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The Pink Sari Revolution, by Amana Fontanella-Khan.

April 13, 2014

The Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India, by Amana Fontanella-Khan.   W. W. Norton & Company (2013),  Hardcover, 304 pages.

SOUTH ASIA WOMEN WRITERS

A lively journalistic account of Sampat Pal, a rural woman in north central India, and the women she organized to fight against injustice.

Sampat Pal is a woman living in southern Uttar Pradesh. She lives in the geographical region known as Bundelkhand, a region rife with extreme poverty and lawlessness. Although uneducated, she has proven herself to be an outstanding speaker and organizer. Starting with a small self-help group, she has drawn hundreds of women into a formal organization. Many are widows, left behind with no resources when their families moved away. Known as the “Pink Sari Gang,” they wear bright pink saris as badges of identification and carry sticks to use as aids in walking and as weapons to attack the police and other advisories. Sampat and the Pink Sari Gang have been surprisingly successful, freeing women and their family members from arrest and pursuing other actions to improve their lives. Central to the book is the story of their involvement in a recent struggle about a young woman raped by a corrupt local politician.

Amana Fontanella-Khan is a journalist who lived in India and conducted extensive research of Sampat Pal and the Pink Sari Gang. She has lived among the women and obviously admires them. She remains, however, aware that the account she gives of them is not the only story to be told. She does not claim to have the final word about the women and their actions and is careful to note when facts are “alleged”, not proven, or when an incident is told from the viewpoint of a particular individual. Rumors and claims about the politician and his accuser were particularly hard to authenticate. As she points out, dialogue in the text is simply how her informants remembered what was said. Her book includes notes documenting her sources of information, although there are no footnotes in the text. Having spent extensive time in the region, she is also able to give visual details that help readers from outside image what is happening.

Sampat is the main character in this book. In telling her story, Fontanella-Khan reveals the depth of poverty, lack of education and the isolation of her rural region. Although Sampat was desperately poor and married off as a child, she was able to browbeat her husband into allowing her to have a role in helping others with their problems. Eventually she left him to be cared for by their adult children and made her “office” the center of her life. She lived with a male friend who assisted her in her work in what seems to have been an asexual relationship. Sampat is clearly an unusual person, uniquely qualified, but not separated from others around her.

Although the members of the Pink Sari Gang are all women and chiefly concerned about the problems women face, I would not call them feminist, and neither does Fontanella-Khan. They are a practical group responding to spefic problems, with no theoretical claims of gender oppression. In addition to women-centered protests, they demonstrated and forced officials to build a much needed road and fought for the release of women’s male relatives. Men are supportive of the group, but remain in the background. With their sticks and willingness to attack authorities physically, the women are certain not practitioners of non-violence. Interestingly, Fontanella-Khan notes that India has a tradition of villagers protesting what they view as unfair treatment. Although most of these protests have been led by men in the past, some have been led by women.

I read this book because I knew almost nothing beyond generalities about rural India. I was curious, especially last year as protests against rape exploded. I know too little to critique The Pink Sari Revolution, but I learned much that seemed accurate about rural women and the circumstances of their lives. As well as bringing to life the women in her story, Fontanella-Kahn presents their region as among the poorest and most lawless in India. The corruption of political leaders was almost unimaginable. For me, it was a depressing place, but the story of Sampat and the other women was hopeful and inspiring.

This is a book that I gladly recommend to readers, especially those interested in India, in rural unrest, and in women organizing to improve their own lives.

Related books:

Beyond the Beautiful Forever, by Katherine Boo.  A particularly impressive book about urban poverty in India.

 

3 Comments leave one →
  1. aartichapati permalink
    April 13, 2014 3:24 pm

    I will definitely be looking into this one. Just finished Banker to the Poor, so this one could be a great companion to that.

  2. April 13, 2014 4:54 pm

    I’ve read about this group before. From the little I know, I have mixed feelings about them, but I’m fascinated to learn more and to better understand them.

    • April 14, 2014 9:59 am

      I have mixed feelings, too, and I think the author does also. I don’t see them as a group for all of us to copy. But they are fascinating. I saw a different side of India reading this. Rural, rather than urban poverty. And people not beaten down by it or accepting.

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