The Hazards of Immersive Journalism: A Conversation with Sonia Faleiro

June 5, 2021   •   By Jenny Bhatt

IN 2014, I HAD just moved back to India after decades of living in the West. Alongside Narendra Modi’s landmark election as the country’s prime minister, the news was dominated by the horrific story of the deaths of two teenage girls from the Badaun region of Uttar Pradesh. The first thing that most people recall about this tragedy is the heartbreaking image on social media of their bodies hanging from a tree in a village grove. I also recall Indian news channels providing near-hourly (and highly sensationalized) updates and yet, frustratingly, telling us not much at all. If anything, they were dehumanizing the dead girls and all the other people involved in this terrible incident.


A year or so later, Sonia Faleiro, an award-winning journalist and narrative nonfiction writer, began her multiyear journey of reporting the girls’ deaths by investigating their lives. The result is The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing, a groundbreaking new book that goes beyond the national conversations about sex and violence, the sociopolitical machinations, and the media-generated controversies to weave an intricately braided story that reads like a page-turning whodunit. Faleiro doesn’t simply lay out the various problems that beset the case, she shows us, in precise detail, its human, historical, political, and economic costs. 


This is Faleiro’s third such work of narrative nonfiction. The first was Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars (2010), which chronicles the many women who lost their livelihoods due to changing laws. The second, 13 Men (2015), was a longform piece released as a Kindle single that explored the 2014 gang rape of a girl from the Santhal tribe, including all the associated systems of legal power and social authority. Like both of these works, The Good Girls displays Faleiro’s patient, dogged determination to penetrate beneath the obvious and known details to reveal not only particular systemic problems but also the flaws in our collective humanity that enable such systems in the first place.


In an email conversation, I spoke with Sonia Faleiro about the challenges and ethics of her craft.


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JENNY BHATT: In The Good Girls, you use a compassionate and aware voice to paint painfully vivid scenes, interspersed with informational asides about various systemic problems. You take us inside the heads of people using literary devices — scene-setting, dialogue, point of view, description. In so doing, you humanize them for readers. At what point in the reporting or writing process did this narrative structure start to emerge?


SONIA FALEIRO: It took years. Three, maybe. When I left London for Katra village in Uttar Pradesh around the first anniversary of Padma’s and Lalli’s deaths, I thought I was creating a record of a rape and murder, of the sort that the state is witness to thousands of times a year. It was an “open and shut case,” people said. But, by the end of that first week, I wasn’t confident that the case had been completely investigated even though, by then, there had been three investigations, including one by federal agents. So, I decided I would return to Katra to try to learn what had happened.


But the sum of a person’s life is more than their death. No matter the circumstances, our death is rarely the thing that defines us. What defines us is how we lived. So, once I figured out how Padma and Lalli had most likely died, I set out to discover how they had lived. Who were they? They were 16 and 14, they were first cousins and best friends at a time in their lives when they were taking their first tentative steps into the adult world. To capture this period of their lives and how it influenced their choices, I spoke with many of the people who were close witnesses to their behavior. One such person was Lalli’s 12-year-old cousin, Manju, who happened to be visiting during her summer holidays. Manju had accompanied the teenagers on what was perhaps the most enjoyable outing of their lives: a visit to the village fair. I also spoke with Padma’s maternal uncles (the brothers of her biological mother, whom she had lost as a child), Lalli’s older brother and sister, as well as with their friends, teachers, neighbors. And, of course, their parents.


This move from the larger story to these various micro-stories must have been tricky, especially when you had reams of material — interviews and reports gathered over the course of years — to pull into a specific shape. A lot must have depended on the goodwill and trust of the participants. How does a writer earn that? Were there any moments when people felt you were crossing the line or when you felt you couldn’t go beyond a certain point with your investigations?


Winning trust is a huge challenge under any circumstance. I mean, would you share the most intimate details of your life story to a stranger? It’s made particularly hard in India’s current environment, where the mainstream media has been hugely compromised by the ruling party and no longer commands respect from the public. Even in a place like Katra, where most people can’t read and don’t have TV sets, people believe that journalists can’t be trusted — that they share something in common with the police, which is that they will take the information you give them and twist it to suit their own purposes.


And consider the unique circumstances that I walked into even a year after the children had died. Their family was in mourning, they were deeply traumatized, and they were also convinced that it rested on their shoulders alone to deliver justice. They had, by then, been speaking to media from all over the world for more than a year and had been the subject of three investigations, as well as intense political and media scrutiny. Given these circumstances, I did not ask for their trust, nor did they give me any reason to believe that they trusted me.


