Book Review: The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff

The Bandit Queens – Parini Shroff (Ballantine Books, 2023)

Ever since her husband disappeared five years ago, Geeta has been an outcast in her village. Popular opinion says she killed Ramesh but the truth is, Geeta has no idea where he is and she’s happy to never see him again.

Geeta sticks to herself, making a living by crafting wedding necklaces. The one consistent time she interacts with the other women in the village is with her micro loan group.

After Geeta does a favour for another woman in the group, Farah approaches her for help. She wants to “remove her nose ring”, just as Geeta allegedly did hers. This is a euphemism for becoming a widow. Before Geeta knows it she is embroiled in extortion, murder, and possibly a new romance.

“First of all, that’s not a ‘small favour.’ Secondly, you two need to work on your extortion skills because you already told me where to find Ramesh. Kohra. Why would I need you to vouch for me when I can find him myself?”

“Wait. Is this extortion? On C.I.D., it’s blackmail.”

“No, I think it’s be blackmail if I, like, threatened to say she did kill Ramesh.”

“So this is like reverse blackmail.”

“Isn’t that bribery? ‘Cause it’s, like, offering a good thing, not threatening a bad thing.”

“Hm. Okay. Extortion, then.” Saloni gestured to Geeta with a gracious flick of her wrist. “You were correct.”

“Thank you?”

I didn’t expect this book to be so funny but it really was. There is great banter between the women, conversations that feel authentic and natural. The book doesn’t shy away from the realities of life in a poor village in India. The caste system and its abuses is highlighted, as well as the issue of dowries that impoverish families and take advantage of young women. There is rape and assault. Even a wealthy woman like Greta’s former best friend, Saloni, is vulnerable to the whims of the men around her. Greta’s major financial goal is to buy a refrigerator, something most of us would take for granted in our homes. This woman are bright and tough but they are often limited and controlled by the circumstances of their culture. Even their micro loan group – something designed to offer them independence- is subject to the control of their husbands.

I’ve read a few books – Robinson Mistry’s A Fine Balance comes to mind – that are powerful novels about India but are truly bleak. While The Bandit Queens also lets the reader know about the reality of life in much of India, it shows women living their lives and reminds us that we’re not always as different as we might think.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff”

  1. This sounds great – must check if it’s available here. I much prefer the books that show a more balanced picture of India, than the really bleak ones which I feel go too far and become unrealistic. Most of the books I’ve enjoyed are like this one – they don’t gloss over the poverty and inequalities but they show that there are positives too, or at the very least mutual support.

    1. I think you’d like it! It’s one of the titles longlisted for the Womens Fiction Prize so I think that may make it more readily available.

  2. I’m glad I read this review because I had thus title on my TBR, but then another blogger reviewed it very negatively. Most of the negativity was about his India is portrayed and how the characters speak, but I do know that I’m not a good judge of the book’s realism compared to the Indian-American author. Here is a cool article about the book:

    1. The conversations and voices of the characters feel really American and that threw me for a bit too. But the book is written in English, which isn’t the language these characters speak. So I was willing to accept that in their own language they would use slang and humour and this is how it might translate into English. I felt like I’ve definitely read more grim and negative portrayals of India. But, like you, I know I’m not a good judge of the realism of a book like this.

      The book’s afterword has some info about this real-life Bandit Queen too! She’s a fascinating figure!

    2. Ohhh, so it’s more like the characters are interpreting into American. Part of interpreting isn’t just taking words from one language and putting them directly into another. It’s finding culturally appropriate matches. I added myself back to the queue for this one after I read your review.

    3. Yes! They don’t sound like characters translated into English or characters who have learned English as a second language. They sound like native English speakers and sort of American in some of their speech. But I saw it as a portrayal of the comfort and ease you have with your own language, demonstrated in a way that makes sense to a western reader.

      I’ll be curious to hear what you think if you read it.

  3. This sounds like a really good book. I can appreciate that it doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of their life, but it’s also able to move past it, and humanize these women. Yes, yearning for a refrigerator sounds terrible to us, but they also have a great sense of humour! Very cool.

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