She was in London when she saw the image of the hanging children, aged 16 and 14, circulating on Twitter. Though she had planned to write a book about the wave of sexual violence, seeing that visual of two teenage girls — Padma and Lalli who disappeared from their home in the village of Katra Sadatganj in Uttar Pradesh, author Sonia Faleiro felt that this case, coming barely two years after the 2012 Delhi bus rape, could serve as the focus of her next book — the recently released ‘The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing’ (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Random House India).
Faleiro flew down from London to Delhi and then drove six hours to the girls’ village, Katra Sadatganj, in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, expecting to stay only a few days. But by the end of that trip it was clear that nothing was as it seemed. “I was then faced with a choice between choosing another case or digging deeper into this one. I decided to stay with the Katra case, and over the next few months it became clear that the story of the girls and of how their lives were impacted by gender, caste, politics, notions of honour, and the threat of violence, was really the story of what it meant to be a woman in modern India,” she recalls.
An experienced journalist, the writer reported the case over four years and interviewed more than a hundred people, many of them repeatedly. Supplementing this material with more than 3,272 pages of official records, she says it was a gruelling process, complicated by the fact that many individuals who were central to the events of the night the children went missing and kept changing their stories. “The main challenge was to pin down a clear and accurate narrative, the writing came much later,” says Faleiro, who will be speaking during the ongoing Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF).
Ask Faleiro, who also has to her credit non-fiction titles including ‘Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars’, ’13 Men’ and the fiction ‘The Girl’ if it was easy to keep herself ‘absent in the text’, and she says, “It was a conscious decision in order to allow the story to unfold naturally and to allow facts to speak for themselves.”
Stressing that it is important that she is moved and intrigued enough to want to stay with the subject matter for at least five years, as that is how long it takes her to write a book, Faleiro adds, “In the case of ‘Good Girls’, I had been thinking about writing about sexual violence in India for a while. And with ‘Beautiful Thing’, I had already been writing about bar dancers, when the ban came around. I knew that I needed to chronicle its impact on the thousands of women whose livelihoods were destroyed.”
Agreeing that it is not easy to move away from the many complex characters in her works once the writing is over, the London-based author says, “But it’s important in order to maintain my objectivity and also to allow myself to become immersed in my next reporting project.”
While the series of lockdowns in London may be a struggle at times, there’s plenty to keep Faleiro occupied including new writing and walks in the park with her dog. “I have recently published pieces with the New Yorker and Time, and am thinking about a new non-fiction book.”