New Delhi: Chambal in central India is now a tame shadow of its wild self. Its ravines no longer echo with the frenzy of gun-toting bandits but are the haunt of small-time criminals and petty ganglords who rely on kidnappings and Mumbai-style protection money for subsistence, says journalist and author Annie Zaidi.
Her book "Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales" (Tranquebar Press), a collection of short essays published this week, also carries personal accounts of how a notorious Chambal dacoit would walk into Zaidi`s great grandparents` home "like a guest"!
"I visited Chambal for the first time in 2004. I was following a story about an offensive by the Gadariya gang that had killed 13 people. I met the families of the victims, but the gang went into hiding. And then I returned a few months later to cover the death of baagi (dacoit) Nirbhay Gujjar," Zaidi, 31, told IANS in the capital.
Mumbai-based Zaidi says most big-time Chambal bandits like Phoolan Devi, Malkhan Singh, Putli Bai and Sultana Daaku have either disappeared into the pages of history or converted to peace.
Zaidi`s essays have been culled from her assignments as a reporter that took her to the heart of India to sample reality tales like the legends of the Chambal dacoits, caste conflicts, crime, poverty, infant mortality, gender imbalance and Dalit oppression that grab headlines.
What made Chambal the favourite playground of `baagis` (rebels)?
"The reasons are very complex. The ravines, the complex caste equations, the economic imbalance and the long history of looting and capturing since the reign of Rajput king Prithviraj Chauhan when people in the area became outlaws after losing their land in raids, spawned the culture of highway banditry. The highway gangs waylaid travellers and looted them. People were poor and the land was arid," she said.
However, "the large-scale lootings have stopped", she said.
"The dacoits` job descriptions have changed. They have switched to the extortion model inspired by the gangs in Delhi and Mumbai. They operate like underworld dons demanding protection money for paid jobs and ransom from the victims of abductions. Their activity cannot be classified as dacoity legally," she said.
But almost all the petty "dacoits" who plunder the ravines "trace their lineage to the great gangs that once called the shots", she said.
"They are proud of their heritage. I met a dacoit, Mohan Singh, who claimed he had been trained by Putli Bai," she said.
Zaidi`s book begins with a comprehensive section on Chambal dacoits that she says "is a personalised account of her reportage." The chapter, "Please Do not Carry Loaded Guns" is replete with interesting family nuggets.
"According to my grandmother, Sultana Daaku used to visit my great grandfather who was a `kotwal` (a policing position in the pre-Independence era) in Allahabad. As he invited himself as a personal guest, he demanded that he be treated with all the hospitality and courtesy due to a guest. He would ask for delicacies to be prepared and he would joke with the children and the kotwal`s wife," she reminisces.
Dacoits, observes Zaidi, have gripped our national imagination for over a century.
"Sometimes, we`d see them as a royal `baagi (rebel)` helping the helpless; other times as a long-suffering farmer who takes up arms against a cruel landlord or a rape victim seeking blood revenge."
And what would they look like? "In my girlie head, they would be colourful creatures straight out of movies. Gabbar Singh, Shakti Singh, Ram Singh," the writer laughed.
The writer`s first collection of love poems, "Crush", was published in 2007 and her short stories anthologised in several collections.