The colour of empowerment

Amana Fontanella-Khan’s debut book about a 20,000-strong female vigilante force in India is a bracing reminder that grassroots collective action can change the status quo, writes Kavintha Rao

Members of the Gulabi, or pink gang make their presence known in a village in Uttar Pradesh, India. The Gulabi Gang is reported to have more than 20,000 members. Jonas Gratzer / LightRocket via Getty Images
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It’s not easy being an Indian these days. A string of brutal gang rapes has shaken the country to its core. There is deep rage, corrosive shame and much soul searching as a nation debates over why half the population still isn’t safe.

I can’t claim to know the fear that many Indian women feel because I am relatively privileged. These days, I can afford to take private transport most of the time (though I couldn’t always, and remember harrowing moments evading gropers on buses when I was younger). I live in urban Bangalore, which is safer than many places, and certainly a lot safer than being a lower caste village woman. But I, along with other privileged women such as the Mumbai photojournalist who was raped in August, know this illusion of safety can be shattered at any time. All it takes is one rogue taxi driver, delivery man or passer-by. And a corrupt, overworked policeman, who will most likely ignore my complaint or ask me what I was wearing.

This is why we need more stories like that told by the journalist Amana Fontanella-Khan in her debut book The Pink Sari Revolution. It is a bracing reminder to Indian women that homegrown feminism and collective action can work, even in the most patriarchal parts of the country. The book is about a gang of village women in the lawless Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest state. The 20,000-strong group is headed by its founder, Sampat Pal, a brash, larger-than-life village woman.

The group’s members dress in pink saris and are known as the Gulabi Gang (gulabi means pink).

They take on abusive relatives and corrupt police, and have attracted widespread attention by going after a powerful legislator who raped a young girl. Sometimes they attack their adversaries with lathis (sticks), but they often employ more peaceful means.

It is Sampat who propels the book along, and Fontanella-Khan excels at drawing a fascinating picture of her: loud, brassy, fearless and a bit of a know-it-all. For most Indian women, certainly most village women, how they live is often dictated by their mother-in-law, husband, extended family and the broader community. Choices are restricted by caste, gender and income, and defiance is often punished by violence and even death.

This is why Sampat’s defiance of the tyrannical dictates of village life is so remarkable. She lives away from her children and husband, sharing a single room with her male Gulabi Gang colleague Babuji, with whom she has a platonic relationship. She secretly sells grain from her house to buy a sewing machine and ends up earning more than her husband when they were still living together. She even defies strict caste rules by taking water from a lower caste person, making her “polluted”, then deliberately defiles the village well by drawing water from it. The villagers refuse to use the well while the “polluted” Sampat is using it. “The villagers got so troubled that they started pouring water at night,” she says gleefully.

Fontanella-Khan has a keen eye for a good anecdote, and there are many of those throughout the book. What also makes it an engrossing read is her perceptive, non-judgemental portrayal of village life and its myriad characters. In one priceless tale, Sampat is summoned by the prominent politician Sonia Gandhi to Delhi. “It is not good to beat the police,” tuts Ghandi reprovingly. “If that person does bad deeds, what is the problem if we beat him?” asks Sampat unabashedly. In another scene, the intrepid gang bully a bunch of condescending policemen into action by employing an old Indian habit: spitting all over the station premises.

Fontanella-Khan does not paint Sampat as a saint or a hero, but as fallible and human. She points out that Sampat’s three daughters were married off when they were 13, succumbing to social pressure, despite her strong disapproval of child marriage. Later, friction arises between Sampat and her beloved Babuji, when she gets involved in the murky world of politics and tries to advance her own son. (With typical outrageousness, her election symbol is the lathi.) The infighting between Sampat and the Gulabi Gang members is a telling reminder of how power corrupts even the most incorruptible. The close relationship between Sampat and Babuji is damaged when Sampat’s son Munna becomes a pradhan (local leader), which Babuji objects to because he thinks it will ruin Sampat’s uncorruptible image. “If we lead by example, there will be a social change. But this has not happened because Sampat’s own son is a pradhan,” says Babuji. “Now it’s hard to tackle these [injustices].”

If the book has a fault, it’s the structure. It skips back and forth between earlier events – from Sampat’s early married life, her conflict with her mother-in-law, the birth of her children, all of which happened before the gang was formed in 2006, and the rape of a young girl by a powerful politician in 2010, making for an often jumpy narrative. The bewildering cast of characters, often similarly named, may leave some readers feeling confused.

Fontanella-Khan is at her best when working as a reporter and digging up great stories; she falters when descriptive language is called for and is prone to writing purple prose. “Sampat’s eyes, usually virescent, are speckled with hints of gold and amber.” In another scene, she describes the Hindu festival of Holi, “... when febrile flirtation is endemic among the youth”.

These are minor quibbles though, in a very accomplished book, which delves deep into a very depressing reality – and yet manages to hold out hope for Indian women. As Sampat says, “What would be the use if everyone is scared? This is India. There have been so many battles here. You have to forget your life and not be scared.”

The book is particularly relevant for those of us who are tired of the lazy presumption – often seen in western media – that all Indian women are submissive, docile doormats who never go anywhere without male protectors. Yes, violence against women is growing – partly because more women are out in the workplace – and conditions are unsafe for many. But no, we are not all cowering at home, scared of our shadows. There are millions of us who travel, work, play, drive, laugh just like western women.

More recently, I have seen many Indian women fighting back, putting pictures of gropers up on social networks, filing criminal complaints even though police try to deter them, beating up molesters on buses where once they might have stayed silent. The first words out of the mouth of the Mumbai gang rape survivor were: “Rape is not the end of life. I want to get back to work as soon as I can.” Another Kolkata rape survivor, Suzette Jordan, took it even further: she revealed her real name, something very few Indian victims have done.

This isn’t to say rapes will stop – they won’t. But wresting back some power and dignity, however small, is a good start.

Kavintha Rao is a Bangalore-based journalist who regularly contributes to The National.