(WOMENSENEWS)–Sampat Pal was unflinching in the harsh cold. On the morning of Dec. 14, 2010, like all other mornings, the commander in chief of the Pink Gang rose at dawn and trod from her two-room office to the courtyard in the center of her landlord’s house, to bathe.
She grabbed the cold steel lever of the hand pump and thrust it up and down, causing the metallic, hair-raising sound to echo against the chilled walls. A few seconds later, water gushed forth into an old paint bucket. When it was full to the brim, she dunked a small plastic beaker into the water and poured it over her brown, goose-fleshed body.
Sampat Pal barely noticed the biting cold. Her thoughts, like a tenacious hound, were digging over the details of a suspicious story that had been brought to her attention the day before. One of her district commanders, Geeta Singh, had told Sampat that her brother-in-law, Suraj Singh, had come to ask Geeta for help. Suraj worked at a small shoe shop located near the house of Purushottam Naresh Dwivedi, a member of the Legislative Assembly in the state of Uttar Pradesh. As a result, Suraj was an acquaintance with the politician’s son, Mayank, who had in the past invited Suraj to their home.
Suraj had recently heard that a mysterious girl was living there. Shortly afterward, he saw a girl taken out of Dwivedi’s house and shoved into a police van. "She’s stolen from the vidhayak‘s house," people told him, but Suraj felt that something fishy was going on, so he alerted Geeta, who in turn informed Sampat.
"None of this is true!" Sampat said to herself, rinsing the soap bubbles off her body with a beaker of tepid water. "How could a girl steal from a politician? Who could she be? A maid? A lover?"
India’s Wild West
Sampat had good reasons for being suspicious. In Uttar Pradesh, India’s Wild West, more than a fourth of the elected representatives in the Legislative Assembly had been charged with criminal offenses. Nineteen percent had serious charges pending against them, including attempted murder, rape, extortion and kidnapping. Sampat, fired up now, rushed to get out of the house. When short of time, Sampat hastily wraps herself in her sari, and if it is winter, she throws on a knitted cardigan to keep the cold at bay. After dressing, she grabs her comb and rigorously drags it through her shoulder-length black hair, working out the dripping knots and tangles until it is smooth. Most days she gathers her hair in a damp ponytail and, giving it one quick twist, clips it into place with a metal barrette. With that, the precious few moments that Sampat has for herself everyday between the toilet and the bucket bath are over. Wiping the sleep from her eyes for the final time, Sampat then marches outside in her webbed toe socks and rubber-soled flip-flops—her usual winter footwear—to face the day.
Sampat’s patio overlooks Bisanda Road—so-called because it leads to the nearby town of Bisanda—which is one of the main thoroughfares in Atarra. The haphazardly arranged town, with a population of 10,700, is still largely undeveloped: part rural village, with its pockets of simple mud huts. The traffic on Bisanda Road is composed of trundling, garishly painted trucks, tricycle rickshaws with their steel bells ringing, wandering cows and people carrying produce in woven palm-leaf baskets carefully balanced on their heads.
Every morning, the shutters rumble upward and reveal small stores selling plastic tubes for irrigation, tractor tires, and plywood. Atarra is enveloped on all sides by unpredictable, drought prone farmland where gaunt men wearing dhoti loincloths and vests are silhouetted by the sun as they bend over to pull weeds by hand or arduously maneuver the oxen plowing the fields. Every year, farmers pray for a good monsoon rainfall so that masoori rice seedlings, chickpea, split red gram, wheat, and yellow-flowering mustard will grow. When rainfall is particularly low, waves of suicides by indebted farmers sweep the region. Too poor to pay back money owed for expensive insecticide when crops fail, many farmers end up, as a way out, drinking the very chemicals that plunged them into debt. There are some parts of Bundelkhand, the region where Atarra is located, where entire villages are indebted to loan sharks as a result of the droughts.
A Certain Pride
For all the dreariness of Bisanda Road that morning, Sampat felt a certain pride when she looked at the road, for it did not exist before her arrival here in 2005. Before, a rocky, rutted path made the axels of wooden carts jolt out of their wheels and doubled the journeying time of anyone who took it. "See this road?" people in Atarra will say. "It’s thanks to Sampat Pal that it got laid."
One day in 2006 she and a group of disgruntled women had convened on the road and, with wooden hoes in their hands, proclaimed loudly, "This is a road, what? Looks like a field to me! Come on, let’s grow vegetables here, at least we can eat them!" They started sowing seeds, tilling the stony dirt road and blocking the traffic. Passersby stopped and stared. People got off their carts, or gearless Atlas bicycles, to get a better look. Sampat had called the district magistrate to show him the state of the roads and made him make a promise in front of the crowds: "Yes, Sampat-ji. We’ll fix the road. Definitely."
Her gang of women, who wore striking pink sari uniforms and carried pink-painted sticks, had made their first public appearance that day. The local journalists who covered the event christened them the Gulabi Gang, Hindi for the "Pink Gang." At the time, they numbered but a few dozen. By 2008, however, there would be about 20,000 members, making the gang double the size of the Irish army and eight times larger than the estimated number of al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan.
"Now I am so feh-mas," Sampat likes to say, using the imported English word in a thick accent and spreading her arms out wide to demonstrate the scale of her notoriety. A friend of Sampat’s says that in just a few years she had shot, to use his expression, "from zeero to heero."
Amana Fontanella-Khan is a contributor to Slate, the Daily Beast, the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor, and was formerly a contributing editor at Vogue India. Previously based in Mumbai, she now lives in Brussels. She is the author of “Pink Sari Revolution,” published by W. W. Norton & Company.
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