I am a sucker for a good story, even if it is a little badly told. Which is why for the last week I have been gritting my teeth, but plowing through pages with terms such as “take lunch”, “catch him by the collar and beat him up”, and “hitting him left and right”. Even though the writing is mediocre, the real life stories of Roy Moxham’s Outlaw: India’s Bandit Queen and Me and Aabid Surti’s Sufi are so compelling that the pictures the stories draw in your head make the actual words tolerable.
The year is 1992 and Phoolan Devi is incarcerated in Gwalior jail. Moxham is a book and paper conservator living in the UK. He reads an article in The Independent about India’s bandit queen. Even though he had never heard of her before or taken any interest in India, Moxham finds himself writing a letter to her, offering her his support. He posts it to the Gwalior jail address. Less than a month later, he gets a reply from her. His letter reached her at a time when she had lost all hope, Phoolan Devi replies, and it gave her the will to live. And thus an unlikely friendship was cemented.
From then on, Moxham plans his holidays every year so he can come to India and meet Phoolan Devi. He advises her—as a friend—through her court cases, her release from jail and her new political career. He stays at her home, first in Delhi’s CR Park and later at her MPs’ quarters on Ashoka Road, sharing space with dozens of relatives and a Great Dane. And during these visits, Moxham witnesses a part of Phoolan Devi that we have never seen before. Though there is a lot he does not comprehend—limited as he is by his lack of understanding of the language or the culture— Moxham manages to subtly reveal how India’s famous bandit queen is rendered pliant by not just the politicians who want to make the most of her appeal, but also by her family who want their share of her new-found prosperity.
If Moxham’s book on Phoolan Devi is an incidental one (he claims he never set out to write the book, he only decided on that much after her death), Surti’s portrayal of Mumbai’s notorious smuggler Iqbal Rupani is a deliberate one. Surti, the creator of the comic character Bahadur, and Rupani, under whose wing Dawood Ibrahim cut his teeth, grew up in the narrow lanes of Dongri during what is called the “golden period of gold smuggling”. Through weekly meetings over two years, Rupani tells Surti the story of his life, of beginning his career while still a school student by stowing illicit liquor in his one-room house. Surti alternates between Rupani’s story and his own story (a tattered comic thrown by a soldier from a train is the start of his career) and the irony of how different their lives turned out despite the similarity of their circumstances is manifest.
What takes away from this story is its clumsy translation. The book was first written in Gujarati and then translated to Hindi and Marathi. The translator has merely changed the language word for word, without wasting time on sentence construction or metering. It’s a frustrating read.
But then you close your eyes and think of the early Ram Gopal Varma movies, the little bits of Dongri and the Bombay docks that you have seen and Rupani, Haji Mastan and Ibrahim come alive. Sufi is a story that says you can’t have it all, much like the book.