Goa-born, London-based author and journalist Sonia Faleiro is out with her second book of reportage, The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing, which was released last month in India. Combining reportage with the narrative skills of a fiction writer, The Good Girls documents the 2014 gang rape and murder of two minors in Katra Sadatganj — an “eyeblink of a village” in Uttar Pradesh’s Budaun district — where land is power, security and identity. And where a girl’s life is “everyone’s business”. In Katra Sadatganj and its neighbouring hamlets, honour killings are common — girls are killed for marrying outside their caste, religion, even for having engaged in premarital sex. The rape and murder of 16-year-old Padma Shakya and 14-year-old Lalli Shakya (not their real names) — cousins as alike as “two grains of rice” — shocked the country at a time when the Nirbhaya case was still fresh in public memory.
In an email interview, Faleiro, who is also the co-founder of the global journalists’ collective, Deca, shares why she set out to get to the bottom of the case, investigating in the process the rampant gender crimes in India, the flaws of the policing system and the failures of the judiciary. Excerpts:
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How did you process the news of the Badaun rape-murder case when it reached you? How did this case, along with Nirbhaya’s, help highlight the increasing number of incidents of sexual violence in India?
I first heard about the case on social media, when I saw a picture of the hanging girls on Twitter. A rumour circulated that the teenagers had been raped, killed and hanged by upper-caste men. Like many people, I was still processing the details of the
2012 Nirbhaya case; upon seeing the picture, my immediate response was that nothing has changed in India despite the public protests and new laws. I had moved to London by then and was planning to work on a book on sexual violence. I decided to visit Badaun to study the case. After spending a few days in Katra Sadatganj, where the teenagers had lived and died, I realised that not all was what it seemed like. Something terrible had indeed happened, just not what we thought.
In the four years it took you to revisit and reconstruct the story, in what ways did it change and become different from the one you had initially heard? Did you set out to humanise the story while staying objective?
I had only ever heard one version of the story, that of the teenagers’ parents. While their experience was vital, there were dozens of other people present that night who played a role in the events that occurred. Many of them saw and heard entirely different things. Their experiences had a Rashomon effect on the case.
T o try to get to the bottom of the matter, I returned to U.P. over and over again, eventually interviewing around 100 people, some of them repeatedly. I travelled a great deal in an effort to meet as many witnesses as possible. These included family members, police officers, medical staff, politicians and investigators.
And I didn’t just focus on the night’s events. I kept digging until I had a story that went years back, all the way to a time before the girls were even born.
As for staying objective, well, that’s my job. I don’t feel the need to editorialise my reporting because I believe only facts matter. But it’s true that I worked hard to keep the focus on Padma and Lalli. All too often we remember the crime but not the victim, and these were two girls with long lives ahead of them.
Your reconstruction of the events is vivid and engaging: the book reads like a thriller. How challenging was that considering the complexities of the case and the conflicting theories based on the re-examination of evidence?
Every writer faces the challenge of how to keep their readers engaged. The challenge can appear insurmountable to those of us who write about subjects that readers may be hesitant to engage with. And in this case, aside from my own reporting material — hundreds and hundreds of hours of interviews, several books of notes and innumerable photographs — I also sifted through more than 3,000 pages of case files related to the investigation.
B ut I’m persistent. And I’m never in a hurry. My last book, Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars, took five years to publish and The Good Girls took six. I just keep rewriting until I achieve the structure and momentum that I feel a story requires.
Though the Badaun case is the centrepiece of the book, it is also an investigation into gender crimes and explores what it means to be a poor, young woman filled with dreams and aspirations in today’s India. Do you see such crimes as being deeply entrenched in caste and class dynamics?
Caste and class influence every aspect of life in India, so it’s hardly surprising that they would influence how women are expected to behave and how they are treated. We need to educate people to look beyond these things, empower women, and strengthen our criminal justice system so that even if we can’t change how people think we can certainly ensure that they obey the law.
In the last six years, things have only worsened. What is your assessment of today’s India, especially with regard to women’s rights?
There isn’t much good news coming out of India these days and the condition of women is in keeping with this. We need politicians who genuinely care and a more engaged public if we are to see any positive change.
Do you see the rise in crimes against women as a failure of governance and the criminal justice system? What do you think lies at the root of the ‘culture’ of violence against women? What hope do we have?
Children don’t just die. They shouldn’t just die. And when they do, especially in such devastating circumstances, no one is above blame. If you ask me who failed Padma and Lalli, I will say everyone did. We all did.
The interviewer is a Delhi-based independent culture journalist.