Faith and the Death of a Family

One of the 11 bodies found at a home in Burari, Delhi, on July 1
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What really transpired in that house that night remains a mystery

IT WAS LATE in the evening on Sunday when Sanjay Mahapatra was finally let through. The animal welfare activist who runs an animal shelter in Delhi had spent much of the day with police officials, over the phone and at the police station, convincing them, having his credentials verified. When he finally arrived, the area was just as crowded as the morning visuals on TV had shown. “It was a mela,” he says. “More than 700-800 people everywhere.” He elbowed and pushed through the crowd of onlookers and media personnel.

He was entering the house in Burari where 11 members of a family had been found dead. He walked up the stairs and found himself on that ill-fated first floor, and although the thought occurred to him, he never once looked in. Another flight of stairs brought him to the terrace where the only surviving member of that night in the house remained: a pet dog. A person from a nearby house shouted the name of the dog: Tommy. “But there was something very strange about Tommy,” Mahapatra says. “It was extremely aggressive. We took over an hour-and-a-half to just subdue it.” They had the canine muzzled and tied up. At their shelter, when they checked, they found the dog had a very low platelet count and was running a fever of 1080 Celsius. “This is very high for dogs. Many of them die when it is this high,” he says. “When I look at Tommy now and think of how we found him,I feel like he must know something, or might have seen something.”

So many days after the incident, what really transpired in that house that night remains a mystery. Ten bodies—of two brothers, their wives and children, a widowed sister and her daughter—were found hanging from a mesh in the ceiling of a single room. A majority of their faces, mouths, eyes, hands and feet were bound carefully, and in near identical fashion, and in a manner suggestive of some occult practice. Another body, of the 75-year-old matriarch of the house, was discovered in the next room. “In my entire career, I have seen nothing like it,” says a police officer who was among the earliest to reach the spot. “I knew what I was to expect in the house. But even then, when I got there, it was so shocking.”

This joint family of 11 members—as several relatives and neighbours describe it—were an unexceptional middle-class Delhi family. The two brothers managed two stores on the ground floor. Above, the women ran the house. The children went to school. One of the women worked as a management executive in an international intellectual property firm. They betrayed no indication of being involved in anything supernatural and did not appear to be in any financial or emotional distress. Some of the relatives who have spoken to the media reject the theory that their relatives committed suicide as part of some mystical practice.

The police, however, are sticking to their version of events: that the entire family committed suicide. A police officer says there were no signs of struggle in the house and that their bodies bore no signs of injury. “You tell me what else it could have been, if not suicide?” asks the officer, requesting anonymity. “How else can 11 people die in such a way?”

According to the police, they have arrived at this conclusion not because of the absence of any other likely explanation. They have discovered two diaries, they say, that reveal such likely occult practices. “It has a lot of things there which point towards this,” the police officer says. Their suspicion has fallen on Lalit Bhatia, the 45-year-old member of that family, as the main motivator. Although the younger of the two brothers, according to the police, he was the dominant figure in the family. “It looks like he was writing these diaries,” the officer says. According to the police, Bhatia had in all probability been hallucinating that his dead father was communicating to the family through him. The diaries they found go back to 2015. Later media reports claim the police have discovered several more diaries dating back even further. “He might have convinced others in the family to believe him. And to take this step,” the officer says.

This is still conjecture. Other strange things have been observed, like the presence of 11 pipes, not connected to any water source, protruding from one wall in the house. Four of the pipes are straight, seven are bent, while one is placed a little away from the others, which have led to rumours that they were meant to carry away their souls: the four straight ones for the four men, seven bent ones for the seven women, and the one away at a distance meant for the matriarch who died in another room. The more reasonable suggestion seems to be that the pipes had been installed to ventilate the house.

“There is no way to know what happened that night,” Mahapatra says, “The only survivor is Tommy.”

Several days after the incident, the dog is still seen to be depressed. Mahapatra spent two days and nights with Tommy, he says, and it has finally begun to warm to him. “The way I look at it, there were 12 people in that house. Eleven died and one survived. I want to give that one all the love. He needs it.”