Author: Amana Fontanella-Khan
Publisher: Picador India
The year is 2010. The place is the hardscrabble Bundelkhand, located on the south-western frontier of Uttar Pradesh. Apart from being one of the poorest regions of the country, Bundelkhand is also home to some of the most notorious bandits of the country. It’s a place where hugely-built and shabbily-dressed men with rifles do not raise eyebrows. They are only a chapter in the story of the region’s lawlessness.
Amana Fontanella-Khan could not have found a better setting to raise the multiple issues of women’s oppression enforced through a culture of silence because of political expediency, or the many forms of resistance that challenge this unjust treatment. However, much to the relief of readers, Pink Sari Revolution: A tale of Women and Power in India is not a sad narrative of helplessness but an interlocking narrative of the joyous celebration of discovering the courage within.
The central plot of the book revolves around Sampat Pal’s, founder of Gulabi Gang (Pink Gang), efforts in freeing 17-year-old Sheelu Nishad from jail. Sheelu has been falsely implicated in a case of theft by a powerful Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) legislator Purushottam Dwivedi. But the book is about much more than just that.
Amana meticulously weaves the sub plots around the main plot and does a fantastic job in connecting them all and bringing to fore the power of grassroots activism. Pink Sari Revolution… picks up a case that Pal succeeded in taking to its logical conclusion and at the same time tells the story of how Sampat Pal rose and built a ‘gang’ which is now nothing less than a regional movement.
Pal, who was married at an age when she was still to understand the meaning of the word, fights societal pressures through tact and courage and goes on to lead a ‘gang’ that proudly claims to have over 20,000 members. She and her gang practise their own form of morality where beating up ‘errant’ police officers and abusive husbands is a just a form of ‘social service’.
The huge popularity and public praise do make Sampat some sort of narcissist which she reflects when she claims with an air of absolute defiance, ‘I am always right.’
Though Sampat never accepts, but the society she lives in and fights to change does force her to make compromises too. ‘It is ironic that the woman who has helped empower so many women across Bundelkhand was not able to protect her own daughters from the hell of child marriage,’ Amana writes. However, Sampat’s indomitable spirit refuses to be caged. ‘I have as many limbs as he does,’ Sampat says reasoning why she should deal with her problems on her and not involve her husband in them.
Pal and her gang members, most of whom faced both structural and physical violence because of being born as women, work within limited resources but unlimited enthusiasm and unbridled courage. They all share the courage to dream and Amana captures this beautifully while she presents the parallel challenge of dealing with a political class that deliberately resists change.
Without taking sides, the author deals with the challenges Pink Gang faces both from outside and from within its own ranks. Though it talks about the exceptional grit in possession of Sampat, the book also talks about the criticism about her.
The author takes care about mentioning the strategies involved by the Pink Gang in carrying out its ‘crusades’. The lack of funds and resources make the entire movement even more interesting as ‘gang members’ clad in pink sarees travel in buses, carts and trucks to the site of action carrying their own food. The tough conditions do not take the focus off the cause. They participate in singing the ‘gang songs’ taught to them by Sampat as they stage sit-ins and block roads.
The gangs techniques involve humiliation aimed at arousing the perpetrators’ conscience. Pink Gang, under Sampat’s leadership organises thoo-thoo (spit) campaigns and dog rallies to compel officials to perform their jobs and men to change their attitudes towards women. Once the Pink Gang gathered over a dozen dogs and marched them down the road when certain police officers refused to do their duty. The gang proclaimed that since the police were ‘corrupt and useless’ it will be better to let dogs do the job.
Not all of Sampat’s efforts provide desired results but they do achieve the larger goal of awakening women in Bundelkhand and giving them a sense of empowerment.