I start writing with a confession. I read the first hundred odd pages of The Good Girls by Sonia Faleiro when the book was released earlier in 2021. It was springtime in Delhi, Covid was apparently waning (there was no indication of the fury it would unleash just weeks later), vaccines were on the anvil, and I was hoping to get a mental break from the darkness of a pandemic stricken 2020, its unmitigated hardship, perpetuating class and caste based discrimination, and the persistent, pervasive bigotry that a virus continued to fuel against religious and ethnic minorities in India and the world.
The unrelenting cycle of crimes big and small preceded the pandemic too – the Covid-induced lockdowns in India came on the back of rising Hindutva violence, divisive populist politics that spawned hate filled filled election campaigns, and daily incidents of what scholar Sudha Pai calls “everyday communalism” that culminated in the communal clashes in Delhi in February 2020.
If anything, Faleiro’s The Good Girls, which details the events before and after two young girls were found hanging from a tree in a mango orchard in western Uttar Pradesh in 2014, exposes what can only be described as “everyday patriarchy”. In the badlands of western UP, the mundaneness of male oppression from the moment girls are born until the day they die is almost routine – girls are taught not to ask for more and women are silenced into expecting no better.
With each instance of horror that is discovered, outrage pours onto our social media feeds, followed by reactionary hate against those who fight for the protection of constitutional rights – all in a 48-hour cycle, until the next incident takes over. Battle-hardened as I may be, I had to stop reading.
The grisly, leery, suspicious and violent men who dictated the lives of the two teenaged Shakya girls who died in the Katra Sadatganj village of Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun district jumped off Faleiro’s pages straight into my already anxiety ridden, outraged mind – underscoring once again, the despair and helplessness that these everyday crimes have rent the air with.
Far from ordinary
It wasn’t until early July, that I gathered the courage to pick up Faleiro’s masterclass in journalism again. As I race through its pages – The Good Girls reads like a crime novel – her diligent research shines through as she recounts the events and conversations around the horror and sheer futility of the lives and deaths of two young girls in UP. For the sake of the book, and in keeping with the law, Faleiro has christened the girls – cousins – Padma and Lalli.
Teenagers filled with curiosity and aspiration, yet bound by the chains of patriarchy – mothers who knew their daughters were biding their time until they married, fathers who may have loved them, but not more than they loved their visceral desire to “protect” family “honour” – the burden of which women carry routinely, as men enjoy its privileges.
For all the conservatism of Western Uttar Pradesh’s men, who like to know what their women are doing, where they are going and whom they are speaking with all the time, the harsh reality of the absence of toilets for the girls to use (that led them to the fields at night in the first place) is a stunning contradiction that so many women have to contend with everyday – a mundane reality.
And so, their deaths were seemingly far too ordinary. An intrepid TV reporter who followed a lead to Katra Sadatganj didn’t do so because two girls had died, but because a group of villagers, led by the mother of one of them, had encircled the bodies, refusing to let anyone – including the police – bring them down, without a commitment to investigate their deaths.
Six years after the brutal Delhi Gang rape and murder of a young physiotherapy student on her way home from the movies shook a nation’s conscience, the laws had been amended, but the outrage we exhibited then hadn’t travelled far enough to cover crimes beyond city limits. The villagers’ instincts – staging a protest of sorts to demand an investigation– were right.
But here was the question. Were Padma and Lalli raped and murdered by the local Yadav boy, as their fathers insisted? Or did the men of their own family realise they were “carrying on” with the local Yadav boy in the fields at night and kill them themselves?
Or – the most shattering possibility of all – did the girls, who had been spotted by a distant male relative as they rendezvoused with the same boy in the fields that night, decide preemptively that fury would await them at home anyway, and climb up on the mango tree, tie their dupattas around their necks and the branches tightly and drop to their own deaths?
Faleiro’s investigation follows police and CBI records – the family’s allegations against Yadav neighbours, the police’s own suspicions about the girls male relatives, a contaminated post-mortem, conducted not by trained doctors but the Dalit sweeper of a civil hospital who didn’t have the same discomfort as doctors exhibited in touching dead bodies.
Each character who played a role in the girls’ lives, deaths and the subsequent investigation is interviewed over and over by the author. The result: in her telling of this ordinary killing as she calls it, Faleiro parses not just the main investigation, but a million micro crimes – a casual caste slur here, an unthinking comment about women’s “place” in society there, politicised false equivalences or “whataboutery” in half-baked attempts to create parity between today’s sins of political commission and those under past governments – the reality of India’s political landscape today.
Protection – from whom?
In Narendra Modi’s “new India” things were meant to be different, especially for women. “Beti bachao, beti padhao” (Save our daughters, educate our daughters) was the new slogan. Girls were now equal, said the Prime Minister – all of them our mothers and sisters and daughters – to be respected, and protected.
However, they were not individual agents in their own right, free to choose their careers, partners, or personal journeys. The patriarchy of language that preceded “new India” was perpetuated and normalised even further under an upper-caste, male-dominated, politically Hindu ruling party that looks benevolently on, in spite of the outrage laden convulsions that shaped the 2013 act strengthening India’s rape laws.
Faleiro’s vocabulary is neutral, her tone measured, but clear. The sense of anger and outrage she evokes in the reader is not an imposition, but a natural reaction. In public memory, the disturbing photographs of two girls hanging from the mango tree that appeared in the news in 2014, or the circle of mostly women who gathered around their suspended, distended bodies waiting for “someone high up” to investigate, is long forgotten.
But The Good Girls wants us to remember. Faleiro wants us to remember Padma and Lalli, the daily oppression of their lives and the futility of their deaths. In the 48 hour cycles of outrage we express on social media, this book wants us to revive and re-prioritise the need to ensure young women are protected – not by men, but from men who want to direct their lives.
The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing, Sonia Faleiro, Penguin Books.