During the early hours of October 1, I came across news on the upcoming release a Netflix docuseries, House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths. The latter half of the title immediately struck a chord and sent me tumbling down memory lane to a time when I was preparing for my board exams in 2018 – a time when the infamous case first surfaced.
Remembering the horrid details of the case, I waited impatiently for the show to drop so that some of my questions would be answered.
On October 8, the day of its release, I finished the docuseries in a day. This case of the mass deaths of the entire Bhatia family, comprising 11 members and three generations, was exceptionally captivating for me – not because of how atypical it seemed, but because of how eerily similar it is to the kind of family I have been brought up in.
The most striking element of the case is how ordinary the Bhatia family was. No matter how bizarre the other details are, the Bhatia family was much like any other middle-class joint family comprising of an authoritative patriarch and loyal family members who, by all means, put up a happy front before society.
Experts featuring in the docuseries claim that a small cult existed within the family and that the leader, Lalit Bhatia, exhibited certain extraordinary behaviours that were “against the laws of nature”. In this case, it was the belief that he could hear the voice of his dead father.
This wasn’t new to me.
What the world perceives as bizarre on hearing about the Bhatias is actually quite run-of-the-mill for me. I grew up in a family where a certain female member claimed to be possessed by a “baba”. On every other day, when there was an important decision to be made, the entity was called upon by the chanting of holy mantras. The other members of the family sat enraptured, with their palms joint, asking the entity to guide them through life.
Perhaps, the most analogous of all details between the Bhatia family and mine was the extent of adherence to the instructions given by the figure. There were times when the mysterious figure gave the most scarring orders; orders that were dutifully followed.
As a child, I could not make much sense of it all. Perhaps that is why I chose to stay away from the ritual. However, I have grown up hearing from the women of my family about how the existence of this ‘other’ has completely disrupted their lives. Here is what two of them said:
“I did not even have a chance to understand what used to happen. A few days after I got married, I was asked to be a part of this ritual. Baba’s words for the family were set in stone, all of his instructions were obeyed – no matter how catastrophic it could be for others.”
“I was 19 when I got married and first came to this house. I was pursuing my higher studies at the time, I got a placement at HCL soon after. When I told the elders of the house about that, they chanted the mantras, called the entity and asked him to advise them about my job. It was his decision that I should not go out for work, he said he was concerned about my safety. What could I have said?”.
Were these orders somehow related to the anxieties of an Indian middle-class family around the autonomy of a young woman? Perhaps, yes. As a 20-year-old feminist, I cannot help quite wrap my head around how a woman from the family hid behind the guise of being possessed by a holy figure only to sabotage the lives of other women.
After the release of the Netflix series, there has been discourse around the gendered element at play within the Bhatia family. What if there had been a woman in Lalit Bhatia’s place? Would she have exercised similar influence within the family? Would the power dynamics be the same?
Perhaps, what sets my family apart from the Bhatia family is exactly this – the influence and the eventual leverage being given to the said woman within the household. Perhaps this is how superstition, coupled with fear and faith, can lead to an entire family bowing down and submitting to the commands of a single person claiming to be in contact with a holy figure, even if the person happens to be a woman.
Otherwise, how can an entire family completely surrender themselves to the likes of a mysterious entity?
House of Secrets talks about how Lalit Bhatia had undiagnosed trauma and mental illnesses which led to him to believe that he could hear his dead father’s voice. The police probe revealed that other members of the family endorsed Lalit’s claims and suffered from what has been termed as ‘shared psychosis’ by mental health experts.
Like the Bhatias, my family also never speculated if the situational presence of the entity and unusual behaviour like the pounding of the head on the floor by the said family member could be a case of mental illness. If a family is grieving the loss of the patriarch and if his son suddenly claims to be in contact with him, how can the family not question that? Similarly, if a certain member of an extremely religious Brahmanical family is claiming to be in contact with a holy figure and is promising to guide the family through bad times, how can they pass that for something as alien as mental illness?
What I am thankful about the most after watching the series and knowing what happened behind closed doors at the Bhatia household is how it has sparked so many conversations. The images of happy times, juxtaposed with the mass hangings, depicts exactly how an Indian family can do whatever it takes to protect the realities of their kinship from getting out of the household walls.
What happened with the Bhatias is perhaps not bizarre at all. Maybe it is just an extreme case of belief in superstitions, denial of mental illness and a strong adherence to the patriarch – of which more than a dash happens to exist in nearly every other Indian family.
Nandni Sharma is a final year undergraduate student pursuing Journalism from Kamala Nehru College, Delhi University. She loves to draw digital drawings, roam around Khan Market and of course, express her love for food.
Featured image credit: Netflix