SUNDAY FEATURE | 11 Deaths, 1 House, No Killer: All of Burari Knows the Family Didn't Want to Die
Bhatia family’s house-maid, who had quit working for the family six years ago, said that Lalit would often lose control of himself whenever there were religious functions. He would start saying incomprehensible things and often acted very weirdly, she said.
A file picture shows the deceased family from their vacation. (Image: News18)
No one lives in the corner house of Burari's Santnagar area anymore. Last week, all the 11 family members were found dead. Neighbours who knew them for more than a couple of decades had never been inside their house. The children were trained to keep friends away from home. The family was planning a grand wedding. They did not foresee death, and if initial police reports are to be believed, nobody killed them either. However, 10 of them were found hanging from an iron rail attached to the ceiling, blindfolded and gagged. They were found in the same place of the house, the lobby. The body of Naryani Devi, 77, the eldest member of the family, was found lying in the adjacent room. The other victims were her two sons, their wives, a daughter and five grandchildren.
The Bhatia family was wiped off overnight.
The police have various theories. One of the many is that the family followed some occult practice and apparently death was the method to attain 'moksha' (salvation). The detailed notes in the 11 notebooks that the police recovered were reportedly written by Narayani Devi's 33-year-old granddaughter Priyanka on the instructions of her uncle, 46-year-old Lalit. The notes mentioned that the hands and legs are to be tied, and that the eyes and the mouths should be covered to overcome fear. The bodies were found in the same manner as the notes suggested.
But did the family really follow any occult practice as the police say? Was there a godman involved? Did all the members in the family, including two 15-year-olds, decide to kill themselves? There are many mysteries to the Burari deaths, but none of the theories quite add up.
Suicide or Murder?
The cops wait outside the now sealed house, all day and night. It's been a week. Perhaps, they will, after all, find some clue to solve a puzzle that seems to be beyond the neighbours, shopkeepers and even relatives of the Bhatia family.
Police presence outside the house. (News18.com)
There was no mystery about the Bhatia family. They were pretty ordinary. Lalit, who the police says was the 'mastermind' in this episode, ran a plywood shop right below his house. "He didn't talk much, but he was a kind man," said Hemant, a neighbour who was one of the first to enter the house on Sunday morning where he found them hanging.
"Lalit bhaiyaa's bike would be parked outside the house. Whenever I had difficulty in taking my car inside the narrow lane because of the parked vehicles, he would step out of his shop and move them so I can drive smoothly. I didn't even have to ask him. That's how he was," Hemant said.
Everyone in the neighbourhood says the Bhatia family didn't ever show any 'signs' of believing in 'tantra mantra'. "They were an ordinary middle-class family. They may have been religious, but who's not? Believing in God doesn't mean that they would take their own lives," a middle-aged woman said, while staring at the apparent 'house of horror'.
Bhavnesh, the elder son of the family who ran a grocery shop, was the more 'friendly kind', the neighbours say. Hemant, who has also been living the same area for over 15 years said that he's known the family since he was a child. "It's a small neighbourhood, everyone knows everyone here," he said. "I would often go to Bhavnesh bhaiyaa's shop to chat with him during my post-dinner walks," Hemant said. In all these years of 'chit-chatting', Hemant never thought that the family could have been blinded by superstitions. But, Hemant said, he didn't know what the Bhatia family did inside the house. "I have never been inside the house," he said.
Hemant's wife, Pooja, who knew Narayani Devi's grand-daughter, Priyanka, "quite well" has never been to the house either. "Once I was complaining to her (Priyanka) about my son's friends who often visit my house. This is when she said that their house has a rule," Pooja recollected her conversation with Priyanka years ago. "Humne to Dhruv aur Shivam to bol diya hai, school ke friends school mein, aur tuition ke friends tuition mein. Ghar pe koi friends nahi ayenge (We have told Dhruv and Shivam not to bring their school or tuition friends home)," Priyanka had then told Pooja.
The school attended by the two 15-year-olds. (News18.com)
She was a little surprised but it didn't seem anything out of the usual back then. "They were a close-knit family, I thought maybe they liked having their own family time without intruders," Pooja said.
But now, after the 'hadsa'(tragedy), nothing seems usual.
