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Parini Shroff's laugh-out-loud debut novel explores caste, domestic abuse and murder

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To new fiction now and the story of Geeta, jewelry maker in an Indian village with a dangerous reputation. You see, Geeta is a widow because she killed her husband - at least that is what people think. And Geeta is happy for the rumors to stand uncorrected because, well, she likes freedom a lot better than she liked her husband. Everything is going well for her until the other women in the village start asking for help getting rid of their husbands, and that is the starting point for the wild ride that is the new novel, "The Bandit Queens." It's the debut novel of Parini Shroff. Parini Shroff, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

PARINI SHROFF: Hello. Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: How exactly does everyone in this village come to believe that Geeta murdered her husband?

SHROFF: Well, Geeta's husband, Ramesh - he disappeared. He ran out on her five years prior to when the novel begins. And gossip is a huge theme in this novel and - about one's reputation, which is one's currency when you're in a village this small. At first, I'm not really sure that people truly believe it. I think it might be a mixed bag, but I do believe, in a village of this size, people love ostracizing. And I think the rumor snowballs. And before you know it, people believe it because they want to believe it. People believe it because Geeta is a pariah, and better her than them.

KELLY: And she finds this works very much to her advantage in certain ways. Explain.

SHROFF: Absolutely. People are superstitious, and Geeta uses that superstition to her gain. And while she's socially mixed with dirt, as is said throughout the novel, her business is thriving, and she tries to convince herself that that's all she needs from an economic standpoint. She doesn't need friends. She just needs money.

KELLY: And she does - I want to tease out a little bit just how she uses this to her advantage. People are scared of her. They're scared not to buy her jewelry when she pushes it, and there are advantages to that in such a small village.

SHROFF: Well, Geeta - I think she tries to convince herself she doesn't need anybody, and so she convinces herself this is to her advantage. Children don't bother her, but that's OK because she doesn't like children. People don't bother her, but that's OK 'cause she doesn't like people. And throughout the course of the novel, she realizes that there's an advantage to camaraderie. There's an advantage to friendship. There's an advantage to not being so isolated, and there's a power in that, too. And so while she has had some limited power by herself, when Geeta's world opens up and she has a second chance with friendship - has a second chance with, perhaps, romance, the power there is magnified tenfold.

KELLY: There was a line that resonated with me. I've never lived in a village in rural India, but I was right there with Geeta when she starts thinking about the fact of women living within spaces that other people have defined. Why do other people get to make all the choices? Why don't we get to make some? You were - it felt like reaching for something universal there.

SHROFF: Oh, absolutely. I'm so happy that you said that because that means it worked for you. There are details throughout the novel that are very specific to this village in India. For instance, Geeta really wants a refrigerator. And that's specific to her, and that's specific to this climate. But the larger themes of patriarchy and domestic violence and female friendship and female camaraderie - that is universal, as well as what I mentioned earlier about gossip and reputation being a commodity. I feel like the claustrophobia and the close-knit community of this village could be translated to any close community worldwide.

KELLY: This novel is actually very funny - like, laugh out loud funny. How did you think about that? Why was that important to use humor to get at some very dark stuff?

SHROFF: I wrote this novel in 2020, during the pandemic. And I started, and the humor kept creeping in, likely because, during those grim pandemic days, I also needed some levity through the darkness. And I kept trying to shove it off - like, this is serious. We can't do this. This is irreverent. And then I found that not only did that comedy - that dark humor keep creeping in. It was serving to levitate. It was a nice foil to the darker themes I wanted to address and take on seriously. And I found that, instead of fighting it, I should lean into it because it was helping me say something.

KELLY: That's interesting - that idea of, like, take anything - take whatever you can get your hands on to get you through a dark moment. And you're writing this at a moment where we were all doing that - just looking for a little hope wherever we could find it during the pandemic.

SHROFF: I think that the dark comedy was not only essential when I was drafting it. But the more I did it, the more it seemed like it was realistic because, human beings, we do find levity even in some macabre issues. It's how we survive. It's how we get through it. And especially with this group of women - like, the humor, through their oppression, is how they get through it. It's how they come through the other side.

KELLY: Give me an example of a scene where you're using humor to propel your characters through something quite serious, quite dark.

SHROFF: I'll try to be generic here. There is, as we've touched, that the women seek Geeta's help in disposing of their own husbands. There's a dinner party scene, and the women are attempting to rid one such husband. And it's not going well. And the comedy there is they start to bicker with each other - really comes through. And there's, like, a bit of blaming before they say, all right. Let's put our fingers down and pool our minds, and let's get through this together.

KELLY: They're serving a poisoned curry. Am I allowed to give that away (laughter)?

SHROFF: Yes, I think so. I mean, this is...

KELLY: They're trying to get the plate in front of the right person.

SHROFF: They're trying to get the plate of poisoned - absolutely - veggie curry in front of the right victim, and it is not going well.

KELLY: (Laughter) And you're making me laugh, and we're talking about poisoning someone at a dinner party. So I guess, yeah, it works.

SHROFF: It makes you wonder your own moral scale, really.

KELLY: Yes, there's that.

SHROFF: But I guarantee you're not going to be rooting for these select men. You're going to be rooting for the women. So...

KELLY: Stay with the idea of moral scale because this was what I found so interesting about Geeta - is she is rescuing stray dogs. Like, she can't stand to see them mistreated, even as she is helping plot the murder of someone she knows quite well and is at a dinner party with. How did she wrestle with that? How did you think about it as you wrote her?

SHROFF: The relativity there is about - for me, it was about the other person's actions. Like, in this instance, the dog hasn't hurt anybody. The dog's been harmed. The dog had been abused, but the dog has no malicious intent. And the husband, with the fateful curry, has done some dark, horrible things, and that's where the sliding scale comes in. When I first approached the idea of women getting together to dispose of a husband, I struggled with it. If someone's killing someone, they're a sociopath. And how do I get a reader to root for a sociopath? And I was talking to my father about it, and he said - and I'll never forget this. He said, I don't think you have to be a sociopath to kill someone. I think you just have to be hungry enough. And that really resonated with me when I wrote Farah, who is the first wife to approach Geeta for help in killing her abusive husband. And I think, when I was dissecting actions and motives, it was very clear to me - OK, they just have to be in a horrible enough position where this is their out.

KELLY: We've been speaking with the writer Parini Shroff about her debut novel, which is titled "The Bandit Queens." Parini Shroff, thank you.

SHROFF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.