“They shouldn’t be out in public with a mobile phone,” one of the watchers, a government teacher and farmer, observes to one of the girls’ relatives. “Who knows who they’re talking to?”
“Reputation was skin,” Faleiro writes of the community.
The events of the night the girls died are related by a cast of dubious witnesses, secretive family members and drunken and abusive police officers, all of whom Faleiro interviews and brings to life on the page. One of the lying eyewitnesses, she writes, “was coming apart like overripe fruit” before dawn broke over the hanging tree.
When the girls are found, the villagers overrun the crime scene. Female relatives and their friends refuse to let the bodies be cut down. Someone — the girls’ uncle, it turned out — removes the cellphone from Padma’s bra before the police can get to it. Lalli’s father later admits to destroying it. Hardly anyone wonders why their slippers are not “strewn on the ground” beneath the dangling bodies; instead they are side by side, a “precise and delicate placement” against the base of the tree, “upright as stems of wheat.”
The bodies stay up for a day and a night. The crowd surges and wanes. Journalists arrive with cameras. Politicians come and go, harvesting potential votes. Finally the bodies are cut down and subjected to a post-mortem unlike any ever covered in literature: conducted by a former janitor in the ruins of a half-built government building, with a market-bought butcher knife for a scalpel, rinsed in a bucket of water hauled in from an outdoor spigot.
Back home with the girls’ extended family, misogyny is so deep that Lalli’s grieving mother is not invited to go to the Hindu burial ceremony — per custom, she doesn’t even ask. She goes into a semi-catatonic state in the courtyard, only returning to herself a few years later, revived by a rumor the two girls have been reincarnated in a set of identical twins a few villages over.
“The Good Girls” is a puzzle with a surprise at the end. It’s a riveting, terrible tale, one all too common, but Faleiro’s gorgeous prose makes it bearable. She concludes, “What I had come to learn was this — that while the Delhi bus rape had shown just how deadly public places were for women, the story of Padma and Lalli revealed something more terrible still — that an Indian woman’s first challenge was surviving her own home.”
This feminist document looks straight at men’s twisted obsession with controlling female sexuality. From Saudi Arabia to Washington, D.C., where brutal enforcement is veiled only by wealth and privilege, the story remains the same.