India loves its traditions.They rest on a towering pedestal where they remain untouched, impervious to criticism, with emphasis on perhaps the most revered concept of all–one that is guarded with our lives– the Indian family.
Desi folks stick together, right? Through the disagreements, the abuse, the turmoil. We take great pride in our collectivism, always placing the community before the self. But when sacrifice becomes convention, what’s really keeping us together? And are we really, truly together in the first place?
The 2018 Burari Deaths urged us to ask these unsettling questions.
This case was a chilling testament to the unspoken, sinister truths of Indian society. A joint family of 11 dies by mass suicide, seemingly out of the blue, and all it spurred was a voyeuristic media circus, a flurry of WhatsApp forwards, and then–radio silence. As the contentious Barkha Dutt says in the series, it was truly “an early heralding of the kind of rubbish that broadcast journalism has descended to in India.”
In the midst of the sensationalism and callous reporting, House of Secrets seeks to foster deeply uncomfortable conversations that are long overdue.
“I’m actually surprised that more conversations have not happened about what exactly happened in Burari,” said Dr. Alok Sareen in House of Secrets.
On July 1st, 2018, the bodies of ten members of the Chundawat family were found hanging from a mesh in their home, while one had been strangled on the floor beside them. Before police could arrive at the scene, word had spread across the neighbourhood, causing a media frenzy. For a few weeks, north Delhi’s Burari became the subject of mass conjecture.
From locals to high-ranking politicians, everyone’s curiosity had been piqued, and the people demanded answers. No one could have predicted what followed.
Upon investigation, authorities discovered 11 diaries, starting 2007, right up to the day before the deaths in 2018. These diaries were written from a third person perspective, often in a patronizing, scolding tone, directing the Chundawat family throughout their daily life. It appeared as if an entity had been watching over them, pointing out their mistakes, and guiding them.
Each member of the family was to consult the diary every morning to learn about their duties for the day. The very last page of the most recent diary instructed the family to engage in a haunting ritual known as badh tapasya, or ‘banyan tree ritual’, wherein they were all to hang themselves from the ceiling, mimicking the branches of a banyan tree.
The family seemed to follow these diaries religiously every single day.
As the authorities combed through these diaries, they discovered that the head of the family, Lalit Chundawat, appeared to be ‘possessed’ by the spirit of the family’s late patriarch, who would use him as a medium to guide the family.
Yes, I know—it took me a minute to process as well.
The family apparently believed that they would survive the hanging, and that the ritual would help resurrect the late patriarch.
Yet, the question that baffled investigators remains—how, in over ten years of this curious practice, did no one find out? And, how, after the case came out into the open, is no one talking about it?
“The secrecy with which this happened speaks to the lack of interconnectedness of [our] society.”
The documentary opens with interviews of the family’s neighbours. Seated in their living rooms, they describe the Chundawats as a ‘harmonious’ family, never raising their voices, always warm, welcoming and personable. They gave the impression of a seemingly perfect, “intact” Indian family—respectable, regulars at the mandir, educated, financially stable, with no scandals to speak of.
As they mourn their loved ones, a close friend of the family laments that if even one of the children had hinted at what was going on, perhaps they would be alive.
While being questioned, not a single relative nor neighbour could speak to this practice. It was as if this secret lived and died with the family.
So, what was keeping this family so tightly knit together? So much so that not one member let the truth slip?
“The family often presents itself as this beautiful, harmonious, intact “Indian family”. Families have secrets, and they can be preserved at all sorts of costs.”
If you grew up in an Indian society, chances are that you were told not to talk about family matters outside your home. Don’t air our dirty laundry to your friends. Save face. Keep up appearances.
Perhaps this was not the only thing holding the Chundawats together—perhaps they really did hold an unyielding faith in these practises.
But the fact remains that shame and obedience are a powerful motivator in Indian communities.
How many scandals, how many instances of abuse go unreported and unspoken in Desi households? We’re experts at sweeping things under the rug, speaking in hushed whispers, shrugging or shuddering, and quickly changing the subject.
After incessant probing, investigators conducted a so-called ‘psychological autopsy’, wherein they found that Lalit may have lived with untreated PTSD, which could have descended into a case of psychosis.
It was assumed to be caused by his father’s passing and multiple near-death experiences,
however, neighbours mentioned that the family “chose to bury that [traumatic] episode”, and no one was allowed to speak of it.
“[Our] collective salacious appetite for scandal comes from the “othering” of dysfunctionality. It’s much easier to pretend that this happens to other people and it doesn’t happen to you.”
As this case unravelled in real time, viewers all over India latched onto it, sharing their half-baked theories online following along as news channels attempted to ‘recreate’ the crime scene, interviewing black magicians, engaging in bizarre stunts to collect ratings.
Our distinct lack of empathy reveals itself even in the most minute instances, including through this family’s traumatic story—be it our tendency to gossip and tear each other down, the inability to have uncomfortable conversations, the need to put on a gleaming facade in our community.
Although this case remains deeply complex, what would have happened if they did attempt to seek mental healthcare? Would they have been branded as ‘crazy’, weak, foolish? Would their loved ones turn on them?
What we must bear in mind, is that these fears are not unique to the Chundawats. Far from it.
We, as a collective, live under the fear of being found out; of being shunned. This brings me back to my initial question—what’s really keeping us together? Through this deeply uncomfortable, and much-needed story, I found my answer.
It is the shame that brings us together, and the shame that keeps us apart. Close enough to put on a harmonious front, far enough that we don’t slip up.
And although we live with it every single day, the Burari Deaths are proof that it can have disastrous consequences.
House of Secrets is the unsettling reminder that India needs—have the painful conversations, before it’s too late.
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