SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
What happened to Padma and Lalli? Sonia Faleiro can't call the two teenage girls - first cousins who were found hanging side by side from a mango tree in May 2014 in a small village in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh - by their real names. The case is well known in India, even beyond. But under Indian law, the identities of victims of certain crimes cannot be revealed. What kind of victims were these 16 and 14-year-old girls?
Sonia Faleiro tells their story and what she learns of their deaths and their lives in her book, "The Good Girls." And Sonia Faleiro, an honored investigative reporter, joins us from London. Thanks so much for being with us.
SONIA FALEIRO: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: And I want to begin by getting a sense of these two young women. So close, they were often called by one name, weren't they?
FALEIRO: Yeah, yeah. Padma and Lalli were first cousins. They lived in what we call a joint family. So they shared a household. They shared a courtyard. They were also best friends. And although they didn't have a lot of free time because they helped at home and they helped in the fields, when they got the chance to escape, which meant going to graze the goats, they took that opportunity to talk about their hopes and dreams and their place in the world.
SIMON: And growing up where they did, did that limit their hopes and dreams?
FALEIRO: They grew up in a little village called Katra Sadatganj, which is about six hours outside Delhi. And so you would think, given the proximity to the national capital, that it wouldn't be so very different. But it was like another world, you know? There were no toilets. There was a school, but it wasn't good enough to educate the children so that they would one day be able to get a job. And while they had access to phones, because they were girls, they were not allowed to own phones. And because they were girls, they were, in a way, treated like they were objects themselves. I mean, they were loved. Don't get me wrong. They were loved, but they were treated like belongings. And that meant that everything that they wanted to do with their lives stayed within them because it was decided for them by someone else.
SIMON: They were observed talking on a mobile phone. And mobile phones have transformed much of India in ways India even boasts about. But why did somebody find it alarming?
FALEIRO: You're so right about phones. You know, they are awash in India. And India has the cheapest data in the world. So you can't go anywhere without seeing somebody poring over a phone. But Padma and Lalli were girls in a rural part of the country where the life of a girl is considered the business of everyone. And the fact that the children were away from their family - even though they were five minutes away from the family home on the family property - was a cause of suspicion and fear for the villager who saw them. And the villager didn't know them. He didn't know their family. But the fact that they were on a phone somehow seemed to suggest to him that they were up to something that would tarnish them and tarnish the village. And that more than anything else concerned him.
SIMON: At the heart of your book is the fact that the Indian media descended on the village to tell what they thought was a prepackage story that ran according to a certain narrative. The attention didn't help - did it? - particularly when that narrative seemed to be upended.
FALEIRO: Yes. You know, over the last few years, the Indian media, especially cable news, has undergone a complete, in fact, a shocking transformation. It looks more like a soap opera with very bright visuals, incredibly loud music. So in this particular case, for example, one TV channel thought it was appropriate to reenact what they thought had happened to the children.
So with this mindset of looking for something that will get people's attention and keep it in a world where all our attentions are fleeting, you can imagine the questions that were asked, the things that were said. And the rumor immediately spread that the children had been raped and murdered and then hanged by dominant caste men to show that that they were still powerful. In a rapidly changing country, in a quickly modernizing country, they wanted to make it clear that they had control. And that was the narrative that everybody believed.
And so when I arrived a year later, I expected to find an open-and-shut case - you know, famous last words. But within a few days, it was so clear to me that what I was hearing was not what I knew. And that's eventually why I decided to stay on and continue reporting for the next four years.
SIMON: Without giving away what you discovered, I think it's - if just to simply say that, boy, this story just makes you feel life in so many unseen places of India, unseen by so many in the world,- just shakes you up, just can't fathom.
FALEIRO: Yeah. Well, I think also, Scott, that, you know, one of the things that I found most troubling about reporting this case is that there was an absence of malice. There was an absence of malice. And what there was instead was a lot of not caring enough, you know...
FALEIRO: ...So at every level, from the police - the five police officers who were first told that these two children had disappeared - to the politicians who showed up next day with money to compensate for the death, to the investigators who slacked their way through the investigation, to the reporters who asked the most sickening questions and to friends and family. It's not that they wanted to cause harm; it's that they didn't care one way or the other. And it is an...
FALEIRO: ...Absence of caring that is most profound in how the Indian state functions today and the impact that it has, particularly on the lives of the poor and on the lives of women and children.
SIMON: Sonia Faleiro - her book, "The Good Girls" - thank you so much for being with us.
FALEIRO: Thank you for having me.
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