Phoolan Devi Review

By | Tuesday, November 10, 2020 Leave a Comment
Phoolan Devi Rebel Queen
You know how a young Bruce Wayne witnessed his parents' murder and then spent the rest of his life avenging their deaths? Well, what if Bruce was a girl? And it wasn't her parents' murder but her own rape that she was avenging? And what if she were real? That was Phoolan Devi.

Claire Fauvel's Phoolan Devi, Rebel Queen tells the more-or-less true story of Devi's life and how, after being raped repeatedly begining at age 11, she took up with a gang of bandits and waged a war on the patriarchial system (and, to a lesser degree, the caste system) in India that failed her over and over again. I say "more-or-less true" because Fauvel openly admits to using Devi's own autobiography as pretty much her only source, favoring Devi's empassioned sincerity over possible mis-recollections or exaggerations. Fauvel notes, "Above all else, Phoolan was a little girl endowed with an innate sense of justice who wouldn't accept to be humiliated and exploited in the name of tradition." And that's what this story is.

Everyone who reads this should be horrified. Not by Devi's actions -- those are completely understandable -- but for the atrocities regularly committed against her, and for the myriad of systematic means that virtually every person she comes in contact with encourages those atrocities. Not just her greedy uncle, not just the elders of her village, not just the police... even her own parents sell her out. Repeatedly. The only people who really seem to have her back are actual outlaws she joins, and even then, only a handful of them. That this kind of abuse was so pervasive well into the 1980s when much of this story takes place is awful/disgusting/despicable/horrible. It really does seem like anyone trying to go against the crushing tides of tradition would have to be super-human.

I don't know how closely Fauvel follows Devi's own words, but the story presented here is incredibly engaging. The pages seemed to fly by as my sense of "what happens next" shot me from page to page throughout the entire book. I was particularly struck by her art style, with a seemingly sketchy style that still felt deliberate and controlled. It's not a style I would've pegged as working particularly well with an autobiography, but it ultimately worked very well. It's an ambitious work for Fauvel's second graphic novel, but you wouldn't guess at her relative inexperience for how well the narrative is handled.

The book came out back in April, and I think it didn't garner much attention at the time because of COVID. (I certainly missed hearing about it until just recently.) But it's an especially powerful story told in an expert manner and I'd be surprised if this doesn't win a bunch of awards. An excellent book, well worth picking up.

Let me close this with a few words from the story, which I think sum up both Devi's and Fauvel's passions, as well as being just a general message that should be sent around the world...
Because every day, little girls have abortions to avoid shame. Because some of them set themselves on fire or throw themselves into rivers or wells. When such a thing happens, I want the rapist to know: Phoolan Devi will punish you. And I will. I will smash in their groin with a lathi. I will destroy their serpent and anything that symbolizes their power. That will be my justice.
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