TW: Discussion of murder, rape, and violence against women.
In 2014, a shocking image was flashed across social media. Two girls dressed in bright salwar kameez are hanging dead from a mango tree. Coming so soon after the international notoriety of the so-called “Delhi bus rape”, this picture once again reflects an India that is at odds with its economic prosperity. Subsequent police investigations are botched, the post-mortem is conducted by a hospital cleaner, and mourners and sight-seers are allowed to clamber all over the crime scene.
Investigative journalist Sonia Faleiro went back to the village in Utter Pradesh where these horrifying events unfolded. Spending nearly four years tracking down people who had little transport, often no phone, and poor or non-existent literacy, this was no task for the faint-hearted. Despite her fluent Hindi, she often had to work with interpreters, as many of the people she interviewed only spoke Braj Bhasha, the local language.
The Good Girls is the result of her exhaustive and painstaking work between 2015 and 2018.
This is an examination of contemporary India. While middle-class, urban India is doing alright, rural India is still economically and socially struggling. Corrupt politics means money, assistance, and even basic services such as electricity only go to certain places or people. In the village that the girls came from, there was no running water and no toilets. The girls had gone out into the field late at night in order to relieve themselves before going to bed. But poverty and lack of infrastructure are not in themselves the answer to the puzzle. The place of women and children in rural India, the caste system, and the ubiquitous concept of honour all serve to drive these events.
Faleiro writes with an engaging immediacy. She has used her extensive research to present the events as they unfold, including dialogue and the inner thoughts of some of the players. She gives us the grieving families, the terrified accused, the under-resourced police, and the local politicians making the most of it. She paints a rural India phenomenally poor, situated within one of the world’s most successful economies. Inter-caste rivalry and hatred fuel false accusations, while the horrifyingly inhumane treatment of women inexorably works its way towards such events as the Delhi rape and the hanging of Padma and Lalli (these are not their real names, as Indian law prevents their publication. The name of the Delhi rape victim was only published when her mother insisted).
This is reportage of uncompromising rigour. But it is also written with unwavering respect and moments of surprising poetry, such as this description of the girls sneaking off to the local bazaar:
“There were too many men, the girls suddenly realised. They were shouting and laughing. They were roaring phat phat phat past in motorcycles. Into the shop quickly now.
The flash went POP.
The girls blinked.”
The Good Girls is a work of meticulous research, a gripping story, a cautionary tale, an eye-opening introduction to rural India, and a heart-wrenching scream on behalf of the women of India.
Reviewed by Tracey Korsten
Distributed by: Bloomsbury
Released: May 2021
This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not Glam Adelaide.