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2 June 2021updated 24 Oct 2022 4:12pm

The Good Girls investigates violence against women in Modi’s India

Sonia Faleiro’s story of the deaths of Padma Shakya and Lalli Shakya sheds light on broader issues in contemporary India. 

By Emily Tamkin

One evening in May 2014, two teenage girls – cousins Padma Shakya and Lalli Shakya – went missing in the village of Katra Sadatganj, in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. The next day, their bodies were discovered hanging from a tree. A TV journalist hears of the story, but thinks it sounds exactly like the sort of common tragedy about which nobody will care. It’s only when he learns that the girls’ family have insisted on leaving the bodies hanging in public view that he goes to report on it. The girls’ family know that if they allow Padma and Lalli’s bodies to be taken down, interest in their murder will fade and the investigation will be neglected, because that is what happens when harm comes to poor village girls.

The aftermath of this “ordinary killing” is documented by Sonia Faleiro in The Good Girls, which also tells the story of the unresolved investigation into what became known as the “Badaun rape-murder case” (Badaun is the district where the girls were killed). Faleiro conducted more than 100 interviews between 2015 and 2018, trying to piece together what happened that night in May 2014. The book’s chapters are short, and readers are moved quickly from one theory to the next. Was the murder about caste? Did their fathers kill them as a matter of family honour? Was it suicide? Arrests are made, but nobody is ever convicted, or even made to stand trial for murder. Eventually, a neighbour is charged with sexual assault, but that charge is left unresolved, too.

[See also: Reconsidering violence against women]

Faleiro’s years of research do not yield clear answers. Yet if the reader is propelled by the question of “whodunnit”, Faleiro is more interested in the question of “what did it”: what were the forces at work that caused two girls who had gone out to the fields to relieve themselves (their home had no toilet) never to come back? Faleiro takes the reader through all that Padma and Lalli were up against – sexism, poverty, distrust between communities – and all that their families were confronted with in seeking justice after their deaths.

The village is divided by caste, between Shakya and Yadav, both of which are officially classified in Uttar Pradesh as “OBC” (“Other Backward Classes”, the Indian government’s term for socio-economically disadvantaged castes). Nobody trusts the police or expects the legal system to deliver justice. (“Fighting is futile,” a head constable says at one point. “File a case and you’ll only end up making the rounds of the court.”)

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Politicians don’t govern so much as fix individual problems on a case-by-case basis in order to continue winning elections and enriching themselves; when they do show up, it is to be seen. And in 2014, the first year of Narendra Modi’s “New India” – the prime minister pledged to dramatically improve living conditions and India’s international standing – the public wants the media to reflect a positive image of their country, to depict a people on the ascent. It wants news about Indian billionaires and celebrities – good news, not tragic news about dead girls. When the case does finally make national headlines, it’s sensationalised by talking heads in Delhi for their urban audience.

[See also: Deborah Levy and the domestic]

The pages of The Good Girls demand to be turned, but this is not a book you can read in one sitting – I couldn’t, in any case. The number of mistakes made by police and medical examiners is overwhelming. Faleiro uses the story as a prism through which to examine a range of huge issues – from violence against women and girls (as she puts it in her author’s note, “an Indian woman’s first challenge was surviving her own home”) to poverty and caste-based discrimination in Uttar Pradesh and India more generally. If the mystery around the crime keeps the reader turning the pages, the weight and range of the social issues bound up with it force you to slow down, demanding reflection. It is, at times, a hard book to read; the tale is a harrowing one, and Faleiro’s masterful storytelling makes its horror vivid.

Violence against women spiked during India’s first Covid-19 lockdown, in spring 2020 (the National Commission for Women received 5,297 domestic violence complaints in 2020, compared to 2,960 in 2019). There were nationwide demonstrations last autumn against the alleged gang rape of a woman from the Dalit caste – the most marginalised in India. In 2018 a photograph of a woman assaulted by police during a protest against sexual harassment and then threatened with arrest for “outraging the modesty of a woman” went viral. In 2019 a 23-year-old woman was set on fire in Uttar Pradesh while travelling to a court hearing about her rape case. Seven years have elapsed since the murder of Padma and Lalli, but their story is perhaps more relevant than ever.

The Good Girls is exceptional for the way Faleiro uses her narrative gifts to tell a single – if not singular – story to shed light on broader issues in contemporary India. She treats every person she introduces as full of life. Through the remarkable attention she pays to the case, Faleiro weaves an extraordinary tale out of this “ordinary killing”, insisting on the importance of the girls’ deaths – and the uniqueness of their lives.

The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing
Sonia Faleiro
Bloomsbury Circus, 352pp, £16.99

[See also: Rachel Cusk and the art of the midlife crisis]

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This article appears in the 02 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West