London-based author Sonia Faleiro’s latest book The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing (Penguin Hamish Hamilton, ₹599) is the tragic, real-life story of two village girls, who, in the summer of 2014, were found hanging from a tree in the Katra Sadatganj village in the Badaun district of western Uttar Pradesh.
After several conflicting eyewitness interrogations, post-mortem examinations and CBI inquiries, the authorities concluded that the girls had taken their own lives—they were afraid that being found with a boy would bring dishonour to them and their families. Several people questioned this verdict.
Padma (16) and Lalli (14)—whose names have been changed in accordance with Indian law—were inseparable. Cousins and best friends, “people called them Padma Lalli, like they were one person.”
One evening, the girls were given permission to attend a village fair—presumably the best day of their lives—after which they returned home. When they went to relieve themselves in the fields at night, they met Pappu Yadav, a watermelon farmer. A neighbour who saw them informed a relative of theirs that they were out in a secluded place with a mobile phone. Thereafter, the girls went missing.
In order to put things in perspective, the author traces the politics in the state of UP—known infamously as “Horror Pradesh” or “the murder capital of India”—during the time. The party in power consisted of corrupt ministers with criminal records. The prevailing atmosphere in the area was one of fear and insecurity, and many people had access to guns.
It is no surprise then that no one in the girls’ family reported their missing to the police, which is known for its dismissive behaviour towards the poor and tendency to favour persons belonging to their own caste. Moreover, the book says, it wasn’t just the girls’ honour that was at stake, it was the family’s too.
“Who they were, and what happened to them, was already less important than what their disappearance meant to the status of the people left behind,” writes Faleiro.
Faleiro’s previous books include Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars (Black Cat, 2012), which was named best book of the year by Economist, NPR, Guardian, San Francisco Chronicle, Kirkus, CNN Mumbai, and Observer; as well as a novella, The Girl (Penguin, 2008).
Her extensive knowhow of the subject and the region is palpable through the meticulous details with which she recounts the case in her latest book. As part of its research, she interviewed more than a hundred people, and studied several records and investigation files that the CBI submitted to the court. Along the way, she intersperses the story with a number of relevant data points and statistics.
The book also examines deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes that exist in rural India—such as the invisible women mostly staying at home, cooking for the men, eating after them and sitting lower than them. Unmarried women are forbidden from using phones, and most girls are pulled out of school after the eighth standard when education is no longer free or compulsory. They are then married off—for their own safety.
2014 was also the year when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sworn in as India’s new leader, whose slogan ironically was “achhe din aane waale hain (good days are coming).” The same year, the National Crime Records Bureau reported 28 cases of honour killings across the country. But, as the author points out, the actual numbers—due to reasons as diverse as marrying outside one’s caste or religion and having premarital sex—possibly ran into hundreds, if not thousands.
The book throws light on the fact that while Modi made women’s safety a prominent part of his election campaign, and even announced a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards violence against women, he engaged with the subject only to win votes. Like so many politicians before him, these were merely false promises that were all too easily forgotten as soon as he came to power.
In fact, it was found that atrocities against women witnessed ‘a spike under the BJP dispensation,’ and politicians were themselves committing crimes. One BJP politician was even convicted for raping a teenager in Uttar Pradesh.
The high-profile Badaun case took television news and social media by storm—with numerous conversations about ending caste, patriarchy and gender violence as well as bringing education, professional opportunities and toilets to rural women.
According to Faleiro, the case of the two girls revealed that “an Indian woman’s first challenge is surviving her own home.” She concludes that while urban India has rapidly modernized over the years, it hasn’t changed much for the majority of the country—the poor—who live in its villages, where people have phones but no toilets, and where women have some education but are not allowed to step out of the home to work.
A thriller-like page-turner with short chapters, the book moves swiftly along. It could well be the basis for the script of a potboiler film or web series—one about a ‘hot case’ that helped start a national conversation.First published in eShe magazine