“She’d first eaten her father’s salt, then her husband’s; it was time to eat her own.”
“If she was this lonely, Geeta berated herself, she should get a damn dog.”
Take “Goodbye Earl” (or, more recently, Taylor Swift’s take on the same theme with “No Body, No Crime”), set it in India and change Mary Ann and Wanda to Geeta and Saloni and you’ve got Parini Shroff’s debut The Bandit Queens (Ballantine Books 2022). This novel was on my radar before making the Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, and it’s hilarious.
Geeta’s no-good husband disappeared a few years ago, and rumors flew she killed him. She removed her nose ring, lived alone as a widow, making jewelry and saving her money for a refrigerator. His leaving was the greatest gift he’d ever given her. Before he’d left, he’d alienated her from her family and her closest friend, Saloni. Now, she has no husband and despite being in Saloni’s loan group, she has no friends. But she’s “eating her own salt” and free.
All is just fine until a woman within the same loan group, one whose face bears the same marks Geeta’s once did, approaches and asks her to “remove my nose ring.” Farah thinks Geeta has already killed one man, so what’s another? When Farah’s husband puts Geeta’s livelihood at risk, she agrees to help. And then another woman asks for similar help.
Housewives whose criminal knowledge comes from street smarts and crime shows make for interesting criminals. Geeta, who just wanted to be left alone and buy a fridge, suddenly finds herself with a group of friends who aren’t exactly the demur housewives and mothers the village thinks they are. Phoolan Devi, the Bandit Queen, was a real person and she’s fictional Geeta’s hero – so much so that Geeta names her dog after her. The Bandit Queen Geeta is not – of the whole bunch, she’s the least likely criminal.
The novel has such a dry wit to it, and you will love Geeta and Saloni’s powder keg of a history and how their second chance at rediscovering each other as the soulmates their friendship has always marked them as. The women, especially their dialogue, is the true victory of the novel – even though Geeta is, at times, extremely frustrating and inconsistent.
Humor drives this novel of women seeking to be widows and escaping the men who would rape, beat, or maim them. Beneath it all, flows the caste system they’d love to shatter. And oh, how you’ll cheer them while you’re laughing out loud.
Read this book.
*P.S. The dog doesn’t die in this one.