The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing by Sonia Faleiro

‘People called them Padma Lalli like they were one person.’

On 27 May 2014, in the village of Katra Sadatgani in Uttar Pradesh, India, two teenaged girls went into the fields to relieve themselves before bed. They did not return. In the early hours of the following morning, their bodies were found hanging from a mango tree in the orchard tended by their families. Their bodies were to remain in that tree for some time.

We know those two girls as sixteen-year-old Padma* and fourteen-year-old Lalli*. They were cousins and best friends. *We do not know their real names as there is an Indian law which requires that the identity of the victims of certain crimes is kept private. The irony: a law which affords victims more privacy in death than they were ever accorded in life.

In this book, Ms Faleiro draws on official documents, interviews, and news reports to try to establish a timeline of events within the context of the environment in which the girls lived.  Ms Faleiro describes the physical setting: a poor village, with no running water or sanitation (which is why the girls had to relieve themselves in the field); a rigid family structure, shaped by caste, custom and religion; and mistrust of (often corrupt) authorities.

This is a confronting and uncomfortable read. The girls are left hanging in the mango tree because their families believe that this is necessary in order to obtain justice.  And once the girls are removed from the tree, inept handling and forensic processes mean mistakes are made, and erroneous conclusions are reached. Contradictory information is given by those interviewed; assumptions are made. The death of the girls is devastating for those left behind. But at every step the investigation is hampered. Honour becomes more important than truth.

What really happened to Padma and Lalli? I doubt that we will ever know.

In writing about this case, Ms Faleiro illustrates the complexity of life in India, the prevalence of crimes against women, the impact of tradition, and how mistrust shapes both investigation and witness accounts.

I finished this book wondering whether the situation has improved since Padma and Lalli died. This is not an easy book to read both because of the content and the amount of detail provided. The detail is necessary but can feel overwhelming.

‘Finally, while this is a story about the marginalisation and subjugation of women in India, it is also about what it means to be poor.’

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Grove Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith