On an overcast afternoon last week, her grisly premonition came true. Brutalised teenager-turned-fabled outlaw-turned-lawmaker, iconised through a hugely successful film and a couple of biographies, the Bandit Queen, as the world loved calling her, lay in a pool of blood outside her Ashoka Road MP’s bungalow in the heart of Delhi. Three assailants alighting from a bottle-green Maruti had pumped eight bullets into her, killing her almost instantly and injuring her bodyguard grievously (see infographic). A tumultuous and controversial life had come to a macabre end. One of India’s most famous women, Phoolan, who was born into a family of lower-caste Mallahs (boatmen) in Uttar Pradesh, evoked extreme reactions which reinforced her mythical status. On the one hand, there was a slick Shekhar Kapur film on her life, a place in Harper’s Bazar’s list of women involved in the global fight for human rights, even a staggering case by Mildred Gordon, British Labour Party lawmaker, for a Nobel peace prize nomination. On the other, there was the image of a foul-mouthed ruthless bandit, a vote-catching mascot of cynical lower-caste politics who repelled the elite.
On the last day of her life, Phoolan, 38, woke up early in her sprawling bungalow in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi and prayed for an extra half hour—it was Nag Panchami, the day of the snake festival. Her husband Umed Singh, variously described as a realtor and party worker, left early for some work. Phoolan met some visitors and joined Muni, her 27-year-old sister, in the kitchen to cook up a wholesome chana and semaiyan meal. "I’ll be back home for lunch," she told Muni before leaving home for Parliament, barely a kilometre away, in the car loaned to her for the morning by Uma Kashyap, a Roorkee-based worker of the Eklavya Sena—an organisation for the lower castes that Phoolan had launched six years ago. Her Tata Sumo was in Mirzapur, the UP constituency from where she had been elected twice, while her Maruti Zen had gone for some repairs in Delhi. Earlier, Uma and her husband Vijay Kumar had met Phoolan in the morning to discuss some "political work".