Review by Gaiutra Bahadur (Ms. Magazine, Summer 2013)
The author of Pink Sari Revolution compares India’s Gulabi Gang to insurgents, saying they number 20,000, eight times the size of al- Qaeda in Afghanistan. She uses this analogy to define the scope of their movement, started in 2006 by Sampat Pal, a daring, electrifying seamstress- turned-social worker. By likening Pal’s recruits—rural women in pink saris (gulabi is Hindi for pink) wielding pink sticks—to armed combatants, Amana Fontanella-Khan implies the women’s militancy and their radical effort to fight political corruption and overthrow an entrenched patriarchy of arranged marriage, domestic violence and rape.
The author makes her case through stories, especially the tragedy of a village teenager held against her will and raped by a thug legislator, then violated again when accused of theft, falsely imprisoned and subjected to an outrageous medical exam that tarnished her as a “habitual sex addict.” Fontanella-Khan weaves the girl’s story with that of the formidable Pal, who interceded on her behalf. An uneducated villager who was married at 12 and a mother by 15, Pal is a domineering, absentee wife and a fierce advocate for the underdog, who went “from zeero to heero,” as a friend describes her.
As a gifted organizer and orator with political acumen and ego, Pal makes a riveting protagonist in a book with a Bollywood-worthy plot. (In fact, a Bombay musical about the Gulabi Gang is forthcoming.) Its setting is fascinating—a lawless, beleaguered state in northern India where bandits and indicted criminals routinely win political office—and its main character, the charismatic Pal, tells her story with flair. She and the gang have shamed officials into giving widows their rightful pensions, released the wrongfully imprisoned, even built roads. They have sanctioned caste-crossing relationships based on love. The gang’s larger story—of poverty- stricken, unlettered women standing up for themselves, struggling against centuries-old misogyny—inspires. “Hope is a very big thing,” one elderly member says. “Sampat gave it to us every time she came to the village.”
Still, it needs to be asked how truly revolutionary the Gulabi Gang is— or can be—and the author doesn’t step back from storytelling to do so. In her account of a widow horrifically mistreated, then evicted, by her in-laws, she misses opportunities to explore the gang’s limits and thus risks overstating their impact. Yes, they convinced the in-laws to take the widow back; what they could not do was grant her economic independence, and Fontanella-Khan fails to point this out.
In 2010, when Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi invited Pal to a private meeting, Gandhi asked, “Why do you use the word gang?” Pal replied, “We beat up a policeman and the media called us a gang.” In fact, their methods are more civil disobedience than militancy. They stage sit-ins and protests and mobilize television cameras, wielding a narrative of themselves as vigilantes rather than bearing arms. Their weapon is the story.
Fontanella-Khan ultimately suggests an analogy more apt than al-Qaeda: Trains in India “often have entertainment on board,” Sufi mystics with harmoniums and eunuchs who threaten to lift their skirts if they aren’t paid. When the women in pink saris travel, they become the spectacle. Other passengers whisper and snap photos. Like eunuchs and singing Sufis, the Gulabi Gang are objects of marvel, performers who capture an audience’s attention and use it to shame and inspire. Pink Sari Revolution argues as the Gulabi Gang fights: by narrative, allowing these remarkable women to tell their story to a broader, global audience.
GAIUTRA BAHADUR is the author of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, due out in October.