On the morning of May 28, 2014, the bodies of two cousins—Padma, age 16, and Lalli, 14—were found hanging from a mango tree in their tiny village of Katra Sadatganj in Uttar Pradesh, India. When the Shakya family refused to allow the authorities to bring down their girls’ bodies, reporters flooded the scene. Photos of Padma and Lalli were posted to social media, where they went viral. Were the girls raped and murdered by members of a rival caste? Were their fates the result of an honor killing by the men in their own families? The deaths of two poor, low-caste girls in rural India, which would have otherwise gone unnoticed, soon captured the attention of the world.

London-based journalist Sonia Faleiro, who traveled to Katra for four years from 2015 to 2019, seeks to understand how and why the girls died in her new book, The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing (Grove, Feb. 9). Of course, nothing was ordinary about Padma and Lalli (Faleiro does not use their real names). As the author makes clear, they were radiant, adventurous, and hardworking best friends who were beloved by their families.

I spoke over the phone with Faleiro. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You were deeply affected by the 2012 gang rape of 23-year-old medical student Jyoti Singh on a bus in New Delhi. How did that crime and her subsequent death lead you to write The Good Girls?

I didn’t know Jyoti Singh, but I was shattered by her death.

I was always scared as a young woman growing up in Delhi. The fear of sexual assault came to define my personality and how I viewed myself as a woman and saw myself in the world. I could not articulate this until the death of Jyoti Singh. If someone like me from such a privileged background could feel such a sense of deprivation, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like for a woman or girl who can’t go to school or be employed because she might be raped. I began looking at the fear and the grief that stem from the threat of sexual assault and what it does to a community, the soul of a woman, and the soul of a nation. This led me to write Good Girls.

You interviewed over a hundred people to write this book. How were you received by the community of Katra?

What I learned as a reporter, and from writing my first book, Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars, is that you need to bring a genuine curiosity and a knowledge of history. Padma’s and Lalli’s deaths were complicated by poverty, caste, politics, policies, and a distrust of the police. I tried to help the people of Katra understand that I was there to listen and was there to listen to everybody—this kind of honesty is important.

I would also argue that I didn’t win my interviewees’ trust. As a reporter, it isn’t always possible or necessary to win your subjects’ trust. It’s important to convey that you respect them and wish to get to the bottom of what’s happened.

After Padma and Lalli were found, women family members protested their violent ends by surrounding the tree and refusing to let the authorities remove their bodies. How was this form of protest effective in garnering attention to their deaths?

These were women who do not open their mouths in the presence of men. They don’t sit on the same level of men. They don’t eat before men. They’re not allowed to speak or have an opinion on anything from the food they eat to the clothes they wear. To see these women prevent the bodies from being removed from the tree speaks to a courage that is beyond anything I’ve seen.

If the women of the village had allowed Padma’s and Lalli’s bodies to be removed from the tree, the girls’ story would be over. Nothing would have been done to investigate their deaths. And it’s crucial that it was the women who stepped up and guarded the girls’ bodies—if it had been the men, the police would have used physical aggression and verbal threats to get them out of their way. The police let the girls’ bodies stay where they were because of the bravery of the women.

How did the photo of the girls’ bodies become so widely disseminated on social media?

The photo of the girls hanging from the tree was taken by a local reporter who posted it to his Facebook page, where it then migrated to Twitter. In India, Twitter is used by elite English-speaking, urban, middle- and upper-class people whose primary interest is to complain about how chaotic, backward, and poor India is. When the picture landed on Twitter, the elite could use it to justify how violent and misogynistic India is. The news then picked up the story, which caused politicians to notice it. But if Twitter had not played a role, you and I wouldn’t be talking about this story, and the girls’ deaths would have been forgotten.

Do you feel that the worldwide coverage of Padma’s and Lalli’s deaths ultimately helped or hindered the mystery surrounding how they died?

On the whole it helped, because Indians and Indian politicians are extremely sensitive to global opinions, particularly opinions of the West. When the story broke in the New York Times and Washington Post, everyone wanted answers. The media coverage embarrassed Indians, and that put pressure on politicians to seek justice.

The investigation into the girls’ deaths was botched from the beginning, and several witnesses changed their stories. As an author, how did you discern what was fact and what was fiction?

I needed to be extremely patient and could not hurry the process. I didn’t put a limit on how much time I was willing to spend on this book. I lived in London and flew back and forth several times. I spoke to everyone. I would drive for four or five hours to meet with one cop. I did a lot of repeated questioning and comparisons between witnesses’ stories. I conducted my own investigation instead of relying on information from the police or the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Reporting in India is enormously difficult. Basic procedures are not followed, crime scenes are contaminated, records are destroyed, and witnesses turn up dead. No one can be trusted, and telling the truth can compromise my safety.

What’s something you hope readers take away from this book?

Good Girls is a story about children who were very much loved. India has a terrible history with women and children, of violence and infanticide. Indian parents are overindulgent toward sons but deprive and get rid of their baby girls. Padma and Lalli were loved by their families and their communities, and after they died, the women family members surrounded them to protect them. The book is a story about the tragedy of their deaths, but it’s also a story about love.

Anjali Enjeti is the author of Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change and a novel, The Parted Earth. She lives near Atlanta.