032521_book column

There’s no doubt that women have made tremendous strides throughout history and the month of March honors their accomplishments. However, there are still many places in the world where women are grossly mistreated and marginalized and a recent book “The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing,” (Grove Press) is a heartbreaking example. It’s a true story of two young girls, who, in the summer of 2014, were found hanging from the branches of a mango tree in the tiny village of Katra in northern India’s Uttar Pradesh, one of the country’s most politically significant and poorest states, where people survived on grass in lean times. The book’s author is the India-born, London-based writer/journalist Sonia Faleiro, who researched the tragedy for over four years. It’s a powerful book, difficult to get through but even more difficult to put down and, because it shines light on the challenges facing young women in India today, it is essential reading.

16-year-old Padma and 14-year-old Lalli (whose names have been changed in accordance with Indian law) were cousins as well as best friends. “People called them Padma Lalli,” the author writes, alike as “two grains of rice.” One day, they were allowed to go to a village fair thanks to the approval from a city cousin. It was presumably the best day of their lives. Returning home around 9:00 p.m., they went into the fields which were used as toilets. This was routine since their homes had no facilities and their departure did not arouse suspicion. But, as is later learned, they went to meet a young boy, Pappu Yadav, with whom Padma had already begun an intimate relationship. Lalli was the look-out. A cousin, Nazru, who had been told to keep an eye on the girls, spied Padma’s forbidden rendezvous as well as the girls talking on a mobile phone (an act that proved, according to a society where women are untrustworthy, that they were seeking dangerous liaisons). Determined to do his duty in a community where “a girl’s life was everyone’s business,” he relayed what he had seen to their older male relative. After that, the girls went missing.

For India’s political leaders the increased use of mobile phones is a proud symbol of modernization and economic progress. This isn’t the case for the deeply conservative villagers in the impoverished north of the country. In Katra phones are seen as a threat to the traditional social order, and young girls are firmly controlled until married off by their parents. “A phone was a key to a door that led outside the village via calls and messaging apps,” Faleiro says. “The villagers were afraid of what would happen if women stepped through this door. They might get ideas such as whom to marry.”

The deaths of Padma and Lalli caused outrage locally and attracted attention worldwide. The girls were quickly presumed to have been raped and murdered by higher-caste men – a grim example of the prevalent sexual violence against vulnerable women. That, at least, was the claim of the victims’ families, as they instead demanded justice and accused their neighbors and local police officers, of murder.

What happened to the girls is described against the backdrop of life in rural India – tending buffaloes, farming water melons and harvesting mint – characterized by poverty, corruption and caste. This is a claustrophobic world in which even visiting the local market is considered inappropriate for unmarried girls. Tending to livestock, or relieving themselves in the fields, is the only acceptable escape from their own home and domestic drudgery. In a modern variation of Romeo and Juliet, Pappu’s account of his actions that night was dismissed by the girls’ families, their disbelief heightened because he came from a rival low-caste family in another village. Instead, long before an investigation could begin, the girls’ parents accused not only Pappu but also his two older brothers and two policemen of having raped and then killed the girls, the allegation gaining widespread credibility. In a macabre twist, the bereaved parents were so skeptical of the police that they refused to let the girls’ bodies be removed – and so, for 12 hours, they were left hanging in the heat. As word spread, the orchard became a tourist attraction, with voyeurs and the media racing in from far and wide, contaminating the scene and making what had happened even harder to determine.

The book paints a disturbing picture of non-existent police investigative capacity, which helps to explain India’s infamous low criminal conviction rate, and an official impulse to “settle matters,” which means to sweep it under a carpet rather than hold people accountable. The police were also known for their dismissive behavior towards the poor and have a tendency to favor those belonging to their own caste. The book captures the circus-like atmosphere that typically follows monstrous crimes in India, where television media trials and political grandstanding replace the meticulous police work required to prepare for a criminal trial.

The heart of the story is “good girls” do not talk to boys, nor should they use phones. During a psychological assessment, Padma’s father was asked what he would have done if the girls had lived. He replied, “We would have killed them.” Thus, the investigators finally concluded that, having been discovered by their cousin and acutely aware of the shame they would bring on their families, they took their own lives, neatly placing their shoes at the bottom of the tree and hanging themselves by their long scarves. What had been thought of as a rape was just two young women who were too afraid to go home and felt they had no alternative but to kill themselves.

A thriller-like page-turner with short chapters, “The Good Girls” moves swiftly along. Faleiro writes sensitively about her subjects’ actions and motivations, while the investigation reaches its final devastating revelation. The tragedy in Katra, as the title suggests, was hardly out of the ordinary. It reflected the widespread conflicts in Indian villages between ideals of family honor, traditions and new desires for individual freedom. In this clash, women are paying the highest price.