Review

No Country for Good Girls

Sonia Faleiro writes a searing account of the case of two Indian girls found hanging from a mango tree—and uncovers dark societal truths about how and why they died.

By , a New York City-based Indian writer and journalist.
good-girls-ordinary-killing-india-sonia-faleiro-hanna-hbarczyk_illustration-lead
Hanna Barczyk illustration for Foreign Policy

“Why do girls need cellphone[s]?” declared Devshi Vankar, the head of the local council in Suraj, a small village in the Indian state of Gujarat, soon after the village banned the use of cellphones by single women in 2016. “Girls should better utilize their time for study and other works.” The ban was among a dozen similar prohibitions announced in the wake of the federal government’s Digital India campaign launched the previous year—an initiative that promised high-speed internet and digital infrastructure for every Indian citizen.

A powerful modernizing wave was coming, and traditional power structures in places like Suraj felt threatened. By 2016, several Chinese and other smartphone makers had introduced mobile phones that cost less than $100 in India, while the telecommunications giant Reliance Jio announced free internet and phone calls for more than a year to anyone who subscribed. The cost to access a gigabyte of data fell dramatically from $3.10 to $1.90 in less than a year, allowing financially struggling Indians in rural areas to be online.

Increasingly, smartphones were delivering information to the far fringes of Indian society—about health care, about various means to attain better living conditions, and simply about other ways to live. In some cases, they brought marginalized people closer to faraway traders who could now directly buy their wares. But access to a handheld cellular device—one that could be used in private, standing against a corner of a crowded family hovel, or from behind a bale of hay in a far corner of a tobacco farm—also brought the one thing that most Indian societies arguably fear most: the opportunity for women to make their own decisions. Some form of backlash was perhaps inevitable.

“Why do girls need cellphone[s]?” declared Devshi Vankar, the head of the local council in Suraj, a small village in the Indian state of Gujarat, soon after the village banned the use of cellphones by single women in 2016. “Girls should better utilize their time for study and other works.” The ban was among a dozen similar prohibitions announced in the wake of the federal government’s Digital India campaign launched the previous year—an initiative that promised high-speed internet and digital infrastructure for every Indian citizen.

A powerful modernizing wave was coming, and traditional power structures in places like Suraj felt threatened. By 2016, several Chinese and other smartphone makers had introduced mobile phones that cost less than $100 in India, while the telecommunications giant Reliance Jio announced free internet and phone calls for more than a year to anyone who subscribed. The cost to access a gigabyte of data fell dramatically from $3.10 to $1.90 in less than a year, allowing financially struggling Indians in rural areas to be online.

<em>The Good Girls</em>, Sonia Faleiro, Grove Atlantic, 352pp., , February 2021.

The Good Girls, Sonia Faleiro, Grove Atlantic, 352 pp., $26, February 2021.

Increasingly, smartphones were delivering information to the far fringes of Indian society—about health care, about various means to attain better living conditions, and simply about other ways to live. In some cases, they brought marginalized people closer to faraway traders who could now directly buy their wares. But access to a handheld cellular device—one that could be used in private, standing against a corner of a crowded family hovel, or from behind a bale of hay in a far corner of a tobacco farm—also brought the one thing that most Indian societies arguably fear most: the opportunity for women to make their own decisions. Some form of backlash was perhaps inevitable.

The Good Girls, by Sonia Faleiro, tracks the case of two teenage girls found hanging from a mango tree in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in 2014—a full year before the official announcement of Digital India. But even then, many local villagers blamed the deaths on the pernicious effect of cellphones and, more specifically, on the girls’ parents for allowing them to use such devices. “They shouldn’t be out in public with a mobile phone,” Faleiro quotes a local schoolteacher who feels responsible for the girls, even though he barely knew them. “Who knows who they’re talking to?” he wonders. The gruesome incident was covered in the New York Times and the Guardian, and even got a mention in a speech by then-United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who expressed his concern over the safety of women in India.

Reconstructing the case nearly a year after the final verdict, Faleiro skillfully sketches the details of the children’s lives—she repeatedly refers to the 14- and 16-year-old cousins from the Shakya family as “children” to reinforce how young they were—and builds a suspenseful narrative of the days leading up to their sudden disappearance, the ensuing drama of an all-night search, and the quickly compounding pandemonium around the mango tree where they were discovered the next day.

