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Excerpt from The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Bandit Queens

A Novel

by Parini Shroff

The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff X
The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2023, 352 pages

    Paperback:
    Jan 2024, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Ahima
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Geeta stared at the dark wall, willing the lizard to be a good sport. Nothing. "It's our problem," she snapped. "If we default, Varunbhai won't give us another loan next year." The women were somber; everyone knew the center extended loans to groups, not individuals.

Then began a communal metamorphosis from fishwives to martyrs: the women spilled their excuses onto each other, all pushy contestants in a competition with no judge to rule as to who was the most aggrieved party.

"I have to buy my kids' schoolbooks. They keep getting more expensive." Saloni's lips compressed. "But it's such a gift to be a mother."

"We just bought another buffalo. My kids guzzle so much milk. I keep telling them 'if you're thirsty, drink water!' " Preity coughed. "But still, they bring me joy."

"My boy needs medicine for his ear infection. He cries all the time." Priya hurried to add, "But there's no better blessing than a son."

"Joys of motherhood," they murmured.

"Such a privilege, na?"

Preity and Priya were twins, formerly identical. The scars across Preity's face and neck shimmered like heat when she toggled her head in agreement.

"What about you, Geetaben?" Saloni asked. Her upper arms were plump and wide, straining against her sari blouse's sleeves, but they then abruptly transitioned to the trim elbows and forearms of her youth. The two halves could've easily belonged to separate people.

"Well, I don't have the joys of motherhood," Geeta said after the women were emptied of excuses. Her voice was patient, but her smile was feral. "But I do have the joys of sleep and money."

No one laughed. The women looked at the ceiling, the fan, each other, the door, anywhere but at her. Geeta had long ago released the idea that one needed eye contact in order to feel seen. She'd grown accustomed to their discomfort around her; people didn't like being reminded that what you'd lost, they took for granted—though Geeta no longer felt like Ramesh had robbed her of anything by leaving. There were times she wanted to tell the women that they could keep their blood--sucking husbands, that she harbored no envy, coveted no part of their messy, small lives. It was true she no longer had friends, but she did have freedom.

Another lizard skittered along the wall. While Geeta appreciated luck as much as anyone, she had no use for two lizards. It was said that if you happened across two lizards mating, you'd meet an old friend. If you saw them quarreling, you'd pick a fight with a friend instead.

"I'll pay," she told the women, as she reached for the grass broom she kept in the corner. "I don't have children, I don't have a husband and I don't have a buffalo." She tickled the ceiling corner with the jhadu's stiff bristles. When that failed to cajole the lizards, she thumped the wall twice.

Someone gasped at the loud sound. Priya scooted behind Saloni's larger frame as though Geeta were a threat. Which many assumed she was: a churel who, depending on the gossiper, gobbled children, rendered women barren or men impotent. That a woman had to have perished in order to return as a churel did little to staunch the village's rumors.

Saloni blotted her upper lip with the back of her wrist. Fresh sweat bloomed quickly. She glared and Geeta could easily recall her at fourteen—slender and haughty as she held court, hip jutting against a bicycle while the boys sighed.

The lizard finally dropped from above—alas, missing Saloni's disdainful face—and scrambled for its bearings. With the broom, Geeta slapped the floor, herding it toward the open entrance.

"Right," Saloni said. "So we agree: Geetaben will cover it. You'll settle it with Farahben later, correct." It was not a question.

Given Saloni's stamp of oppressive approval, the others did not even pretend to mew or protest. Saloni's social weight was as robust as her physical. Her father-in-law was the head of the panchayat, the village council. Five years ago, when the government demanded their village observe the reservation system and elect a woman to fill one of the five council seats, Saloni was the obvious choice. In fact, these pre-loan meetings were usually conducted at Saloni's house, but this week Geeta's empty home had been selected for reasons no one had bothered explaining to her.

Excerpted from The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff. Copyright © 2023 by Parini Shroff. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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