In the early hours of May 28, 2014 the bodies of two young girls were found hanging from the branches of a mango tree in the small village of Katra in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Their deaths caused outrage locally and attracted attention worldwide, as domestic and foreign media descended on Katra, the case gaining international notoriety less than two years after the gang rape of a young woman, Jyoti Singh, on a bus in Delhi in 2012.
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’.
Most surprisingly, perhaps, for western readers, a sub-theme of her narrative is the absence of toilet facilities, which means that before going to bed, the women have to go into the fields to relieve themselves. So when two young cousins, 16-year-old ‘Padma’ and 14-year-old ‘Lalli’ (not their real names) told their parents that they were going into the fields around 9 p.m, their departure did not arouse suspicion. But, as is later revealed, they went to meet a young boy, Pappu Yadav, with whom the elder girl, Padma, had already begun an intimate relationship, while Lalli assumed the role of look-out. When they were caught by another cousin, Nazru, who had been told to keep an eye on the girls, Pappu fled in one direction and the girls in another. Although Pappu was later apprehended at his home, the girls were nowhere to be seen, until their discovery several hours later hanging in an orchard.
What happened to them is described against the backdrop of life in rural India — tending buffaloes, farming water melons and harvesting mint — characterized by poverty, corruption and caste. In a modern variation of Romeo and Juliet, Pappu’s account of his actions was rejected by the girls’ families, the Shakyas, their disbelief fueled because he came from a rival low-caste family from the neighboring hamlet of Jati. Instead, long before an investigation could begin, the girls’ parents accused not only Pappu but also his two older brothers and two policemen of having raped and then killed the girls, the allegation gaining widespread credibility. In a macabre twist, the bereaved parents were so mistrustful of the police that they refused to let the girls’ bodies be removed — and so, for several hours, they were left hanging in the heat; as word spread, the orchard became a tourist attraction, with interested voyeurs and the media flooding in from far and wide, contaminating the scene and making what had happened even harder to determine.
Faleiro’s description of the postmortem examination would be farcical if it wasn’t so serious. It was undertaken at night on one of the hottest days on record, in a small room with no air conditioning and no fan, with the bodies by now in rigor mortis. The mortician had no formal training but had started work in the hospital as a sweeper. The lady gynecologist, who was especially requested to be present, had no experience of postmortems and eventually had to admit that the girls had not been raped, as she initially claimed. Instead of cooperating with the police, the two fathers took pains to destroy evidence — including a cell phone which Padma had obtained, lest the contents of the messages besmirch the family’s reputation.
This comes to the heart of the story, signaled in the title: ‘good girls’ do not talk to boys, nor should they use phones. During a psychological assessment, Padma’s father was asked what he would have done if the girls had lived.‘We would have killed them,’ he replied. But such a drastic step was not necessary. The investigators finally concluded that, having been discovered by their cousin and aware of the shame they would bring on their families, they took their own lives, neatly placing their shoes at the bottom of the tree and hanging themselves by their long scarves. What had been broadcast as a rape was just ‘an ordinary killing’ of two young women who were too afraid of returning home. The final irony was that the need to go to the toilet in the fields had facilitated the illicit relationship; had there been a toilet in the house it would have been more difficult for the girls to absent themselves from the scrutinizing gaze of adults.
This compelling ‘whodunit’ is a desperate reflection on the status of women. As Faleiro’s contextual statistics make clear, upholding the family ‘honor’ is paramount not only in Katra but throughout India.