Sonia Faleiro’s gripping new book, The Good Girls, was triggered by a singularly horrific image which went viral on the internet in 2014. In the sweltering days of May that year, two girls (Faleiro gives them the monikers Padma and Lalli to protect their identities), first cousins, were found hanging from a tree in an orchard in Katra, a village in Budaun, Uttar Pradesh. Their families pointed fingers at the dominant-caste Yadav men in the neighbouring village of Jati. The Shakyas, like the Yadavs, belonged to Other Backward Classes, but they accused the latter of abducting their girls, gang-raping them, and killing them. The state, ruled by powerful Yadav politicians, had given their clan license to act without fear, the Shakyas said.
After weeks of shambolic investigation by the police, including multiple twists in the plot, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was called in. At the end of its inquiry, the CBI declared the girls had not been victims of sexual assault—they had taken their lives. Through rigorous reportage over several years and repeated visits, Faleiro meticulously reconstructs the events leading up to this conclusion, especially the slippery slope of half-truths that blighted months of police inquiry.
Her involvement in the story, Faleiro says on a video call from her home in London, was fortuitous. Since publishing her last book, Beautiful Thing, on the bar dancers of Mumbai in 2010, she had been chasing stories for a possible next book. Faleiro considered writing about missing children, spent years reporting on climate refugees in the Sundarbans, but nothing worked out. “Then, in 2012, I had a visceral reaction to the Delhi gang rape,” she says. “I decided I would write a book about rape in India.”
In a country that recorded 88 rape cases every day in 2019, according to the latest official statistics, Faleiro didn’t have to wait long for the next headline-breaking story. Barely two years after the Nirbhaya tragedy, before the ink on the recommendations submitted by the Justice J.S. Verma committee to reform rape laws was dry, the nation was shaken by Budaun. But the contours of this case weren’t black and white—the media coverage and police inquiry had both been callous.
To begin with, the girls were misreported to be Dalits, lending to the already heinous incident an added charge. Their families didn’t let the police bring down the bodies till the alleged culprits were arrested, leading to contamination of the crime scene by the scores of villagers, politicians and media people who gathered there. Valuable forensic evidence was lost.
Yet these poor and barely literate men and women had learnt a valuable lesson from the collective agitation around the Nirbhaya episode. “It did offer them a blueprint, but the courage was entirely theirs,” Faleiro says. “That the Shakyas resisted having the bodies removed revealed their keen understanding of the way India works.” A rape, especially in a patriarchal, rural milieu, run according to caste hierarchy, is a notoriously complex crime. In such societies, “the taboo against premarital sex,” Faleiro writes, is “greater than the stigma of rape”. When Padma’s father is asked by an investigator what he would have done if Padma were found alive, he declares he would have killed her to preserve the family’s honour.
Rape not only incriminates the alleged perpetrators, it also shows up the rotten core of the justice system that is supposed to provide remedy to the suffering family—the desperate measures they take to get rid of its stigma. Every stage of the investigation—assuming the police do register a complaint—is riddled with neglect, for the living and the dead.
Some of the most stomach-churning passages in Faleiro’s book recreate, in grisly detail, the post-mortem procedure. A sweeper equipped with a kitchen knife led the investigation as it was recorded on a video cassette that previously had footage of a wedding ceremony. Of the two doctors in charge, one had never examined a dead body but went on to make blunt presumptions about the cause of death, including the possibility of rape. Both ignored precious evidence, failed to secure samples that may have led to DNA analysis. The interred bodies, already in a poor state after being exposed to the summer heat for hours, were exhumed for further tests by the CBI weeks later. Procedural lapses continued as polygraph tests—whose results are inadmissible in court—were used to arrive at conclusions.
“The difference between the virtuous and the terrible was really muddy,” Faleiro says. “Everyone saw something different; everyone had a different story to tell.” For this reason, she keeps herself resolutely out of the story, allowing instead a multitude of voices to tell it. She is mindful of the characters’ grief, the gulf she cannot bridge between herself and women like Padma and Lalli’s mothers. Like the labyrinthine plot of Akira Kurosawa’s iconic movie Rashomon, the story of the eponymous “good girls” slowly finds its shape, like clay in the hand of an expert potter at the wheel. It doesn’t offer cardboard villains and victims for our scrutiny, only an unrelenting thread of loss and grief.