The Must-Read True Crime Book That Stares Into U.P.’s Dark SoulBloombergQuintOpinion
India’s most populous state has always been guilty of mangling the dreams of young women (especially those who want to ‘be something’ ), policing their movements and their contact with the outside world, confiscating freedoms, and erasing their visibility – all to protect their honour (killing them for the smallest violation).
In the summer of 2014, a day after the swearing-in of a new Prime Minister—one who had raised women’s hopes for change—two teenage cousins were found hanging on a mango tree in an orchard in western Uttar Pradesh.
Sonia Faleiro, author of the widely-acclaimed Beautiful Thing, about the secret world of Mumbai’s bar dancers, turns her feminist gaze to these two girls in the tense, fast-paced, whodunnit The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing.
Faleiro calls them Padma and Lalli, inseparable, “together always, apart from everyone.” The villagers always spoke their names without pause, referring to them as one person, Padma Lalli.
The book spans the period from the gang rape of medical student Jyoti Singh in a bus in 2012 in Delhi (after which India strengthened its rape law) to six years later when a report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found that Indian women were worse off than their counterparts in war-torn Afghanistan or Syria.
By then it was clear that ‘women’s safety’ had been just another election plank for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
London-based Faleiro meticulously reconstructs what happened when the girls left their homes after dinner one night to go to the toilet in Katra Sadatganj village in U.P.’s Budaun district. Were the eyewitnesses telling the truth? Did the police arrest the real assailants? Why were there no signs of struggle? Were the girls raped? What were the secrets hidden on Padma’s mobile phone that, unknown to her, recorded all her calls.
While reporting this book, Faleiro traveled often to Katra between 2015 and 2018. “I would fly down from London, take a car from the airport and drive six hours to Budaun, check-in at the hotel and then drive two hours from there to Katra,” she tells me over email.
She interviewed more than 100 people, “some of them repeatedly”, pored over 3,272 pages of Central Bureau of Investigation case files, and even watched a former sweeper perform a postmortem to verify a description in the files. Those of you who are familiar with the TV series CSI will need to recalibrate your ideas for the Indian crime procedural, where forensic scientists can show up at the scene to collect crucial biological evidence more than a fortnight after the crime.
“When I encountered misrepresentations, I found eyewitnesses to help me straighten out the story,” Faleiro tells me. “Not everyone will willingly tell the truth, but if you find out the truth for yourself by being persistent and then present it to them, they will reconsider whether it’s worth their reputation to be caught in a falsehood.” In the author’s note, she shares many reporting insights.
Some of the most dramatic portions of the book are when Faleiro describes the scene of the hanging and what happened in the hours after. The family, which had learned lessons about the importance of protest after the 2012 gang rape, refused to let the bodies of the girls be taken down. They didn't want it to be forgotten as just another ordinary killing. And so the bodies stayed on the tree for more than 12 hours as everyone waited for politicians to arrive.
Even as India (and Faleiro) learned about the girls when a local journalist posted a photograph on social media—an image where “the girls appear to be asleep…Their hands look as though they are grasping for something. Their bare feet are grey with dust, but their clothes are as bright as blossoms”—the new prime minister ignored the news. He tweeted instead about Hindu hardliner Vinayak Savarkar.
There were reports of similar hangings in the years—and even days—after, but unlike these, Padma Lalli’s story was assured a place in the museum of modern-day crimes against girls and women because of the viral picture. That year there were 90,000 reported cases of crimes against children.
As the U.P. village became a hub for journalists and politicians, it also attracted parents whose children had disappeared. “Soon, so many complaints of missing girls started to circulate in the Katra fields that it was difficult to make sense of what was happening,” Faleiro writes. In a chapter titled The Women Who Changed India, the author analyses what makes some cases—Jyoti Singh, Mathura, Bhanwari Devi—remain in the collective consciousness, even as other, equally horrific crimes are forgotten.
Through the book, Faleiro also makes connections with other famous crimes like the Arushi Talwar murder, the Shakti Mills gang-rape case, the Unnao rape case—where the survivor was set on fire and murdered a year after the original crime—and the Scarlet Keeling murder.
In the background of Padma Lalli’s story is a blistering critique of patriarchy (women and mobile phones, landless women, stifling family and village lives where everyone is an expert on blame and shame), politics, policing (42 officers were transferred after the incident to make it look like someone was trying to fix a broken system), the justice system (courts that make a teenage gang-rape survivor appear more than three dozen times in six trials and take 11 years to deliver a verdict) and, of course, the media.
Reporters asked for tours of the mango orchard and one of the girls’ fathers told Faleiro he lost count of the number of times he was made to pose for photographs under the tree where his daughter was found.
More importantly, Faleiro’s book forces us to acknowledge a disturbing truth: “…while the Delhi bus rape had shown just how deadly public places were for women, the story of Padma and Lalli revealed something more terrible still—that an Indian women’s first challenge was surviving her own home.”
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.