Tuesday, June 17, 2014

India's Bandit Empress: The Real Life Daenerys Targaryen

The Internet is obsessed with Daenerys Targaryen.  Over the last two years, hundreds of baby girls have become her namesake, while her television portrayal by Emilia Clarke spawns countless memes, think pieces and cosplay outfits.  Whether being considered as a feminist icon or simply a paragon of satisfying narrative payoff, the Mother of Dragons’ slow progression from helpless slave to conquering warlord make her an understandably irresistible figure.  But she has nothing on the real life violence and vengeance enacted by the Bandit Queen of India, Phoolan Devi.

The parallels between these two women are striking, and one would suspect that George R.R. Martin was influenced in his creation of Daenerys, if Phoolan’s story hadn't been popularized in the west years after the fictional queen’s creation.  Even given Martin’s noted refusal to reward good and punish evil within his fictional universe, however, Phoolan’s story is both more tragic and marked by more personal vengeance than any possible fictional descendant.

Lacking the Mother of Dragons' royal lineage, Devi was born into one of the lowest tiers of the Indian caste system, into an isolated village in the central Indian region of Uttar Pradesh.  She was part of the Mallah caste, urban laborers and subsistence farmers for whom life represented an unending stream of exploitation and abuse by high caste landowners.  Much like Daenerys, Devi’s family was stripped of familial lands.  Unlike the royal Targaryen’s claim to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, however, the Devis’ claim was for nothing more than a plot of land in their village, stolen from them by a greedy uncle

In the HBO series Game of Thrones, we are introduced to Daenerys as a fully grown yet naive adult.  In the books, however, she is a barely pubescent fourteen year old, making her sale to and sexual exploitation by a powerful Dothraki warlord all the more upsetting.  Daenerys is raped on her wedding night by a sexually experienced, violent older man she has never met.  The television series implies non-consent, while the book version narrates how a virgin, terrified fourteen year old girl is openly excited by this sexual advance.

“He stroked the soft skin underneath until it tingled. He circled her nipples with his thumbs, pinched them between thumb and forefinger, then began to pull at her, very lightly at first, then more insistently, until her nipples stiffened and began to ache.  He stopped then, and drew her down onto his lap. Dany was flushed and breathless, her heart fluttering in her chest. He cupped her face in his huge hands and looked into her eyes.
 “No?” he said, and she knew it was a question.
She took his hand and moved it down to the wetness between her thighs.
“Yes,” she whispered as she put his finger inside her.”
Never mind that this is a scene written by a grown man about the sexual conquest of a nubile fourteen year old girl.  This kind of thing happened historically, Martin would argue, so there’s nothing weird about its titillating presentation.  Neither book nor show portray a consensual sexual relationship until the moment in which, trained by her handmaiden in a bit of man-made lesbian fantasy, Daenerys is given the tools to take charge of her intercourse.  The television series’ odd transition from rape to consent to “my sun and stars” cuddling is an abrupt and almost insulting one, a transition barely ever mentioned by fans of the character.  Dany's arc is meant to indicate a woman taking power for herself, but in a way reads as an indication that if you just get raped enough, eventually you’ll like it.   And when the real shines a light on the fictional, it becomes harder and harder to ignore some of the more troubling aspects of Martin’s portrayal of sexual abuse.

Devi was eleven years old when she was sexually assaulted by Putti Lal, the middle aged man to whom she had been married.  Much like the fictional Targaryen princess, Devi’s abuse was condoned by her patriarchal society.  Even after multiple escapes, the aid of her extended family and the intervention of local police, Devi was only allowed to return home after being literally abandoned by her husband.  When she was fifteen years old, Phoolan Devi was raped by two men in her own home, in front of her parents.  The event was spurred on by her family’s ongoing feud with the landowning uncle who had refused their claims, and finally delivered after Devi’s continued defiance of the man’s arrogance. 

“What had happened to me as a child with Putti Lal had been dreadful, but it wasn't a public dishonor…because I belonged to him and that meant he could do as he pleased with me.  This time it was different.  Now I understood what the great danger was that my mother had always warned me about, and now my life was ruined.”
Though Devi had been able to bury the trauma of her initial rape, it was this public abuse, and the ensuing scorn of her community, that marked her eventual quest for vengeance, her unstoppable will to not just survive, but to repay her abusers. 

