The Bandit Queens and the art of satire
A critical look at the justice system
[Dear readers: This issue contains references to physical violence, sexual violence, and murder.]
In Parini Shroff’s The Bandit Queens (Ballantine Books, 2023), a group of women decide to determine justice—its definition, victims, and consequences—in their small community. Balanced with satire and dark humor, the novel critiques society’s corrupt justice system which ultimately continues to benefit those in power.
Drawing solace from the stories of Phoolan Mallah, a woman known as the Bandit Queen who escaped from and then punished her sexual abusers, Geeta lives in her remote village in India alone after her husband disappears. Despite the community believing her to have killed him, Geeta knows the truth: that she did no such thing, and that he was both physically and emotionally abusive. With a photograph of the Bandit Queen taped above her workspace, Geeta remembers that “if she was indeed ‘mixed with dirt,’” like people in her village claim, “then at least she was in fine company” (Shroff, 16). Then, five years after her husband’s disappearance, Geeta is approached by several women to help kill their own abusive husbands.
“‘Sure, you’re not supposed to kill, but you’re not supposed to rape either, okay?...When someone threatens your body, you have every right to protect yourself,’” Geeta’s once friend Saloni says (195). The women in the story no longer possess trust in their society’s system, instead being “‘built to endure the rules men make’” (195). And for these women who are dealing with abusive husbands, enduring means taking action to protect themselves, their children, and other women in the town. “She thought of entitlement and vulnerability, shame and lechery, justice and inequity, and she thought of how only half of these were available to her gender. She thought of how much she hated male cowardice and the way they all protected each other and get away with it every time. So, no, then. Geeta did not react. She decided” (327). If the structure upholding those in power and the power upholding the justice system are both corrupt, benefiting those that commit harm, how can we rely on it? In The Bandit Queens, we can’t.
What is justice? Even Geeta challenges the women when they come to her, claiming that they aren’t “‘the Bandit Queen [so] that you can run around killing men as you please’” (11). But then what and who determine who can be the bearer of justice? The Bandit Queens forces readers to reevaluate our understanding of justice and its implied safety. It makes us question what systems we rely on and whom they actually benefit. “For me,” Shroff writes in the Author’s Note, “fiction is when research meets compassion; I believe this is often why facts don’t change people’s minds, but stories do.” When people around the globe—anyone from civilians in Palestine to those escaping sexual assault in the States—rise up to protect themselves from the people and systems in place attempting to oppress them, is that violence weighed the same as the acts committed by those in and with power? The Bandit Queens argues no.
The art of satire
“While I sought to respectfully and accurately address the scourges of domestic abuse, gender/religious/caste ostracization, and patriarchy,” Shroff writes in the Author’s Note of The Bandit Queens, “I believed humor could act as a bolster and prevent the book from collapsing under the weight of these timely and troubling topics. What made such gallows humor possible, I think, was the resilience of women and the power of sisterhood.”
A quick Google search of “satirical books” brings up a slew of recommendations, including many by dead white men and many with contemporary socio-political commentary, such as Paul Beatty’s The Sellout or My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite.
Here’s a short list of already-released books and forthcoming releases with a satirical lens we look forward to reading:
Yellowface by R.F. Kuang
The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour
In Case of Emergency by Mahsa Mohebali, translated by Mariam Rahmani
What are your favorite books with a satirical lens?
Note: We receive a portion of the profits from any sales made using the Bookshop.org links above.
“It was preferable, she found, mentioning Ramesh as a footnote rather than the thesis.”
—The Bandit Queens, p72
Others’ thoughts on The Bandit Queens
“Written with an activist’s gaze, the women are shedding stereotypes and sharing their rage.” —@BrownGirlBookshelf
“Which brings me back to friendship between woman & how sacred it is over the years - for survival, in many cases. I love characters like Geeta’s friend Saloni who can snap her friend out of her nonsense - like GIRL Stop. Talking. About. Those. Damn. Papadums. Your guy is TRASH 🚮.” —@TheKneadToRead
“Shroff examined a variety of issues in this book, but I think she pulled it off in a way that didn’t feel as though too many issues were crammed into one 350-page novel.” —@BusyBlackBookworm
If you liked The Bandit Queens, read…
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