Sampat Pal emerges as a courageous grass-roots organizer of woman power in one of the most lawless and least developed districts of India. She is an unlikely heroine. Illiteracy and teenage motherhood have not held her back from heading a women’s vigilante group that fights for the rights of women who have been denied justice in the traditional patriarchal system. Consistent with the notion that “well-behaved women rarely make history,” the Pink Sari gang employs fierce and shaming methods such as gherao (surrounding buildings or people), thoo thoo (spitting) campaign, and the chappal ka haar (garland of shoes). Sampat Pal can hardly be called Gandhian; yet despite her skirmishes with the law, she has stopped short of becoming a Phoolan Devi style outlaw.
Sampat Lal, an illiterate woman appears to be working quite effectively against not only gender norms and class, but also the caste system. Her iconoclastic and heretical behavior has earned her many enemies, but also the loyalty, trust and adulation of the lieutenants of the Pink Sari gang members.
The book has an interesting narrative style—a journalistic story that unfolds like an action novel with anthropological detail. Fontanella-Khan frequently lets actions speak for themselves. Sampat Lal has left the home of her husband, and lives with her mentor, Babuji, but the relationship remains unacknowledged.
Neither is the author keen to gloss over the frequently contradictory and unflattering details of this heroine’s life, including her incarceration, criminal relatives, and a bombastic, self-aggrandizing style. A fine example of self-help organizations emerging from low technology contexts.
Geetika Pathania Jain is a Bay Area resident. She is currently teaching at DeAnza College.
Edited transcript of the conversation between Amana Fontanella-Khan and Geetika Pathania Jain, held at City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco. (September 19, 2013)
Geetika Pathania Jain: It has been said that well-behaved women rarely make history, and I think we will see much evidence of this fact as we proceed with this evening. What is the book about?
Amana Fontanella-Khan: So the book is about the Pink gang. They were founded in 2006, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, in the north of India. They fight for women’s rights. They take on abusive husbands, corrupt politicians, crooked police, and they really do that in a muscular, feisty way. They go on to the streets with their sticks and their pink saris, and they really take on oppressors in a part of the country that has been described as lawless, it’s kind of this Wild West.
Sampat Pal is the founder, and the commander-in-chief of the gang. She’s the woman who was married off at the age of 12, and had the first of her five children at 15. And she is the face of the gang.
I read in your book that the mission of the Pink Sari gang is “equality and justice for women, the lower castes, and the poor.” Some of Sampat’s very fierce and shaming methods are remarkable,