The Good Girls by Sonia Faleiro

In the beautiful author’s note that concludes Sonia Faleiro’s The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing (Penguin Random House, 2021), Faleiro connects the brutal 2012 Delhi bus rape to the deaths of the two young Indian children that are the subject of her book. The gang rape and murder of a young medical student in Delhi becomes an important point of comparison for Faleiro’s text and the case she examines: the death of two young girls in a rural Indian village. The girls went missing one night after they left their home to use bathroom. After the girls didn’t return, family members and neighbours went searching for them. Eventually they were found in the early hours of the next morning, their deceased bodies hanging from a tree. In an attempt to make sense of this horrific occurrence, Faleiro refers back to the Delhi bus rape case, saying that although she didn’t personally know the Delhi rape victim, she was very effected by the case, as were many women in India. When the details of the rape and murder became known, the rape culture ever-present in India was now not as easy to ignore. The Delhi bus rape provides important context for the deaths of the two rural girls, whose names, as we learn, remain a mystery. 

A few pages over, Faleiro explains that she did not use the real names of the two girls whose deaths her book investigates. Instead, she called the girls Padma and Lalli. She uses pseudonyms in compliance with Indian law. This law did not allow the names of rape victims to be used by the media. Of course, this was also a factor in the Delhi bus rape case. Faleiro’s text builds on details like these in order to ask questions about the cultural and political circumstances that were the perfect breeding ground for the deaths of Padma and Lalli as well as the rape and murder of the Delhi bus rape victim. 

Indian law forbidding the girls to be named made me wonder. The same culture that asked rape and murder victims not to be named had no problem sharing photos of the bodies of Padma and Lalli in the newspapers and on Facebook. Faleiro explains that eventually, the family of the Delhi bus rape victim was named publicly in an effort to reclaim her memory. Although she doesn’t use Padma and Lalli’s actual names, Faleiro’s book reclaims and repurposes their memories by exposing the wholly inadequate investigations into their deaths. 

Calling the investigation into these deaths inadequate truly does not capture how botched this investigation was. After the girls were found chaos ensued. Family members claimed they saw someone from the village with the girls on the night they initially disappeared. The police were eventually called but they did virtually no investigative or forensic work, and the initial autopsies were done by someone without a medical degree. The family of Padma and Lalli refused to allow the police to cut the girls down until politicians visited the scene and the media took photos and videos of the crime scene. I was initially horrified by this—anyone who’s interested in crime and criminology knows that those bodies needed to be cut down as soon as possible in order to ensure that all physical evidence could be collected and analysed. Evidence was being lost the longer the bodies were exposed to the elements. But the more I learned about Indian politics and rape culture, the more I understood that this family was right to insist that they not be cut down: the only way their deaths would even matter to the politicians and the law is if these brutal images of the girls were circulated. No one could ignore those images. 

Faleiro uses this case to expose and explain the systems in place within India that treat women’s lives and deaths as less-than, as totally unworthy of anyone’s care or attention. If you are looking to understand more about Indian law and Indian politics, this book is for you. I found this part of the book to be a bit heavy-handed. Because the sections of the book that discuss Indian politics are not always interspersed with information from the case, the political content sometimes felt like unnecessary contextualization. Some of this context is extremely important to the case; however, I do think this information could have been cut down and better integrated within the summary of the case. 

I also found the timeline of events to be confusing—there are a lot of people involved in this story, and there is a lot of information given about these people. I often found this to be distracting from the main thread of the text, especially when Faleiro gives background information on the politicians that were involved in the case. The timeline of events would have been clearer had this information been cut down or better integrated into the story of the case. That being said, there is an immense amount of useful information provided about the caste system in India, Indian politics, and the way that India has historically dealt with crimes against women. If you are looking for this information, Falerio’s careful details are extremely useful. 

There is a shocking twist that comes at the end of this book, one that I did not expect. After finishing the book, I was overwhelmed with sadness about this twist. I was also angry. Had the investigation been done properly and had the girls and their family been treated with any measure of respect or care by Indian authorities, there wouldn’t have been a gut-wrenching twist at the end of this story. Falerio spends a large portion of her book explaining the ways that cultural and political contexts in India have been creating opportunities for crimes against women for years. She also explores something potentially lesser known or at least less obvious: how familial politics and a woman’s place therein contributes to and creates crimes against women. Of familial politics in India she says that while public life and public places are extremely dangerous for Indian women, Padma and Lalli’s story highlights just how deadly the space of the home can also be. Social and gendered politics begin in the home, and are wholly responsible for the deaths of Padma and Lalli. The Good Girls memorializes Padma and Lalli and takes to task the systems that ended their lives. 

Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature.

A copy of this proof was graciously provided to True Crime Index from Penguin Random House in exchange for an honest review.

Trigger warnings: Sexual abuse of children, sexual assualt

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