Two girls—14 and 16 years old cousins—from the Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh, walk into the open fields one night to defecate. The next morning they are both found hanging from a tree. The image of the hanging bodies, with women sitting beside them, protecting them, and the patriarch refusing to let the bodies down unless the politicians show up, blew up on social media in 2014. The initial reports purported rape and murder by a Yadav from the neigbouring village. The investigations that would follow, which would involve the CBI, created a national conversation around sex, violence, caste, and gender, with outrage and outpouring similar to the 2012 Nirbhaya Rape. But this case was not so simple.
Sonia Faleiro in her recently released narrative non-fiction book The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing outlines the entire story leading up to, and the serpentine contours of the investigations that resulted from the hangings, exposing a system so sinister, under-resourced, and overwhelmed by the sudden scrutiny of national media.
Faleiro spent 4 years researching the book, traveling to the village, interviewing more than a 100 people, compiling transcripts of polygraph tests, among other reports, memos, minutes, and letters amounting to 3,272 pages. A lot of this information is not in the public domain. A lot of it is too disturbing, and a lot of it is too bizarre, like doing a post-mortem with a butcher's knife. The outcome is a book that is as pedantic about place and setting as it is about procedure and structure.
The detailing of the book, which even involved Faleiro going through the Facebook pages of everyone involved, reminded me of Richie Mehta. He also took 4 years to research the Emmy nominated Delhi Crime, which was later acquired by Netflix. Delhi Crime followed the detailed investigation that took place after the 2012 Nirbhaya Rape, tracking the police officers who ran up and down North India from Naxal affected districts to bustling bus stops. The show, like the book, doesn't involve itself with the main "event"; stories of violence that are not about the violence, but the structural preconditions, and the dysfunction in the aftermath.
The advantage of adapting this book into a series—and it must be a series to allow the colourful and gutting details to unravel at their own pace—is that the research is done. Faleiro is thorough, and almost cinematic in her approach to the material. It is linear too, with a lot of clues dropped in, only to later be used to twist the investigation in another direction. The dialogues and the setting of the book have a visual quality. It's something I could imagine being adapted. (With an ending that isn't conclusive, like Talvar, based on the Aarushi Talwar Murder Case, whose CBI officer was also, interestingly, involved in the investigation of the Badaun Killings)
The whole investigation here hinges on the eye witness account of an unreliable narrator. The larger politics— Akhilesh Yadav is the Chief Minister at the time, belonging to the caste of the men being accused—yields to the smaller skirmishes with ease. Given the current claws of censorship, with Tandav's brouhaha, and makers, like Raj and DK, amputating their content to remove any remotely political connotation, this might be an uphill climb, but certainly one that would be worth fighting for.
Anubhav Sinha's Article 15 is supposed to be inspired by the event, but the setting, and the caste-based narrative were twisted in service of the saviour complex. (In the film, the girls hung are Dalits, but the Shakyas—the caste the girls from Badaun belonged to—are OBCs, like the Yadavs who were accused. There was also a connotation of lesbianism among the sisters in the film that wasn't part of the real incident.) But the image in the film, of the two girls being hung from the tree among the morning mist, was a ready reckoner of the image of the cousins from Badaun.
There was a moment in Indian cinema when the phrase book-adaptation was synonymous with Chetan Bhagat—Hello, 3 Idiots, 2 States, Half Girlfriend, Kai Po Che. It came to such a point that even Bhagat's writing acquired a screenplay-like quality, knowing fully-well the eventual adaptation. The other books that were being adapted were books whose cinematic appeal was shredded time and again—Devdas, Romeo and Juliet, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
There was also Anuja Chauhan, whose books were associated with Sonam Kapoor adapting it. Only one, the forgettable The Zoya Factor, came to fruition. Battle for Bittora is an adaptation that has been in the wings since 2016. Disney+Hotstar is adapting her Those Pricey Thakur Girls, and Yashraj is adapting both The House That BJ Built and Baaz.
But neither of these writers' books were considered 'literary fiction'. Like the easy adaptation of wattpad fanfiction by Netflix into the profitable To All The Boys I Love series, these adaptations had a fun, frolicking quality.
It was perhaps assumed that books under 'literary fiction' that took its metaphors seriously, ended their shelf life with the awards ceremony that doted on them. But in the past few years, with the advent of streaming, there was a swift swerve: Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy was adapted by Mira Nair; Aravind Adiga's Booker Prize Winning The White Tiger was adapted by Ramin Bahrani; Manu Joseph's Serious Men was adapted by Sudhir Mishra; Prayag Akbar's Leila was adapted by Deepa Mehta; Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games was adapted by Vikramaditya Motwane, among others. All of these released on Netflix. Amazon Prime's Pataal Lok is loosely based off of Tarun Tejpal's The Story of My Assassins, and last year's crowning jewel Scam 1992 was adapted for SonyLIV by Hansal Mehta, based on the book by Sucheta Dalal and Debashish Basu. Iconic books like Cobalt Blue are in the process of being adapted. We were so excited by this development last year that we curated a list of books belonging to the literary fiction genre, hoping for it to be adapted.
One of the reasons these stories are ripe for adaptation is the ability to speak to the contemporary. A Suitable Boy showed us that a story written in the 1990s, about the 1950s, is still relevant in 2020. Scam 1992, cloaked the argument of greed in telling a story of ambition, but its telling of stock market manipulation in the 1990s, in a post-2008 crisis India, had a veneer of prescience. There is a contemporary quality to these books. That same quality can be seen in Sonia Faleiro's The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing. It might be rooted in a specific time, in a specific place, but the horror leaks across time and space. In 2018, four years after the events in the book, a Reuters survey noted India as being the most dangerous country for women, ahead of Afghanistan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Somalia. It's 2021, and things don't look so different.
You can purchase The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing from here.