Winter mornings in Bundelkhand are teeth-chattering, body-stiffening affairs.

In homes that are designed to stay cool in the blistering summer months, even the faintest warmth—such as the kind that resides in a blanket heated by your body overnight—flees in an instant. Getting out of bed is the hardest part. In uninsulated brick houses, an insidious dew-damp chill lingers on the polished concrete floors, clinging to the soles of your bare feet. Sampat Pal was unflinching in the harsh cold. On the morning of December 14, 2010, like all other mornings, the commander in chief of the Pink Gang rose at dawn and trod from her two-room office to the courtyard in the center of her landlord’s house, to bathe. She grabbed the cold steel lever of the hand pump and thrust it up and down, causing the metallic, hairraising sound to echo against the chilled walls. A few seconds later, water gushed forth into an old paint bucket. When it was full to the brim, she dunked a small plastic beaker into the water and poured it over her brown, goose-fleshed body. Sampat Pal barely noticed the biting cold. Her thoughts, like a tenacious hound, were digging over the details of a suspicious story that had been brought to her attention the day before. One of her district commanders, Geeta Singh, had told Sampat that her brother-in-law, Suraj Singh, had come to ask Geeta for help. Suraj worked at a small shoe shop located near the house of Purushottam Naresh Dwivedi, a member of the Legislative Assembly in the state of Uttar Pradesh. As a result, Suraj was an acquaintance with the politician’s son, Mayank, who had in the past invited Suraj to their home. Suraj had recently heard that a mysterious girl was living there. Shortly afterward, he saw a girl taken out of Dwivedi’s house and shoved into a police van. “She’s stolen from the vidhayak’s house,” people told him, but Suraj felt that something fishy was going on, so he alerted Geeta, who in turn informed Sampat. When Sampat is deep in thought, her eyes, unusually virescent and specked with hints of gold and amber, narrow. Her feathery eyebrows, which curve upward slightly in the middle when at rest, plunge south. This, coupled with her unconscious tendency to poke the tip of her tongue out when pursuing a thought, caused her, in moments like these, to resemble a child busily working out demanding arithmetic calculations in her head. “None of this is true!” Sampat said to herself, rinsing the soap bubbles off her body with a beaker of tepid water. “How could a girl steal from a politician? Who could she be? A maid? A lover?” Sampat had good reasons for being suspicious. In Uttar Pradesh, India’s Wild West, more than a fourth of the elected representatives in the Legislative Assembly had been charged with criminal offenses. Nineteen percent had serious charges pending against them, including attempted murder, rape, extortion, and kidnapping. Sampat, fired up now, rushed to get out of the house. When short of time, Sampat hastily wraps herself in her sari, and if it is winter, she throws on a knitted cardigan to keep the cold at bay. After dressing, she grabs her comb and rigorously drags it through her shoulder-length black hair, working out the dripping knots and tangles until it is smooth. Most days she gathers her hair in a damp ponytail and, giving it one quick twist, clips it into place with a metal barrette. With that, the precious few moments that Sampat has for herself everyday between the toilet and the bucket bath are over. Wiping the sleep from her eyes for the final time, Sampat then marches outside in her webbed toe socks and rubber-soled flip-flops—her usual winter footwear—to face the day.

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