Another shot at fame

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Once known as bandit queen Phoolan Devi’s companion, Maan Singh Yadav is now playing himself in a forthcoming film. He tells Janani Ganesan about his glory days in the Chambal ravines

Bandit or folk hero? Maan Singh
Bandit or folk hero? Maan Singh
Photos: Vijay Pandey

A DOUBLE barrel gun, sporting a discreet Indian Ordnance Factory seal, lies leisurely against the seat of the white Bolero. It goes wherever Maan Singh Yadav goes.

Maan Singh, a lesser known of bandit queen Phoolan Devi’s companions, drove 50 km to Kanpur in a rented car from his home in Ramabai Nagar, Uttar Pradesh, with bodyguard, driver, and gun in tow, to do this interview. The former dacoit, playing himself in Krishna Mishra’s forthcoming film Beehad: The Ravines, seems eager to tell his story to anyone who will care to listen.

A shy smile hollows his cheeks further as he talks about his film debut: “It’s about dacoits in Chambal. But I have been featured a lot as I was an original. Everybody else was a duplicate.” The last time Maan Singh faced the cameras was in 1983, as part of Phoolan Devi’s gang, the world’s press clicking furiously to record their surrender. While he has always remained in Phoolan’s shadow, the man she turned to after her lover Vikram Mallah was killed, Maan Singh now wants his moment in the limelight.

After one of his elder brothers was killed by a villager, 15-year-old Maan Singh escaped into the jungles. Seeking revenge for his brother’s death, he allied himself with a group of young men who had fled from their native village in Jalaun district due to land disputes. “The size of the gang kept varying. Some would join, some would get killed in police encounters,” he says. The question why he became a dacoit prompts an eye-roll: “I had to kill to protect myself. And in the jungles, what else can you do?”

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Maan Singh’s story bears incidental similarities to Paan Singh Tomar’s, whose biopic was a Bollywood box-office hit this year. Maan Singh lights up at the mention of Tomar: “We used to see Paan Singh’s gang while crossing Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and UP, sometimes covering 100 km a day by foot. Once, the police of two states were dispatched to look for us (Phoolan Devi and her gang), but they didn’t succeed.” He adds, “Paan Singh was caught because someone poisoned the goat he had eaten the day his gang was surrounded by the police.” Maan Singh hasn’t seen the film on Tomar. But badland legends travel far.

He has, however, watched Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen and thinks “picture theek tha”. It’s only when he is reminded of Phoolan’s objection to her depiction in the film that he rephrases, “Thoda thoda theek nahin tha.” He adds, “She had an out-of-court settlement. There was money. Then, everything was okay.” For Beehad, Maan Singh was recently summoned by the Censor Board to certify that everything shown in the film about him was accurate.

Maan Singh claims he has never been a fan of the movies. “[For entertainment], I watch the news,” he says. When they were in hiding after the Behmai massacre, in which Phoolan and the gang, in revenge, had killed more than 20 upper caste men, it was Maan Singh’s job to scour the local newspapers for stories about the murders.

Once released from prison after an eight-year term, Maan Singh went back to farming and moved in with his nephew’s family in Ramabai Nagar. “I did not go back to my village. I did not want to get into politics either. Who wants to get killed?” he says. “They say Sher Singh (Rana) murdered Phoolan. That’s not true. Her younger sister Munni killed her. Some dispute over money,” he adds, without prompting.

When Phoolan became a politician, she still took time out to visit Maan Singh occasionally. She had married him after the gang had surrendered, but after their release from prison she took a second husband, though technically a third (Phoolan was first married to Putti Lal when she was 11). Maan Singh did not marry again. He briefly participated in local politics, becoming Panchayat president for a term. He did not contest again, complaining about the costs. “It requires Rs 10 lakh,” he says, “and candidates have to distribute liquor. All that requires money.”

“Tell her about the escape,” says Jagdish Singh Yadav, Maan Singh’s bodyguard and cousin, egging him on. Jagdish is Maan Singh’s cheerleader, prodding him to perform his greatest hits, to recount the heroic escapes from police encounters. Maan Singh obliges: “Once we were stuck in the jungles for four days, without food, surrounded by police. A bidayi happened to pass by. I asked the bride to come out of the vehicle. Everyone was scared. When she got out, I gave her all the jewels we had and fell at her feet, seeking her blessings. A bride’s blessing is considered good luck,” says Maan Singh. He does not want to talk about where the jewels came from, but he does remember evading arrest that day.

He is silent when quizzed about his gun. “We have a licence for it,” explains Jagdish on Maan Singh’s behalf, “Dhau does not want protection. But his adopted son insists that he travel with two bodyguards.” Jagdish has been with Maan Singh only for the past three years, earning Rs 7,000 a month as salary for protecting him. He is a repository of tales on Maan Singh’s life in the jungles.

They say Sher Singh killed Phoolan. That’s not true. Her sister Munni killed her. Some dispute over money,’ says Maan Singh

Dhau has all this wealth,” Jagdish points out, “whom will he leave it behind for?” Maan Singh took the curious decision of adopting the middle-aged son of a rich lawyer friend. The friend is still alive and the adoption is not legal, but Maan Singh treats Neeraj Yadav like his own son. Neeraj owns a petrol pump on the way to Kanpur from Ramabai Nagar and doesn’t appear to need Maan Singh’s money. Besides, how much wealth can farming generate? “The trucks…” begins Jagdish, before he is cut off. Maan Singh, normally happy to let Jagdish take over, is quick to step in when Jagdish’s enthusiasm bubbles over.

OVER SAMOSAS served by Neeraj, Maan Singh dips into the past again: “There were around eight or nine gangs in Chambal. All of them have either surrendered or been caught by the police. There are no more dacoits in the region.” The silver buttons on the holster of an automatic pistol hanging from Neeraj’s trousers gleam in the afternoon sun. Double barrels from the Ordnance Factory may be a rare sight these days, but expensive, imported automatic pistols are proudly displayed across Uttar Pradesh.

As Maan Singh poses for a photo, his grand nephew Anu picks up the gun and hands it over to him. When asked if he would like to act in movies like his Dhau, Anu shakes his head vigorously. “I want to go into the jungles too,” he says. “He can release the lock in the gun,” his Dhau says proudly. To Jagdish, Anu and Neeraj, Maan Singh is a hero, his stories from the Chambal ravines the chief entertainment over evening drinks. The moral consequences of murders and loot hardly surfaces in their conversations. If they exist, they’re well-hidden behind fond memories.

Janani Ganesan is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
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