The Good Girls: Sonia Faleiro

Sonia Faleiro’s new book, The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing, investigates the death of two young girls in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh. The book offers Faleiro, an accomplished journalist, an opportunity to spend four years following up on a hot-button news story. It lets her, and her readers, to look beyond the lurid headlines and to shatter easy assumptions around poverty, crime, and gender. 

Katra village-Jati hamlet are home to the Shakya and Yadav castes, who live separately but are conjoined by geography. Katra-Jati are in Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh (UP) with just the basic stabs of modernity: mobile phones, erratic power supply and a handful of vehicles. Women and men, and their children — daughters, sons, nieces — live by clear caste and gender roles. In Katra, there is endless labour in the fields and at homes — “the day was a thousand years long”, writes Faleiro —but little wealth or clout to show in return. 

The book is also about the India with deep bonds of kinship and caste spanning villages and families. Even death cannot break apart ties forged in marriage. The hard labour of living and keeping a house fed papers over the many complex fissures that run through families. This domestic work delimits everything including childhood; as Faleiro notes, “the span of childhood was in the hands of fate”. And sometimes, this lattice will devour its children. 

“The Vedas had a prayer calling for people to die in the right order. Parents, always, before children… no parent should have to bury a child. And yet, time and again, the Shakyas have done just that.”

With a few short chapters, Faleiro establishes the space and the key characters in the calamity that descends on a Shakya family in Katra. Two Shakya girls, cousins, soul-mates — Faleiro names them Padma and Lalli to protect their identities — step out one evening to relieve themselves in the fields. A few hours later, they are found hanging from a tree, their colourful chunnies[1] become nooses and their chappals[2] rest neatly on the base of the tree. Why did they die? Are Padma and Lalli victims of the sexual violence roiling Indian society? Or, as the police and CBI claim, was it a nocturnal tryst gone wrong? Have Yadav youth kidnapped and killed the girls? Fingers point to a Yadav boy from Jati hamlet where the Yadavs are poorer, but in a UP where they dominate across social and political life. Faleiro captures the Yadavs’ double-bind: “everyone, they said, knew that Yadavs hurt people”. But all Yadavs don’t enjoy the same clout: “This is what is meant to be poor, they said, low caste and above all, Yadav”.  Or, is it an honour-killing? The Shakya patriarchs love their daughters, but family honour is a significant concern. 

The Shakya daughters are dead, and their mothers circle the tree, “protecting the girls with their bodies”. The Shakya men refuse to bring the bodies down until “justice” is promised to them. Their refusal, and the burning debates on gendered violence in the country, turns national media attention towards Katra. The story soon becomes front-page news around the world. The media circus that swoops into Katra, feeds easy narratives to the watching public. Soon, the chasm between the truth and what people want to be true widens. Faleiro writes simply, beautifully, as she slowly builds the tempo. Her gaze is objective, but always sympathetic and open to complexity. The time and space she gives herself to find the truth is the opposite of a quick news report. She speaks to everyone involved, and lets their different voices shed light on people’s motivations, relationships, and biases. The story builds towards the central question: why? Why did Padma and Lalli die? Who killed them? 

In the process, Faleiro urges the reader to look beyond the headlines and grapple with the realities of life for women and girls across the country. Part procedural, part journalistic enquiry, The Good Girls chronicles the many dangers, systemic and personal, stalking Indian women. It is a reminder that good and necessary interventions, like building toilets, can have unintended negative consequences. For some of India’s women, going out into the fields is the only freedom they have; a toilet at home removes another opportunity to step out. Toilets too, like technology, can then become fetters to freedom. The book makes the reader question the many layers of oppression bearing down on all of us that spoil such fruits of civilisational progress. Faleiro works these themes into this page-turner while keeping the reader invested in Padma and Lalli’s lives. The book is a must-read.

Buy from UK / USA

[1] Long piece of cloth worn around the shoulders and the head.

[2] Slippers.

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