"During demonetisation, the entire family would stand in the queue together," said Pooja. Once, when Hemant was struggling with two Rs 500 notes that he didn't get a chance to exchange in the bank, Priyanka offered to help. "Hum sab kal bank jayenge, main exchange kar lungi (We will go to the bank tomorrow, I'll get it exchanged)," she had said. "She was very polite. How could I have known if they were practising tantra mantra?" Hemant asked.
The man who irons clothes in the corner just three houses after the Bhatia's house often goes to drop the clothes back to people's homes. He has never been inside the Bhatia family's house. "Priyanka would give her clothes for laundry and ironing, not the rest of the family. She would come and collect it," he said.
Every morning, Bhavnesh would go to the nearby Ram temple where he would read the Hanuman Chalisa at 5:30 am and proceed to his grocery store that would open at 5:45 am. This was the routine. It was, in fact, this very routine that led to the neighbours suspecting that there's something wrong.
Gurcharan Singh, known fondly as the 'Sardarji uncle' in the neighbourhood, who runs a photocopy shop, was the first one to find the family hanging with dupattas and wires around their neck. When the shop had not opened till 7 am, after he visited the grocery store to buy his daily consumption of milk, Singh decided to go and check on the family.
The main door was open. He went upstairs, found the bodies, and called the other neighbours. They then called the police. Together, they brought the bodies down, one by one.
The Family Didn't Have a Death Wish
In the last released CCTV footage that was obtained from the premises opposite Bhatia's house, the family is seen shopping for bandages that were used to tie up their mouth and eyes. At around 10 pm, Bhavnesh's daughter Neetu and her mother Savita are seen carrying four plastic stools towards their house; these were used in the hanging.
Another clip shows Shivam taking 20 rotis from the delivery boy that the family had ordered. He, then, is seen heading to the plywood shop on the ground floor from where he picks an electric wire bundle and walks upstairs with it at 10.39 pm. A little later, Bhavnesh is seen coming out of the house with the family’s pet dog 'Jacky' and taking it for a walk. He is seen returning at 11.04 pm. The dog was found tied up on the terrace.
Hemant, the neighbour, as usual, had gone to the grocery shop during his post-meal walk and congratulated Priyanka on the news of her engagement. "She looked very happy. I asked her if she has started preparing for the wedding. She asked me to bring her a lehenga from Chandni Chowk," he said, remembering his conversation, not knowing it would be the last one.
Priyanka's mother, Pratibha, 57, who held tuition classes for children in the neighbourhood, asked the students to come back the next day at the end of her class. "One of the girl's books are still in their house," Bhatia's neighbour Pooja said.
The police has said that the family meant to hang themselves, but didn't intend to die. According to the police, after the death of Narayani Devi's husband, Lalit had taken it upon himself to 'discipline' the family. One of the entries in the notebook that was seized from the house had instructions for the family members. Lalit would, as the notes say, make them stand in a position like soldiers after their morning prayers. This was, the notebook read, for increasing mental strength.
The police say that they planned this ritual to help a relative who was facing financial problems. When the relative was asked about it, she said she had no clue about it.
Bhatia family’s house-maid who had quit working for the family six years ago had noticed something unusual about the family that the others couldn’t because nobody had ever been inside the house. “Lalit bhaiyaa would often lose control of himself whenever there were religious functions. He would start saying incomprehensible things and often acted very weirdly,” said the maid.
The Crime Branch officials believe that Lalit and his wife Tina tied the hands and legs of other family members before all of them hung themselves from the iron grill on the ceiling of a corridor during this apparent 'ritual'. The police also said that Lalit used to often research on death and mysteries of soul. His phone's history showed that he often watched paranormal shows on YouTube. Lalit had told the family members that his father’s soul had entered his body, so they would follow him, the police said.
At the Ram temple, where all the deceased family members would go, the priest has had a rough few days. He has been constantly asked questions by the police and the media. "What can I say? They used to come to the temple just like anyone else. They would sit and pray just like anyone else," he said. But, not everyone's convinced. "Arre, Lalit to khud hi baba banke baitha tha (Lalit had become a godman himself)," said an elderly woman who, too, visit the temple every day.
