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Trigger warning: Mentions of death by suicide, mental health, violence, paranormal activities
House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths is Netflix’s limited docuseries based on the real-life story of the Chundawat family. It refers to the accidental, unconfirmed deaths of eleven members of a family, from three different generations, in a neighborhood in New Delhi called Burari.
On the morning of 1st July 2018, ten bodies were found hanging from the grill roof, whereas the body of the grandmother was found at the side of the bed. All of their hands and feet were tied, and they were blindfolded. This case shook the nation and garnered a lot of attention due to its intricacy and suspense.
House of Secrets maps the incidents that probably led to the deaths. The show offers a deep insight into the patriarchy prevalent in Indian households and at some point also makes one think – if the aversion to women’s individuality is not normalised in families, could this tragedy have been averted?
The eleven people who passed away in this incident were – Narayani Devi (80), Pratibha Bhatia (59), Bhuvnesh (53) and his wife Savita (50), Lalit (47) and his wife Tina (43). Priyanka (33), Neetu (25), Maneka (22), Dhruv (15) and Shivam (15) were children of Pratibha, Bhuvnesh and Lalit respectively.
After the death of Narayani Devi’s husband, Bhopal Singh, she was the oldest member of the family. Nevertheless, the household was run by the patriarch Lalit. Even though everyone started to blindly believe and follow Lalit after he claimed to have spoken to his dead father, Narayani Devi was not powerful enough in the family to take decisive power in her hands or question the bizzare claims of her son.
As House of Secrets is a docuseries, there are interviews of friends and relatives of the Chundawat family. Amongst those are Lalit’s friends Parveen Mehta and her husband Chander Mehta. They compare the deceased family’s past to their own, stating that the secret of the couples’ happy marriage is how they abide by the patriarch. Chander Mehta says [about his wife], “Inko abhi bhi permission nahi hai, pehle papaji ki consent. Halaki pata hai ki papaji – kabhi bhi refuse nahi kiya unhone – but agar woh veto power hai toh woh father ke paas hai. Isiliye 25 saal ho gaye, ab tak toh lade nahi” (She isn’t permitted to go out without my father’s consent. Even though he will never say no, the veto power is with my father. That’s why it’s been 25 years, and there have been no fights between us).
Here, the question that arises is – why does Parveen need permission in the first place? Perhaps because it satisfies the male ego to view women as inferior. Chander mentions that this is the case in most middle-class families. Therefore, even though this part of the interview is not directly related to the case, it sheds a lot of light on the direction in which the society is headed and what our familial values seem to be.
House Of Secrets points to the fact that even in the 21st century, there are educated people who believe that the key to a harmonious lifestyle is allowing women to be controlled by the male elders in the family. According to Lalit, his dead father spoke to him. Lalit made note of everything his father’s spirit communicated to him in diaries that were later found by the police. In those diaries, there were instructions allegedly given by Bhopal Singh (Lalit’s father), where he assigned roles and prescriptions for each member of the family. The family had apparently been planning for a ritualistic death as mandated by Lalit’s father’s spirit to Lalit. Everyone behaved and performed daily tasks as was instructed by Bhopal Singh vicariously through Lalit.
The tasks given to women were extremely cliched. As told by the family’s neighbours, Pritpal Kaur and Amrik Singh, “Savita didi, mujhe nahi lagta tha ki unhe koi shauk hai ya kuch hai. Matlab unka ek hi kaam tha – kitchen sambhalna” (I never felt like Savita had any interests of her own. All she ever did was manage the kitchen morning to night).
Savita was always found in the kitchen only because “shayad unke baare mein bhi likha hua mila hai” (the diaries dictated this role to her). The perception of females as the sole caretakers is reflected in how the diaries contain extremely patriarchal details of the deceased father’s instructions to his son.
These preexisting notions about responsibilities also affected the way the family behaved with each other. Savita and Tina were both daughters-in-law of the house and despite being educated, they always agreed with everything that Narayani Devi told them. According to another neighbor, Preet Mann, “the bhabhis” (sisters-in-law) took care of one of the worker’s wives when she injured herself. All of this made them “able homemakers”.
Considering the eventual fate of the family, it is no secret that they were extremely superstitious. The body of Pratibha was hung slightly away from the rest of them, as instructed in the diaries, because she was a widow. Though the reason for this decision is not clear, it is a common superstition in India that widows bring bad luck to the family. Maybe because this ritual was seen as sacred, and they kept Pratibha away even during death.
There’s a certain level of astonishment that comes with this case because most of the female members of the family were educated. In fact, Priyanka worked with a multinational company and was the only female earning member of the family. Tina, Lalit’s wife, had a master’s degree in sociology. In spite of this, she used to just agree with whatever her husband said. Though the family was strictly commanded to not tell anyone about the things happening in their house, Tina reportedly mentioned to her sister and some other relatives that Lalit had been possessed by his father’s spirit.
This statement was scoffed at and discarded by them because Lalit caused “no harm” to any of the family members over the years. Still, according to the police, some relatives told her to take Lalit to a doctor, which she refused because she didn’t want to “question her husband’s beliefs”. The saddening fact remains that her own opinions, decisions, and identity didn’t give her a stand in the house but adhering to her husband did.
A relevant question that may be asked here is – would these issues be viewed in the same way if roles were reversed? If Lalit had told his relatives that his wife was being visited by her dead family members, or if Bhuvnesh had been a widower, the response would have been extremely different. They would have been taken seriously, and the females would have been shunned for their behaviour.
Senior journalist Barkha Dutt asks a very important question in House of Se – “Did the women of the house have the right to not participate in that ritual?”. The body of Narayani Devi was found on the side of the bed, with struggle and strangulation marks. Though her’s is reported as a case of partial hanging, we do not know whether or not she had a say against the ritual – especially since it was her husband allegedly ‘visiting‘ them.
Bhuvnesh’s daughter Maneka, as per several relatives, had a “scientific bent of mind” and pursued B.Sc. in Forensic Science from Delhi University. For someone who is so scientifically inclined, it’s perplexing how she could be superstitiously manipulated and coerced. There were seven women who died, which is more than half of the family. Their limitations were prominent even when they were alive. The question of whether they were given an option to stay out of the ritual, remains unanswered.
Since there are no survivors, the exact and precise details of the ordeal will never be available. They all took the answers with them. Regardless, this incident raises concerns about issues that go beyond cult practices. Lalit, who everyone trusted, underwent a lot of trauma which, according to psychiatrists may have resulted in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other mental health issues.
If his problems were dealt with promptly and not stigmatised as much as they were, maybe the lives could have been saved. If the women of the house were not subjugated or suppressed as much, the turnout of events in this family could have been different But, they weren’t, and we will always have to live with the “what ifs”. House of Secrets is relevant especially in a country like our’s where superstitions and gender roles still thrive, and conditioned morality often takes precedence over rationality.
Suditi is currently a second year student pursuing a degree in English. An aspiring writer, she hopes to always bring a unique and refreshing take on topics. Aside from writing, her interests include reading, acting and discovering underrated gems of world cinema. She may be found on Instagram