The case received immense national and international media attention, in part because of the family’s refusal to take down the bodies even as they baked in the sun for hours. The decision was eerily reminiscent of one made by the mother of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American child who was tortured and killed in Mississippi in 1955; Till’s body was horrifically mutilated, but his mother wanted an open casket because “everybody needed to know what had happened.”

It was the women in the Shakya family—otherwise almost invisible in rural India’s rigid social order—who decided to form a human chain to guard their daughters’ bodies so no one could take them down until everyone saw what had happened to them, with the rest of the village soon surrounding them in their grief. That forced India’s big media outlets, many of which had previously ignored calls to cover the case, to jump into action. But media coverage focused less on empathy and more on sensationalism. TV channels recreated the death scenes in gruesome, voyeuristic detail, even though the children’s bodies were still unexamined and any details about the case were yet to be determined.

The Good Girls is both a riveting crime narrative and an insightful commentary on the chasm between urban and rural India.

None of this was particularly surprising. National media attention at the time was in short supply for topics that weren’t Bollywood, cricket, or the rise of corporate India. According to Faleiro, New Delhi’s Centre for Media Studies discovered, after monitoring six major national newspapers over six months in 2014, that rural India only made 0.23 percent of the news even though it was home to 70 percent of the country’s population. As Faleiro notes, urban Indians are woefully unaware of the complex realities of remote villages. Such places are so unacknowledged that residents of neighboring towns often can’t place them on a map.

Urban elites’ collective distance and dissonance from the rural majority of the country leads to the kind of broken social, political, and even cultural systems that underline the narrative of The Good Girls. At first, the case of the Shakya girls appeared to be a sordid tale of five men, including two policemen, who raped and murdered the teens and hung their bodies from a tree. The prevailing narrative was about male members of the Yadav caste who decided to assault the so-called lower-caste Shakya girls, who were initially misreported as Dalits (formerly known as “untouchables”). The story was all too believable because it’s not that unusual for Dalit women and girls to be raped and left for dead. This most recent prominent instance happened in September 2020 in Hathras, barely a four-hour drive from where the Shakya girls were found. In that case, men from the Thakur caste, seen as “upper-caste,” gang-raped a Dalit teen, crushed her spine, and chopped out her tongue, then left her to die in the fields where she was working.

Faleiro, a London-based writer and journalist who previously wrote Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars to wide acclaim, speaks to more than 200 people with some connection to the girls and their deaths. These include the local political representative for Katra Sadatganj, the remote hamlet where the girls lived, and the doctor who gave a first post-mortem report declaring that the girls’ injuries were “indicative of rape”—an assertion that was later proved to be false. She pores over 42 medical and forensic reports, including ones she received from the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), India’s premier investigative agency. And she recreates crucial scenes, such as the all-night search party, whose members were abused and turned away by drunken policemen, illustrating the kind of grotesque power dynamics that permeate Indian society.

Faleiro’s book is both a riveting crime narrative and an insightful commentary on the chasm between urban and rural India. She has a wonderful eye for details of place and character. A witness-slapping supervisory officer of the CBI is described as having “narrow eyes and a double chin embedded in folds of skin that the blazing sun had roasted the colour of an aubergine.” In Western Uttar Pradesh, where the story unfolds, the smell at one point is of “heat, husks and buffalo droppings.”

Manju, a 12-year-old from the city of Noida, is spending her summer with relatives at the Shakya household at the time of the apparent murders and is somewhat shocked by the lives of her cousins. She notes that “there was no time for them to think.” At dawn, they would start a cycle of chores that seemingly never stopped. Back home in Noida, Manju herself was being groomed by her parents to be a dutiful wife—already she cooked dinner every night. Yet still she found time to sit in front of an air conditioner and listen to music, a luxury that was unimaginable for the Shakya girls, who worked like they were “already wives and mothers.” Faleiro shows how almost everybody in the village, as well as nearby areas, engages in countless hours of backbreaking labor for what amount to wages that would seem impossible to survive on.

