My mother’s favorite television channel in Pakistan features only soap operas. The stories star mainly women, and mostly suffering women wronged variously by husbands, fathers, scheming mothers, and sisters-in-law.
A prototypical storyline might go something like this: two sisters are of marriageable age. One is shy, obedient, and dutiful, while the other is headstrong, rebellious, and self-serving. The headstrong girl is unhappy with the husband her parents have chosen for her. Armed with a cell phone and a wandering eye, she falls in love with another man and insists upon marrying him. Her parents are humiliated as the “community”—sundry neighbors, relatives, tribe members, or some amalgam of all three—begin to whisper about the failure of their parenting. As the action reaches a crescendo, the “good” girl comes to the rescue and agrees to marry the man initially chosen for her sister. Two weddings take place. Fast-forward a few years: the rebel is unhappy; her husband is abusive but because her ties with her parents and their community are not good, she cannot leave him or even ask anyone to intervene. The good girl’s husband has prospered, and she not only has a beautiful home and several children, but her husband adores and respects her. The moral of the story, every time, is the same: choices made by the family, the community, and the tribe are always better than individual choices. Survival is a precarious matter and, for all those who are not embarrassingly rich, acting in concert with many can provide a fighting chance.
The female subjects of Sonia Faleiro’s latest book, The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing, do not present the illustrative moral contrast of the good versus the bad girl. Padma and Lalli (names changed by the author, in accordance with Indian law) are by all accounts both good girls. They are also real rather than made-up girls, but the same tension between the individual and the communal punctuates their story. This story, which Faleiro spent six years reporting and writing, takes place in the tiny village of Katra Sadatganj in the eastern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. There, on a sweaty summer night in May of 2014, Padma and Lalli, who are cousins, leave their family compound of eighteen people to go to the fields to defecate. Hours later, in the early morning of May 28, 2014, their muddied bodies, still clothed, are found hanging from the branches of a mango tree in a nearby orchard.
Faleiro, who lives in London, travels to Katra to find out what happened to them. This, she soon learns, is no simple matter, requiring navigation around myriad labyrinthine dead-ends and turnarounds. Take, for instance, the question of why the men from the girls’ family go searching for them in the fields but do not call out their names or alert other villagers nearby, despite knowing that it would improve the chances of the girls being found. “Our daughters are unmarried,” Jeevan Lal, Lalli’s uncle, finally explains to Faleiro. “Why would we ruin their chances of finding a good match?” The other villagers would have asked why the girls were allowed to be out at night—unsupervised—with a cell phone. “There’s no point crying after the birds have eaten the harvest,” the villagers would have said, according to Faleiro. So father, uncle, and cousin say nothing, nor do they go directly to the home of the boy who was reported to have been with the girls. Faleiro sums it up: “They didn’t because it wasn’t just the girls’ honor that was at stake, it was the family’s too. And the family had to live in the village.”
It is an astute observation in a book that has a good many of them. In the aftermath of the crime, the dead are mourned, but the effort centers on salvaging the reputations of those still alive—the uncles, the girl cousins who have yet to be married, and so on. In a village where life is communal, the reader learns alongside Faleiro, the quest is not for the truth but for the moral rehabilitation of the family and the village and the caste to which they belong. These concentric circles of belonging dictate everything, from loyalties, to marriage, to income, and even electoral votes. In a world where survival for the lower-caste inhabitants of Katra village is a dodgy affair, sticking together has particular advantages.
In the aftermath of the crime, the dead are mourned but the effort centers on salvaging the reputations of those still alive.
Such adherence to communal diktat is of course not possible without surveillance. Toward this end, everyone in Katra (and South Asia in general) watches everyone else, polices everyone else. All this is to ensure that even the slightest lapse is punished with the proportional allotment of shame. The Good Girls begins with just such an act of policing, when Rajiv Kumar, a villager in Katra, sees “one girl, he couldn’t tell which” with a phone to her ear. Rajiv doesn’t like it and immediately complains to his neighbor, who is related to the girl’s family, goading him to complain to their parents.
Clearly, this is a world in which one person’s business is every person’s business, particularly when it has to do with women. As Faleiro elaborates, “some villages in Uttar Pradesh forbade unmarried women from using phones. A phone was a key to a door that led outside the village via calls and messaging apps. The villagers were afraid as to what would happen if women stepped through this door. They might get ideas such as whom to marry.”
Phones are used for surveillance by nosy villagers, but not by the police to actually investigate the crime. Even as the sixteen-year-old Padma hangs dead from the mango tree, one of the police officers at the scene can see that “the object glinting in Padma’s clothing was a mobile phone.” He knows that retrieving it would mean access to crucial information about the events of the night, but he also knows that the crowd would “kill him” if they found him “rifling through the teenager’s bra.” Juxtaposed against this absurdity is the crowd gathered in the mango orchard, ogling at the bodies and hurling insults at the police, while brazenly taking pictures and videos with their own cell phones.
The arrival of the cell phone has mounted a sustained assault on the tightly woven communities like Katra and hundreds of others. The pages of newspapers all over South Asia are replete with murders in which cell phones have played a central part; one I have written about several times involved a cell phone video from Kohistan in Pakistan, in which four women were shown clapping and singing. Not only were all the women killed, but the video set off one of the longest and most bitter blood feuds in recent memory. The intersection of new technology and remote rural places has meant that access to information and hence power cannot be controlled with the ease that it could before. When community leaders no longer have sole access to information, they no longer have access to exclusive power. The Good Girls presents a stunning example of just how this confrontation between new technology and old systems of shame and honor takes place.
The drama of the girls’ deaths is followed by the chaos of the investigation that follows. The police are inept; the post-mortem is carried out by a janitor in a half-finished building. Rumors proliferate, as does suspicion. In the end there is little resolution, the truth remains lost, and the questions continue to be unanswered.
The mastery of Faleiro’s narrative is in the dexterity with which she presents a deeply complex story, refusing to turn to reductive and singular themes to make her point. The investigation that she presents to readers in The Good Girls is not just the story of an honor crime or a caste killing or a clash between traditional mores and modern technology; it is, instead, all of these things at once. Like concentric circles, these themes surround the main narrative, adding depth and dimension to Faleiro’s quest for a riveting telling of the story of what actually happened to these girls. This sort of layered form models the tremendous power of narrative nonfiction when it comes to us in the words of a brilliant author; there are no trite solutions, no borrowing of familiar tropes, but rather a story as complicated as life itself.
The contemporary Western reader, however, cannot have nice things. Such is the literary indolence brought out after a decade of Netflix-and-chill that stories which are not shorn into simplistically pitiable, one-dimensional tales do not always get the readership that is owed them. Literary nonfiction has long been a genre dominated by the white and Western, so Faleiro’s foray into it is particularly venerable. In The Good Girls, she accomplishes the pioneering feat of taking this genre to a new and different place, using its simultaneous capacities for facts and feelings to capture the moment of a community’s transformation.