India travelogue: Roy Moxham’s extraordinary ‘Outlaw: India’s Bandit Queen and Me’

Roy Moxham seems to have a knack for the bizarre. In his last book, The Great Hedge of India, he discovered the existence of a 2000 mile customs barrier, a great hedge, once used to facilitate the collecting of a salt levy by the British Raj. Undaunted by the fact that no one knew anything about it, he spent months scouring the central Indian landscape for the traces of this custom line, writing a fascinating Indian travelogue in the process. Now he seems to have trumped even that, in a book called Outlaw: India’s Bandit Queen in which he tells of his extraordinary meeting with Phoolan Devi, popularly known as the Bandit Queen of India. Phoolan Devi was a dacoit, (the Indian term for a bandit) who became famous as a sort of Indian Robin Hood for her habit of stealing only from the highest castes. By 1983, she was in poor health and surrendered to the police. It was during the following eleven years of incarceration that Roy Moxham grew interested in her story, and wrote her a letter. What’s even more amazing is that she wrote back.

Received your letter – I felt so happy I cannot express it in words. It is very good of you to have given respect to a woman like me. I am myself helpless and destitute….. also in India no one listens to women. Nobody gives them justice. Sometimes, I curse God that I was born in a place like India. (Phoolan Devi)

After many exchanged letters, and even contributing to her legal fees, Roy Moxham goes out to meet the Bandit Queen, now released on parole. What follows is a slight book in some ways, detailing little more than their continued friendship, their Indian travels, Phoolan’s entry into politics, and eventually her tragic assassination, but it’s somehow utterly charming, the tale of one of the most improbable friendships in modern travel writing. Moxham’s sympathy for the plight of this misunderstood women is touching, and his writing skilfully combines an analysis of her life with a sensitive account of their friendship. It seems impossible that a more quirky and delightful travelogue will be written this year.

Read our interview with Indian writer, poet and dancer Tishani Doshi here.