During a visit to Eiffel Tower, she had exclaimed, ‘O Mori Amma! Paris mein to sab ke sab amir hain.’
At a time when the when the verdict to the infamous massacre of Behmai (February 1981) will be pronounced—on Monday, 6 January—I am reminded of Phoolan Devi. Like all other journalists, I too had my share of encounters with some outstanding personalities. Interestingly, my rainbow of such relations has the Dalai Lama on one end and Phoolan Devi on the other.
My relations with Phoolan Devi started as a professional accident a few days after her release from Delhi’s Tihar Jail in 1994. I had just resigned from India Today and was relaxing at home when Shekhar Gupta called me from office to know if I would be interested in working for a day as the interpreter for a French publisher’s team which would negotiate with Phoolan Devi for publishing her autobiography. More than the money, meeting Phoolan was the bait for me.
As it turned out, both the publisher, M/S FIXOT, and Phoolan wanted me to continue with the project, which continued for more than two years. I was assigned to interview Phoolan and write the raw transcription in English for the French writers’ team in Paris. But much sooner than later I realised that the publisher had hired me more for handling the mercurial Phoolan. For Phoolan too, who had designated me as her “bade-bhaiya (elder brother)” from day-one, my presence was reassuring as she was sure that I would guard her interests in the game.
For me too, it turned out to be one of the most happening assignments of my professional life until then. The journey was punctuated with some of the most tense, hilarious, educative and challenging events that I’ve ever witnessed as a journalist over past half a century. My role concluded with my travels with Phoolan to Paris and then to Barcelona where the original French edition and, later, the Spanish edition were launched respectively.
The very first challenging incident in our project was Phoolan’s fight with the producers of the film Bandit Queen, which was ready for launch in cinemas across India. The film might not have generated more than some personal curiosity on the part of Phoolan had Arundhati Roy not walked into Phoolan’s house in my presence at Gulmohar Park one day to persuade her to block the film’s screening in an international festival in Canada as well as on public screens. Arundhati’s final argument, which clicked with Phoolan was that she could extract good money from the producers by blocking the film.
This was my first ever encounter with the persuasive powers of Arundhati Roy and Phoolan’s love for vitamin “M”. It was much later that we realised that Arundhati had some personal scores to settle with Chanel 4, the production company of the film, and with her estranged friend Farooq Dhondy. However, as expected, the episode ended up with the film producer Bobby Bedi coughing up a good lot of money.
Our journey towards the final release of the autobiography witnessed many other interesting events. But some of my most interesting memories and peeps into the mindscape of Phoolan relate to her Paris trip. The publisher wanted me to accompany her to Paris as he could not afford any surprises. My first glimpse of Phoolan’s influence and international popularity started at Chanakyapuri itself. After collecting our passports and Schengen visas from the German embassy I arrived at the gates of the Swedish embassy to submit our applications. We had plans to fly the next morning but it was already far beyond the closing time and the guard initially tried to dispose me of with the contempt that is signature of the embassies in the diplomatic enclave. But the moment I told him that it was Phoolan Devi’s visa application, he called up the visa officer who showed more enthusiasm and alacrity than the guard and instructed him to invite me inside. The visas were stamped within an hour.
But the real fun started in Paris where a shiny black six-door Mercedes limousine with a handsome young French chauffer showed up to welcome us. In the very first few minutes of our journey to the publisher’s office, Phoolan tried her hands on everything that was different from my Maruti-800 back in India. The most exciting object was the satellite phone. She persuaded the chauffer to connect her to Munni, her darling youngest sister in Delhi. For most of the time the two sisters discussed the limousine.
The next exciting episode of the serial was enacted the next day when Phoolan suddenly discovered a roadside fruit shop displaying muskmelons. Excited like a child she commanded the chauffer to stop the car and bring a muskmelon to her. By that time the car had moved too far to stop or return. As if her persuasion was not yet enough, she told him in chaste Hindi that she used to grow these melons in her field on the banks of the Yamuna at her village Gurh Ka Purwa in India. On my explanation the chauffer took a long detour to return to the stall. Phoolan jumped out like an eight-year-old girl and picked up a melon, admiring its size and colour. By the time a large crowd had gathered at the sight of our six-door limousine and was watching with amusement the unassuming occupant of the car holding up and admiring the melon.
The chauffer’s share of shock was not yet over. Perhaps for the first time ever in his career he was watching his guest squatting on the leather upholstery of his delicate limousine. She was chopping off pieces of the melon with his Swiss knife while drops of the juice were oozing out on the seat and the floor. With the speed of a commando he took out a nice looking towel from somewhere in the dashboard and spread it out in front of her to put it under the melon. But like an affectionate Indian housewife, Phoolan started resisting by saying, “Arey Bhaiya, iski zaroorat nahin hai. Hum kharbooza aise hi khaate hain apne des mein (Brother, I don’t need a towel. In India this is how we eat muskmelon, bare handed).” And then, to add to the young man’s confusion, she placed a piece of the melon in his hand and instructed him to eat it. The poor boy looked flabbergasted with no idea of how to handle the situation or the slice of melon.
The very next day Phoolan was on the front pages of the newspapers whose reporters and photographers had been chasing her the previous day on every floor of the Eiffel Tower. While most newspapers quoted her from her experience as a bandit or her newly published autobiography, one screaming headline read, “Phoolan can’t see poverty of Paris from Eiffel’s height”. It was the reporter’s pun on her amazement at the sight of the shining view of a well laid out Paris from the Eiffel Tower. She had exclaimed, “O Mori Amma! Paris mein to sab ke sab amir hain (Oh Mummy, everyone is rich in Paris).”
During one of these city tours, Phoolan was taken to Sacré-Coeur the Basillica of the Sacred Heart of Paris. It’s a beautiful white cathedral on a hilltop and is visible from many parts of the city. Inside the cathedral one of our hosts bought wax candles for Phoolan and all of us to light and offer on a stand near the altar. Dozens of candles, offered by other devotees were already presenting a beautiful and soothing image of a pyramid of flickering lights. While all of us found a vacant place for our respective candles, Phoolan had her sight at the pinnacle where a solitary candle stood lighted already. Quietly she raised her right hand, picked up the candle, threw it to the ground and planted her own candle in its place. It was a sight to behold, with dozens of eyes popping up in shock.
To me it was yet another reflection of a bandit leader who would never tolerate anyone occupying the centre of power in her presence. Perhaps that was the virtue for which she paid with her life and was removed from the arena where she could have become a threat to many others.
Vijay Kranti is a senior journalist and Chairman, Centre for Himalayan Asia Studies and Engagement (CHASE)