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Book review / Stabbing the serpent

I, Phoolan Devi by Phoolan Devi, Little, Brown, pounds 18.99
At the age of 11, Phoolan Devi was married to a husband three times her age. She particularly noticed, since it was the direction she saw him from, that he had hair in his nose. The day after their wedding, complaining that he lived alone with his father, the new husband took Phoolan back to his village in central India to help with the housework. Her parents sobbed with dismay, which was puzzling, but Phoolan, industrious like most young girls in Indian villages, went with a good grace.

Once in the new village, Phoolan's husband set about raping her. He "used his serpent" as the 11-year-old conceived it, "like a wooden stick to beat me inside." It happened more than once: on one occasion Phoolan escaped, only to be returned by her family to suffer the same fate again. Eventually she escaped for good, revisiting the scene of her humiliation some years later with a couple of friends. This time she had her own satisfaction. She "heard his bones cracking", she remembers. She "saw him spitting out his broken teeth." Then she had a go herself. "I flailed at the serpent that had made me so afraid. I stabbed him in the crotch... I jumped on his serpent and crushed it."

Phoolan Devi subsequently followed a career based almost entirely on revenge. Physically abused before marriage, sexually abused during it, abducted and gang-raped after it, she had cause enough. Taking up with, and eventually leading a gang of terrifying dacoits, she became one of the world's most notorious bandits. In India, where fearsome women are often accorded respect (witness Mrs Gandhi, or the goddess Kali) she became an object of fear and admiration - a feminist icon, a symbol of the caste struggle, or even a living god, depending on your inclination and needs. Ultimately she pressed public opinion too far. After the murder of 22 upper-caste men in one village, in retaliation for gang-raping her, she was forced eventually to surrender. Even then, she dictated the terms.

There have been many attempts to romanticise her life, by film-makers and now by Phoolan Devi herself. But the story's barbarity is hard to disguise. Phoolan herself is sadistically cruel, and so are her adversaries: the abusers, the police, the government, the prisons, the society that allowed it all to happen in the first place. "Dealing out justice", she claims, after one early, apprentice murder, gave her the feeling of "walking in early morning sunshine after the mists clear over the river", and such gush faux-oriental colour - presumably courtesy of her ghost-writers (she is illiterate) - is about the extent of her engagement with the ethics of what she did. "Agile like the dragonflies that skip across the surface of the water," is how this bloodthirsty bandit supposedly describes the people of her caste. One's response is, give us a break.

Her case is too serious for such stuff. Behind its pacey I-had-only-one- bullet-left narrative, a real tragedy lies, which is that India continues to offer the occasion for such supposed justice in the first place. The book's romantic vision of revenge is poisonous, and if the "Bandit Queen" really was the Indian Robin Hood, Robin Hood just wasn't the man we take him for. Redistributing dishonestly purloined land, curbing the excesses of oppressive upper castes, punishing rapists and other abusers: all these are functions that should be performed by the state, not by bandits with red bandannas and a hunger for blood.

Fortunately, however, Phoolan Devi did go to prison, from which she was released in 1994, after serving 11 years. Last month she chose, as many Indian celebrities, and at least one other surrendered bandit, have done before her, to stand for parliament. Triumphing over a threat that widows of her victims would be bussed in to denounce her, she was elected last month to serve as member for the constituency of Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh, the first confessed armed robber and serial murderer to sit in the Lok Sabha, they say, for many a year. Revenge in India, it seems, can indeed be sweet.