Perhaps what Faleiro does best is showcase how severely broken India’s government and social institutions are. These include the local police, who are so under-resourced that they can only get around by bicycle, and the post-mortem center where a Dalit cleaning worker with no formal training uses kitchen knives and a colonial-era table to conduct autopsies because no so-called upper-caste doctors want to be “polluted” by touching a dead body.

Faleiro takes a scalpel to nearly every outfit that’s involved in the solving of crime in India and discovers a dense web of ineptitude and stopgap measures that no one cares to redress. Even the vaunted CBI is shown to be an organization under the rigid control of the central government—which is known to use its intelligence apparatus to settle scores. The CBI tries to project a sense of justice and fairness in its investigation but keeps getting tripped up. At one point, members of a medical committee appointed to conduct a time-sensitive second post-mortem fail to hold a meeting for months because they can’t find a date that fits around their summer vacation schedule. Eventually, the CBI faces a surge of negative public opinion fueled by a sensationalist media that descends on the district of Badaun—and comes to refer to the investigation as the CBI’s “Badaun Botch-Up.”

The Good Girls is largely about power and how almost everyone with any bit of it tries to misuse it. It is also about the byzantine political landscape of Uttar Pradesh, which is India’s most populous and powerful state, but where people remain so impoverished they eat grass to survive when the crops fail. It’s about how politicians routinely deflect blame instead of working to protect the interests of their constituents. And, ultimately, Faleiro’s book is about our apathy to anyone who doesn’t look, behave, or experience life as we do—especially if they don’t live in cities.

What The Good Girls isn’t about is caste—at least not overtly. Even though its jacket mentions the caste system and the book itself opens with a quote from the ancient lawmaker Manu, whose Manusmriti is the cornerstone of the caste system in India as we know it, caste remains a theme that only simmers in the background.

Ultimately, The Good Girls is about our apathy to anyone who doesn’t look, behave, or experience life as we do.

To her credit, Faleiro points out atrocities committed against Dalits and takes great care to explain why Dalits and supposedly lower-caste families like the Shakyas continue to favor Dalit politicians even as their conditions remain dismal. In Uttar Pradesh it was said, she writes, “people didn’t ‘cast their vote, they voted their caste.’” But in a book that goes to great lengths to uncover details about the history of a building where the accused are first jailed, little direct attention is given to the caste system itself.

At the heart of her book, Faleiro rightly positions the two doomed girls, whose lives were cut short by a society that ultimately cared more about its so-called honor than it did about them and their happiness. Even as the search party is desperately trying to find the missing teens, their family is reluctant to call out their names because they don’t want neighbors to learn what’s happening. Female existence is conditioned so strictly around permanent servitude, first to their family and then their husbands, that any moments of joy and hope—like the girls sneaking out to write poetry in a diary they hide in the field where they relieve themselves—are viewed with suspicion. “A girl’s life was everyone’s business,” Faleiro writes.

When a neighbor sees the girls speaking on a cellphone, he feels compelled to keep tabs on them, while another screams at their parents to get them married if they can’t control them. When the truth finally emerges—about a consensual relationship between the older girl and one of the accused, and the fact that they used a cellphone to manage their secret encounters—villagers openly say that if this were their daughter, they would have killed her themselves. The girl’s own father, who was ignorant of his daughter’s secret relationship, admits to the same dark impulse while undergoing a lie detector test.

Eventually, the CBI closes the case by proving—through a combination of forensic reports, call records, and medical testimonies—that the girls felt compelled to kill themselves after a relative walked in on one of them with her partner. Even though it was Padma, the older sister, who was in a relationship, the younger sister, Lalli, felt tainted by association, Faleiro explains. Until that moment of discovery, they were considered “good girls.” But like so many female Indians who decide for themselves who they want to love and marry, their fate appeared sealed as soon as they were found out. By pursuing their desires and exerting control over their bodies, the girls had committed a crime whose only punishment was death.

If there is one fact that any Indian woman knows to be true it is this: The insistence on controlling women is so suffocating that even many of those closest to us would rather have us dead than in charge of our own bodies. In The Good Girls, Sonia Faleiro doesn’t let anyone forget that.

Yashica Dutt is a New York City-based Indian writer and journalist and the author of Coming Out as Dalit. Twitter: @YashicaDutt

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