What I did do was show my dedication to the story by reporting it diligently over many years. I made it obvious, through my efforts, that I would seek out information, and I showed that I would be fair. I wasn’t there to tell only their story, sure, but neither would I speak on behalf of anyone else. I wasn’t for this interest group or that, I was there for the truth. Did that win me trust? I believe I won respect, and that’s why people spoke to me.


As you say, most of the people you spoke with had to relate what must have been traumatic memories. Not only the horrific thing that happened to two young girls but also the crazy political and media circus that went on for months afterward — which you also describe at length in the book. And then, for various reasons, you often got different versions of the same stories. What were some of your guiding principles to navigate all this turmoil and uncertainty and to balance the observation reporting with formal interviewing?


I don’t give myself a deadline, which always helps. So a story can take a year or two or three to reveal itself, and that’s fine. I don’t mean to imply that there weren’t moments of second-guessing or even frustration. But, given the environment I was entering into, it was clear that I would need to be patient.


Generally, my practice is to talk to everyone. And when I interview someone, I ask for a couple of names of people who they think will be able to educate me on a subject — say, police procedure in a place like rural Uttar Pradesh, or the inside workings of the federal investigative agency. This way, the net widens and, with it, my understanding of this completely new area I’m dealing with.


And keep in mind that this isn’t a straightforward story. This is a book about sex and violence, politics and caste, love and family. It’s the big Indian book Indian writers are always told to write but concealed as a book of true crime. So, I did a lot of listening, a lot of traveling, a lot of immersive journalism, and I kept calm and stayed patient. Because you can’t run out of steam. If that happens, you cut corners and the story remains half done.


That’s an exhaustive amount of research, for sure. And I’d go so far as to say that you indict not just law enforcement or local governance but the entire social and political fabric of the country: the medical system, the justice system, the education system, the caste system. Has there been any official response from any of the people in power to the book? Are you still engaged with the Katra community? Have they responded to the book?


I have heard that certain police officers are reading it, that it’s in the hands of some politicians. And I hope it will be translated into Hindi. Padma’s and Lalli’s parents aren’t educated, but Lalli’s brothers, Virender and Parvesh, who feature in the book, can read Hindi.


Given how 24/7 news and social media work (even in rural India now), it often feels as if real-life tragedies have become a spectator sport. There’s shock, outrage, and other performative behaviors on public platforms, then things go back to normal until the next tragedy comes along. We’re seeing this right now in the US with the anti-Asian violence and mass shootings. Sometimes, I wonder if we read true crime books with a similar mindset. It’s like Val McDermid once said about crime fiction: watching lightning strike in somebody else’s house can be almost talismanic — fending off the possibility of evil in your own life. How would you like readers to approach your book and their own worlds after reading it?


Every writer, every person, hopes to effect change, of course. My previous book, Beautiful Thing, had a small part to play in lifting the ban on dance bars in Bombay. But these are different times. There is less desire than ever before to move the needle in favor of justice. And marginalizing and brutalizing people is how dominant groups anywhere in the world, but particularly in India, maintain their power. It isn’t in their interest to change the country for the better.


But let’s not give politicians too much credit. The greatest revolutions have been started by the humblest people. These are the people who choose engagement over avoidance, who seek to educate themselves on the conditions of their community, who want to fight for a better world. That fight can take many forms. In my life, the fight for justice has taken the form of journalism of a certain subject and form. And, of course, I hope it will inspire someone and do some good.


This is the third narrative nonfiction work you’ve produced about how the deeply patriarchal Indian culture affects the lives of women. Some things have changed since the 2012 Nirbhaya case, as you point out a number of times in your book. But, as you say toward the end, “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.” Having immersed yourself in their world, is there anything in particular that, as you look back, you think could have significantly altered the trajectories of these two girls’ lives?


This is a fantastic question. I can’t say with certainty, because I spent four years in and out of Katra, and people’s ideas are formed over generations. But I wonder what might have happened if Padma’s father had taken family members — Padma’s maternal uncles — up on the opportunity to educate his daughter in their village? We know that Katra, for a variety of reasons, felt toxic to Padma and that it was with her uncles that she was happiest. It was in the company of their family, rather than her immediate one, that she thrived. So, if you ask me, allowing Padma to leave home, as she had wanted to, would have altered the trajectory of her life — and, as a result, of Lalli’s too.


But Padma was never allowed to do what she wanted. And it wasn’t because she wasn’t loved. She was dearly loved. It is because many girls in India are only allowed to do what other people say. And if they decline, well, we know what happens then. Padma’s and Lalli’s deaths are a tragedy, but their lives, like the lives of millions of Indian girls, were no less tragic.


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Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and book critic.


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Banner image: “Rice fields Uttar Pradesh” by Radosław Botev is licensed under CC BY 3.0 PL. Image has been cropped and color changed.