“I wanted revenge on them.  I wanted someone to do the same thing to their wives, they would know how it feels to suffer from shame and humiliation.”
But it was this same continued defiance that drew further anger from Devi’s wealthy enemies.  Eventually fingered as a dacoit, a bandit, Devi was taken into police custody for three days.  This was a time in which she was raped once gain, beaten so badly that her hands never fully recovered.  She was threatened with further abuse if she talked, told by the police that she would have hot peppers inserted into her vagina.
“I was still tearful and afraid, like a child.  There was pain and dread in by body.  I still needed my mother.  I wanted tenderness and protection and it seemed all I ever got was more violence.  But I was learning to survive; even as I wished I was dead, I knew I would survive.”   
And survive Devi did, falling in much as Daenerys did with a group of nomadic bandits who kidnapped her from her home.  It was only by the protective spirit of one of these men that Devi was spared further abuse by both the police and rival gangs, leading to her eventual transition from helpless peasant into avenging dacoit.  Devi learned to shoot, to raid and to kill, all under the tutelage and eventual marriage of her bandit leader:

“(Many) years later…I would ask myself why didn't this man, if he loved me as much as he said, just let me go?   Then I wouldn't have become a bandit like him.  I would have had a family, children, cattle in the shed, a fire in the hearth.”
But a bandit she became.  While Daenerys’ vengeance is played out upon slave traders and aided by literal dragons, there is little indication that she harbors any ill will towards the violent tribe into which she was sold as a sexual and political object.  Dany’s fictional objectification is a means to an end, a stepping stone in her rise to power.  Devi’s real life abuse was not relegated to a single series of incidents, but a systemic litany of horrors that fueled her transformation into an archangel of revenge.   Her new husband and protector was eventually betrayed by his own benefactor, delivering Devi once more into public sexual humiliation. 

“They fell upon me like wolves.  They dragged me and picked me up and I feel and they dragged me up by the hair again.  I saw things I would never be able to forget.  I saw crowds of faces and I was naked in front of them.  Demons came without end from the fires of Naraka to rape me.”
Once more, it was only the pity of a local Brahman (repaid by Devi’s captors by being burned alive) that allowed her to escape.  And in short time, Devi gathered her allies, redoubled her forces, and launched into the series of killings that would take her from folk hero to local legend.  She pursued not just her own abusers, but any high caste men who abused or exploited the lower castes.  When she eventually returned to the men who had abused her, this happened:

“They were the same ones who had left me naked and defenseless; they had watched me being tortured without lifting a finger.  I was boiling with rage.  I needed to make them suffer what I had been made to suffer.  I beat them between their legs with my rifle butt.  I wanted to destroy the serpent that represented their power over me….I crushed, burned, and impaled. And then I laughed to see them leap like castrated horses and fall at my feet and cry like women, begging and pleading for mercy, as I had.”
In a single raid, Devi's gang killed twenty two men in the town of Behmai.  She would have been around twenty years old.   

“In the villages of my region where there was no justice other than the lathi, where the mallahs were the salves of the Thakurs, I dealt out justice.  ‘Who stole from you?  Who beat you?  Who took your food?  Who said you couldn't use the well?  Who stole your cattle?  Who raped your daughter or your wife?  The guilty one was brought before my court.  He was forced to suffer what he had made others suffer.  He was stripped and given a good hiding…and then I would make them dance.”
Encountering a man a few weeks after castrating him for selling children for sex, Devi was told the man now had to urinate through a plastic tube.  The lesson was clear.  Fuck with Phoolan Devi and she’d cut your dick off.  And she didn't need dragons to do it with.  Unlike Deanerys as well, whose possible white savior  complex has been rightly criticized, Devi’s vengeance was centered on the women who shared her caste:

“(I) liked to give money to women.  I very rarely gave it to men.  They could work in the fields, go from village to village, find money somewhere, but not the women.  Nobody helped the women, not even their husbands.  They didn’t give the women a rupee.  Without money, women were forced to suffer hunger and humiliation, and even sell their bodies like sacks of flour, while the men spent their money drinking and gambling.”
It was a campaign of revenge so widespread and well known that it simultaneously made Devi a hero among the poor and an enemy of the state.  Finally cornered after a continued hunt by the police, Devi surrendered herself to the authorities on February 12th, 1983.  She would spend eleven years in prison, before being released into a much changed political landscape.  In the late 1990s, Devi attained political office in the state of Uttar Pradesh, riding a campaign oriented around the poor and the equality of women to an eventual but short lived seat on the Indian Parliament.  After not even half a lifetime, Phoolan Devi was assassinated on July 25th, 2001.  She was around 37 years old.  

We would like to tell ourselves that the kind of patriarchy and systemic sexual abuse that condemns women to the status of abused object is a historical relic, or fodder for the pages of fantasy novels.  But Phoolan Devi’s abuse took place in the 1970s, in a society and a world that still perpetuates the same crimes upon its women.  Was she wrong to enact murderous revenge upon her very society?  How does her philosophy of abject violence compare to the advances of the Ghandians within her own struggle to defeat the caste system?  These are questions without easy answers.  But the popularity of Daenerys Targaryen and her slow quest for vengeance proves the thirst for stories of autonomous, powerful women, and our own desire to indulge in their bloody vengeance.  The relative obscurity of Devi’s story proves how much less willing we are to confront these same stories in the real world, or to follow them though to their morally ambiguous, inevitably violent conclusions. 

All quotes taken from Phoolan Devi's autobiography, 'The Bandit Queen of India', unless otherwise noted.