'Bantering with Bandits' book review: Old woes of new India
Zaidi got first-hand experience dealing with bandits when she was asked to report on the dreaded dacoits of Chambal.
Who can forget the character of Gabbar Singh, essayed by Amjad Khan in Sholay? The tobacco-chewing, bullet-belt-wearing dacoit, who terrorized the fictional village of Ramgarh, became the poster boy for bandits, at least in the urban imagination. So, it seemed safe to assume that Annie Zaidi’s Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales of India would be a collection of action-packed Bollywood-like stories from
The contents, however, are humbling. Based on the author’s experiences from her time as a journalist, the book puts real issues such as crime, violence against women, migration, and communal and caste-based discrimination on the forefront. Divided into seven chapters, it was first published over a decade ago as Known Turf. It has been reprinted recently, perhaps because the publisher was certain that the narratives would resonate with readers even today. Zaidi makes them engaging by making the statistics-driven stories her own.
The bandit’s tale mentioned in the title opens with a heartwarming anecdote of how the author grew up listening to stories of her police officer great-grandfather’s encounters with a certain dacoit in Allahabad. Zaidi recalls being amused on learning that the dacoit would turn up at her great-grandfather’s house, yet the latter couldn’t arrest him, because social etiquette forbade him from ill-treating a guest.
Zaidi got first-hand experience dealing with bandits when she was asked to report on the dreaded dacoits of Chambal. From coming across warnings painted on buses such as “Do not carry loaded guns in the bus” to exploring details about gun ownership in the region, the story does a deep dive into a world that has often been relegated to folklore.
Gender, caste, and religion take center stage in the tales that follow. Among them is the story of Lakshmi, a six-month-old baby suffering from malnutrition, whom she met in Amola, Uttarakhand. The sight of the frail infant prompted the author to embark on an investigation of the problem of food shortages in the Sahariya tribe to which Lakshmi belonged. She plunges into piles of data to report on malnutrition, infant mortality and the living conditions of the community, which shine a light on the systemic problems in the country.
The now well-known story of Bant Singh, the Dalit man from Punjab, who fought against the upper-class rapists of his daughter, is also part of the anthology. Zaidi, through her fieldwork, exposes several wounds that continue to fester underneath the tag of ‘fastest growing economy’. She then asks an important question: who is benefitting from the growth?