The Bandit Queens

by Parini Shroff

(Ballantine Books)


Geeta’s husband, Ramesh, disappeared. Rumor is she killed him. For five years, Geeta has survived on her own, making jewelry, tolerating being a feared outcast in her village. She does belong to one group of women, those who have microloans to support their small businesses. One of them is her estranged best friend, Saloni, a woman of importance in the village. Another is Farah, a pitiable loser in a terrible marriage. After Farah’s husband threatens Geeta, and Farah asks for Geeta’s help to get rid of him, Geeta has to decide if this predicament will lead her to live up to her reputation. And will their loan group become a micro-version of the legendary Bandit Queen Phoolan Devi?

AUTHORLINK:  How did you get the idea for this story?

“I wrote a short story where Farah asks for Geeta’s help in disposing of the latter’s husband.”

SHROFF: In 2013, while visiting my family in Gujarat, India, my father, my brother, and I drove to the village of Samadra, to attend a women’s meeting of the microloan group my father was involved in financing. The women’s stories of empowerment and financial agency were, of course, heartening. But I kept wondering what, in a rural area of a patriarchal country, could stop any of their husbands should they choose to exert their dominance.

With that question in mind, I wrote a short story where Farah asks for Geeta’s help in disposing of the latter’s husband.

AUTHORLINK:  How did it develop from there?

SHROFF: In 2020, I returned to the short story and a larger world unfolded. The cast of female characters grew wider, as did the dynamics between them. One realization that revealed the novel’s arc was that Saloni (previously a minor character) had a deep history with Geeta. That estrangement marked a second chance as well as opportunities for these characters’ redemption and growth.

AUTHORLINK:  Your book is filled with distinctive characters. Who are some of your favorites who might have taken on a life of their own?

“Saloni was a character who pushed her way to the forefront.”

SHROFF: Saloni was a character who pushed her way to the forefront. She’s irrepressible and a total badass. She’s confident but vulnerable, loyal but vain. Her platonic love story with Geeta and their reunion after years of estrangement was a treat to write.

AUTHORLINK:  When you started writing, did you know much about how it would end and how it would get there or did that develop as you wrote?

SHROFF:  I did not outline this work, so I’d say the latter. Twists and turns, motives, and shifting allegiances occurred as I wrote. After I was done, it was a matter of revising the whole manuscript with the end in mind.

AUTHORLINK:  How did humor fit into a story about abusive husbands and murder?

SHROFF: To be honest, I still cannot pinpoint the exact ‘how.’ The humor insisted its way in through irony and dialogue and, after a brief stint of editing, before I’d even written, I stopped resisting and let that tone reign. To my surprise, I found that rather than undercutting my point or minimizing these important, dark issues, the humor was highlighting the satire and urgency of these characters’ situations.

AUTHORLINK:  What did you do for research?

SHROFF: I’d previously extensively studied the Dalit rights movement for other projects, and that served me in writing this manuscript as well. While I’d known of Phoolan Devi for decades, I re-read various biographical sources while writing.

The village in the novel is a composite of many Gujarati villages and, since I wrote this during the pandemic and could not travel, I had to rely on my memory. Luckily, I’d just been to India in March 2020, but even then, smells and sights were escaping me. I remember watching YouTube videos taken on people’s mobiles and watching these brief clips was invaluable in inspiring details and memories.

AUTHORLINK:  What do you hope readers get from your novel besides enjoying a good story?

“I think when we share with each other, differences shrink…”

SHROFF: Caste is a dark, dangerously absurd construct that must be abolished. While that particular brand of discrimination is unique to India, the greater trend of segregation and labeling “the Other” is not. Many of the novel’s themes are purposely ubiquitous despite its specific sense of place: patriarchy, abuse, isolation, shame. I think when we share with each other, differences shrink and we’re able to accomplish great things, for ourselves and others.

AUTHORLINK:  What are you working on next?

SHROFF: Since I don’t outline, I’m not sure where my next project is taking me, but right now it is another dark comedy following a married couple as they grapple with aging and each other. And there are peacocks.

About the author:  Parini Shroff is a graduate of Loyola Law School and received her MFA from the University of Texas in Austin.  She has been published in Southern Humanities Review, Salamander and MacGuffin. She is an attorney living in the Bay Area. The Bandit Queens is her debut novel.