She said that the Bhatia family, who had migrated from Rajasthan two decades ago, followed ‘Mehndipur Wale Balaji Temple’ in Rajasthan. "They were also Asaram Bapu disciples. When Asaram Bapu was put behind bars this is when Lalit became the family baba," the elderly woman said. Her grandson would go to the Bhatia's house for the tuition classes.
The police have now said that they are probing the ‘mental state’ of Lalit as they feel it could be a case of 'shared psychotic disorder'.
Dr Nimesh Desai, the Director of the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS), at an event on Friday said that the Burari deaths were possibly the "result of a shared delusion which increased due to access to easy religious and spiritual apparatus and no treatment”. The ‘spiritual apparatus’ that the doctor referred to was the 'pattern' in which bodies were discovered which many theorized were part of a religious cult. "These victims happened to have access to a kind of spiritual apparatus that completely suited and fed their dysfunctional beliefs," he said.
The Rumours and the Fear
Lalit's portrayal in newspapers and police reports have made the neighbours rethink about his behaviour. "He would just stand with hands folded and watch the children play cricket. He wouldn't talk," said a woman who runs a tailoring shop in the area. "Who knows what was going on inside his head?" asked another resident.
But Gurcharan Singh's son feels that there have been lots of rumours doing the rounds in the neighbourhood after the incident. "Lalit ji's voice was partially impaired when a large piece plywood fell on his neck in the shop. So he wouldn't be able to talk. But now the rumour is that he kept a maun vrat (a vow of silence). This is all bakwaas," he said.
Talking about the 'mystery' of the 11 pipes that protrudes from a wall of the house facing an empty plot, one of the neighbours said, "Now they are telling us Bhatia familie's ghosts will come out of those pipes. They have made their deaths a joke," he said.
The neighbours have gathered at a tea stall; their discussions revolve around the mysterious death that have caused a lot of fear. "The constant presence of the police and the media is creating frustration among us. There are rumours doing the rounds. Some TV channel reported the other day they had seen Lalit's face coming out of the pipe. One entire family is dead, and now they want to keep harassing us. They are not going to let us live in peace," he said. His anger is shared by the other people around. "Our children can't sleep at night because of the constant news coverage. They are calling it a haunted house," another person said.
The 11 pipes at the Burari house (News18)
About 8 kms away, in Virendra Public School, where Shivam and Dhruv studied in class IX, the parents want to erase the memory of this 'horrific death' from the minds of their children. The Principal of the school said that the parents complained after he conducted a prayer meet for Dhruv and Shivam. "They came to my office and asked me why I did it," he said. The Principal said he knew the two children personally and that they were "good kids". "They were bright and extremely disciplined," he said.
The parents have their own reason for trying to shelter their children. "Those people have gone. Our children are now scared to be left alone because of the constant updates and the videos that are being shared," said one of the neighbours of the Bhatia family. As she discusses this, a TV reporter shoves the microphone in her face and tells her, "Please say you are scared".
Meanwhile, the rumours refuse to settle down.
The other day Pooja's (neighbour Hemant’s wife) son got a call from his friend who told him that the police have now put up a board that says that the area where they live is haunted, and no one should step there. "My son was obviously scared. I called up his friend and scolded him for playing this prank," Pooja said.
Next to the 'sardarji Uncle's' house is where a bunch of young students live, they are all preparing for entrance exams. Many of them no longer want to live here. Two of them have already left. "There was this guy who had come from Manipur. After the incident, he told us he's going home for a couple of days. He has now informed the landlord that he's not coming back," said Sandeep Chaudhary, who has been living in the PG for about six months. Chaudhary said that the environment in the colony has changed overnight. "Earlier there would be so much crowd in this lane, now you can barely see people. Now there are only cops and people who stop on the way to take a look at the house," he said. Sandeep's roommate also left the PG. The ones who are there are constantly getting calls from their parents to move to a 'better' locality.
The neighbours, however, feel it's a matter of time before everything dies down. They have their own theories though. Some of them believe that the Bhatia family was murdered. "How could Lalit have tied his own hands? Why was there door open? If they were practising tantra mantra wouldn't we have known?" These are some of the questions on their mind. Some, however, feel that the police is just 'botching up the investigation'.
"But we have to continue living here. We can't run away because the police tells us there are ghosts," Satyadev, a man who lives on the floor of the building where the PG is, said. "Haunted or not, we can't be scared."
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