away.
To the village, she became a disease, her name a slur. She was, as the idiom went, “mixed with dirt.” To now say, with the acclimation five years afforded, that it had not been humiliating would be a lie. Once, early on, when she was still naïve enough to believe not everything had changed with Ramesh’s defection, she’d paid a visit to her favorite second aunt, a spinster. After Geeta knocked on the green door, its paint flaking to piebald, a shower of rotting potato peels, tomato offal and eggshells, among other wet waste, tumbled over her. Geeta looked up to see her Deepa-aunty, her wrinkles and loathing framed by the second-story window, holding an empty pail and instructing Geeta to leave and take her shame with her.
She complied, while the neighbors tittered, her hair matted with tea dregs. On the walk home, for courage, she thought of the Bandit Queen, and the stories Geeta had compiled of her life from the radio and newspapers, though the accounts often contradicted each other. Born in 1963 as simply Phoolan Mallah, a Dalit girl in a small village, she’d been eleven when she vehemently protested her cousin’s theft of her family’s land. The cousin beat her unconscious with a brick. In order to send her away and out of trouble, her parents married her to a thirty-three-year-old man. He’d beaten and raped her, but when she ran away, the village sent her right back to him and his abusive second wife. When she was sixteen, the same diabolical cousin arranged for her to be thrown in jail for the first (but not last) time. She spent three days being beaten and raped in jail at her cousin’s behest. Soon after, she ran to or was kidnapped by—accounts varied—a gang of armed robbers known as dacoits. If Phoolan could not only survive but escape and exact savage revenge on her tormentors, then surely Geeta could walk home while people stared at the rancid rinds hanging from her neck.
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