Shocking pink

Nisha Susan

India, Nov. 16 -- Sampat Pal: Warrior In A Pink Sari

As told to Anne Berthold Zubaan

Rs. 325 pp 207

This memoir's bookjacket is likely to do more harm to Sampat Pal's mission than her appearance in Bigg Boss. If you do ignore the pink blur, what lies within is thrilling, more akin to a VI Warshawski novel than any autobiography you've ever read. Only, the detective-vigilante is based in Bundelkhand, cracks cases of corrupt ration shops, terrifies lazy policemen and enforces the NREGA. Warrior in a Pink Sari is the English translation of Pal's memoir as told to French journalist Anne Berthold. The tight first-person narrative takes you all the way from Sampat Pal's childhood in a live-stock rearing family in rural Uttar Pradesh to her marriage at 12, to her transformation into a 40-something powerhouse who leads a group of 20,000 pink-sari wearing women - The Gulabi Gang. While much has been made of the women wielding lathis against oppressors, Pal explains it as deterrence that's only occasionally used in self-defence. She is embarrassed by the occasional slap she remembers impulsively letting loose on a policeman or a zamindar. Instead, she focusses on the smart ways in which the group has worked to improve the lives of women and poor rural communities: setting up small businesses, following up on government schemes, resolving village and family disputes, and deploying the eyes and ears of the gang to nab bad guys everywhere.

Pal does herself injustice when she calls herself a woman of action, not reflection. Sure, much of the drama in the book comes out of her fearlessness. Encountering a man who is looking to assassinate her, she invites him and his fellow goons home, offers them dinner and persuades them to leave her alone.

When the police subjects her to a smear campaign, she gets journalists to witness her making an offering at the temple and praying aloud for the mental health of the DGP. When she gets fed up with commuting, she moves in with her male colleague in another town, flouting any gossip. But the actions she undertakes (including the adoption of the gang's name and uniform, her critique of micro-credit schemes or the peace in her marriage) come out of years of strategising. What Pal thinks of the moral fibre of her husband or men as a vast lump varies from page to page in an abundance of truisms. It would have been annoying in a less gripping book. Here it remains an odd rhetorical tic.

Nisha Susan is a journalist; she led the Pink Chaddi Campaign

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.