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“The will to stop crimes against women is simply missing”: Sonia Faleiro

Sonia Faleiro on how 'The Good Girls' is different from 'Beautiful Thing', how she ended up writing a whole book on the murder of two teenage girls in Katra Sadatganj, and more.

May 15, 2022 / 03:07 PM IST
'The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing' by Sonia Faleiro (right) was on the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2022 longlist and the prestigious Crime Writers’ Association’s ALCS Gold Dagger for Nonfiction 2022 longlist. (Image collage courtesy eShe magazine)

'The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing' by Sonia Faleiro (right) was on the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2022 longlist and the prestigious Crime Writers’ Association’s ALCS Gold Dagger for Nonfiction 2022 longlist. (Image collage courtesy eShe magazine)

They were 16 and 14 years old. Two individuals, but one for the villagers in Katra Sadatganj: Padma-Lalli (names changed). Midnight of 26 May 2014, they disappeared, and the next morning their bodies were found hanging from a mango grove. The horrific photograph that revealed Padma and Lalli hanging from the tree was circulated on social media. It elicited the same panic that had engulfed the country when it witnessed the rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi two years ago.

For the opinionated, Katra Sadatganj was an open-and-shut case. Sensationalism and misreporting followed. In this haze, London-based investigative journalist Sonia Faleiro decided to visit the village for something that she was already working on, but she ended up pursuing the case for over four years only to realise that the story she “had was very different from the one I had initially heard”.

Also read: The Good Girls: Sonia Faleiro’s chilling chronicle of the 2014 hanging of two teens in Uttar Pradesh

The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing (Penguin, 2021), which was on the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2022 longlist and has made it to the prestigious Crime Writers’ Association’s ALCS Gold Dagger for Nonfiction 2022 longlist, is a result of that labour.

Moneycontrol connected with Faleiro over a Zoom call to discuss Good Girls and her reporting process in general. Edited excerpts:


How did this story come to you? As an independent journalist, what compelled you to pursue this story?

I wanted to write a book on rape culture in India. It was prompted by the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in 2012. I think her rape and murder gave us a language to talk about what it’s like to be a woman: to face harassment and assault, to be undermined and mistreated.

The reason the story of Padma and Lalli resonated with me was that it involved children. The photograph of the children hanging from the tree was posted on social media, which I think was an attempt by some people to try and create a reaction. Because there was a sense that despite what had happened in 2012, people still weren’t responding to the crisis in India.

And even at that point, I wasn’t going to write an entire book on it. Their story was going to be a part of the book, but it ended up being the whole book because there was so much to learn and understand.

Were your investigative approach and writing method for 'The Good Girls' any different from working on, say 'Beautiful Thing'?

With Beautiful Thing, I purposefully chose an immersive experience. Also, because I lived in Mumbai when I was writing this book, I could commit myself fully. I went to the dance bars, brothels, Mira Road, and to my sources almost every single day for two years.

In retrospect, I believe this immersive approach to writing isn’t healthy. It’s important to have a separation from your subjects and to take the time to process information. So, being in London and going to Katra Sadatganj and coming back was very useful. It helped me process, distil, and contextualise the information that I had. That’s why objectivity is the strength of Good Girls because I eventually went so much beyond the crime scene. I had to learn how a village in Uttar Pradesh functions. The place of caste, gender, rituals, and honour. The oppression, the constraints the people live under. It was a whole new world for me.

While writing a true crime story like this, do you also double up as an investigative agent?

I think it’s inevitable. One finds a great deal of information while reporting a project like this. However, even though I spoke to more than a hundred people and was involved in this project for more than four years, my work shouldn’t be confused with that of a detective. I cannot be expected to do what a police officer or somebody in the CBI should be doing.

How do you exercise caution while including a piece of information in a story? What determines that choice?

The information must be relevant and factual.

I think, over several years, I amassed a great amount of information. I’m very careful while including anything in a book; I also edit myself a lot because the book cannot be bogged down with details.

Second, in a book of investigative journalism, you ensure that you don’t put anything that hasn’t been verified. So, either I include something that can be verified or if it can’t, and if I absolutely need to put it in the book, then I state this information, rather than saying it’s a fact.

Why do you think people develop immunity towards crime against women?

Because there’s no corresponding punishment. Crimes keep happening. We have witnesses and people willing to speak up and go to court. However, either such cases don’t go to court, or the resolution is very unsatisfactory. So, when it comes to crimes against women, the will to stop these crimes is simply missing. And not only in India, but it’s worldwide. This results in two things. First, because there’s no conviction, criminals get emboldened. Second, victims become naturally reluctant to report crimes, participate in investigations, and even protest or demand change because after all no one is getting punished.

If we assess the causes behind these crimes not being prosecuted, then we find, for example, an insufficient and undertrained police force and an overworked justice system. So, it’s not one thing that is failing women.

This case was a prime example of how much value we put in ‘shame’ that it took the lives of two young women. Your thoughts?

What became clear was that in Katra Sadatganj, or any rural north Indian village, the shame of premarital sex was greater than that of rape. So, the family members of Padma and Lalli were extremely concerned about what would be said about them, their family, or future generations if the knowledge that their children have engaged in premarital sex would be leaked.

I think the idea that women or their families don’t report crimes because of shame has been proved to be incorrect over the past few years. What has changed is that women do report crimes like these and are getting some public support. What hasn’t changed, however, is the fact that premarital sex is taboo across Indian cultures, irrespective of communities, rural and urban divide, etc.

The book is very well-written. It is highly engaging and non-English words aren’t italicised. Also, short chapters make it a page-turner, keeping the suspense alive without slipping into sensationalism. Could you give us insights about structuring the narrative?

Language is such an important part of who we are. It reveals much more about us than any other aspect, so I paid a great deal of attention to it.

Italicising Braj Bhasha and Hindi words, which the protagonists and people in that village use, would make it sound like it’s something foreign. But there’s nothing foreign about them, so why treat them like they’re the ‘other’?

In terms of the narrative, the structure gets evolved over several drafts. And I didn’t realise the length of chapters until the book was complete. More than the size of chapters, however, it’s about keeping the narrative ticking along, ensuring readers are compelled to read the whole book, which becomes particularly challenging with subjects that people find (they are) reluctant to read about, like sexual violence or caste brutality.

What impact did chasing this story have on you?

First, it introduced me to many aspects of life in rural India that I wasn’t thoroughly familiar with, and this is even though much of my earlier reportage has focused on rural areas for over two decades. It also amplifies an already present concern that one has about the position that women are permitted to occupy in Indian society. The opportunities they are given. The freedoms they enjoy, if at all. Whether they are allowed to have dreams and jobs. It made me even more concerned and thoughtful about the state of women in India, and what I could do as a writer and an individual to effect some change.

What do you think can be done to make the coverage of gender-based violence more empathetic?

It’s clear that under pressure or in a rush to present or ‘break’ the story, a lot of misinformation gets pumped out. For example, it was reported that Padma and Lalli were Dalit. And that the other family, because being Yadav, were powerful, well to do and influential. All incorrect. Because we’ve seen the same thing in most cases, we shouldn’t extrapolate and reach a conclusion. Every case is different. We need to be respectful to the families that we’re writing about and honour the facts.

What’s next on your radar?

Besides continuing to work on South Asia Speaks – the literary mentorship I started two years ago – I’m working on my next book.

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Saurabh Sharma is a freelance journalist who writes on books and gender.
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