The Good Girls is a haunting piece of narrative reporting that lingers in the mind long after the final page is turned. It is difficult to read but difficult to put down. To understand the challenges facing young women in India today, it is essential reading. As Faleiro concludes: “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 woman’s first challenge was surviving her own home.”
Faleiro’s tale is accentuated by a large number of political, administrative, sociological and legal details that frame the tragedy of Padma and Lalli. That these details enhance rather than detract from the sense of urgency is testimony to the author’s skill as a writer and reporter. The Good Girls is at once shocking and mundane, quiet and loud, understated and savage. The current political dispensation in India, with its active patronage of patriarchal privilege, will not like this book. And that is one of its many strengths.
The Good Girls is a tragic tale, both in terms of what it reveals about village life and also about what women in India can expect in a society hidebound by tradition. Having researched for four years — twice as long as she first anticipated — Sonia Faleiro has taken exceptional pains to recreate the events as they unfolded, interviewing as many of the key players as would come forward, their names helpfully listed in an ‘index of characters’. Asked what he’d have done if the girls had lived, Padma’s father replied: ‘We would have killed them’
Faleiro has a talent for ramifying plots and slippery characters — for a narrative that resists easy formulation. Her books include “Beautiful Thing,” a portrait of Mumbai’s dance bars, and “13 Men,” a study of another shocking crime that, on second look, might certainly be a crime but of a very different sort. “The Good Girls” gathers all these strands: of sexual violence and caste, new types of media narratives and ancient taboos — no story exists in isolation after all. In brisk chapters, some just a few pages long, with the sort of headings one associates with Victorian novels — “Cousin Manju Observes Something Strange”; “Nazru Sees It Too”; “A Finger Is Pointed” — we glide swiftly, smoothly, only to realize that we’re not approaching a clearing but being led into a darker, more tangled story... “The Good Girls” is transfixing; it has the pacing and mood of a whodunit, but no clear reveal; Faleiro does not indict the cruelty or malice of any individual, nor any particular system. She indicts something even more common, and in its own way far more pernicious: a culture of indifference that allowed for the neglect of the girls in life and in death.
In 2014, two teenage girls were found hanging from a mango tree on the outskirts of their village in rural India, presumed raped and murdered. They were cousins and, as their parents sought to uncover what had happened, the story went viral, provoking debate about the relationship between poverty and crime, the nature of patriarchy, and society’s treatment of women. Sonia Faleiro’s meticulously researched investigation results in a powerful, unflinching account of misogyny, female shame and the notion of honour.
Taut with dramatic tension, The Good Girls vividly captures the sights, sounds, smells, preoccupations and oppressiveness of the village. This is a claustrophobic world in which even visiting the local bazaar is deemed inappropriate for unmarried girls. Tending to livestock, or relieving themselves in the fields, is the only legitimate escape from their own four walls and domestic drudgery.