Trigger warning: mentions of death and suicide
A patriarch with absolute control, educated women with no power, the denial of mental illness and the need to display the “perfect family” image: these were some of the main ingredients that ultimately resulted in the deaths of 11 family members.
But, aren’t these factors present in almost every Indian household? What is to prevent a case like this from happening again?
The discourse around patriarchal traditions, gender disparities and mental health has been renewed in light of the recent Netflix release ‘The House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths’.
This documentary highlights the normalcy of the Bhatia family—a joint family, with a patriarch leading three generations of the family—in the Indian society.
The death of the family patriarch often results in a power vacuum in the family, leaving the dependent members unsure about how to proceed with their life.
This is exactly what we see in the Bhatia family: the death of Bhopal Singh left a vacuum in the family that his youngest son, Lalit, tried to fill by being a medium for his father’s spirit.
Lalit’s untreated trauma from the past (an accident and a fire), coupled with his father’s death, appears to have triggered psychosis. But, no family member appears to have questioned this possession of Lalit by his father’s spirit.
The dead patriarch’s so-called wisdom appears to have provided relief to this struggling family instead.
Men need to talk about their mental health and struggles, just as much as women do. Men try to put on a show of being invulnerable, while women tend to silently suffer through their problems. Both approaches are problematic.
In joint families, the patriarch’s decision is final and binding. This unquestioning submission establishes a hierarchy within the family that places women on the lowest rung. The entire hierarchical structure is based on the exploitation of women and their labour.
Savita, a second-generation member of the Bhatia family, was always labouring in the kitchen on the orders of Bhopal Singh’s spirit. Relatives and neighbours said that she appeared to have no interests or hobbies beyond the family.
While this is seen as the role of a “good” Indian wife, it raises red flags because it normalises expectations from the women of the house to labour for numerous hours, be it in the kitchen or even otherwise, while men reap the profits of their unpaid labour.
The simple answer: the chance that women and children speaking up would be taken seriously is almost non-existent. Speaking out against the patriarch in our male-dominated society is equivalent to rebelling against the very foundation of the family.
The opinions and feelings of women and children are likely to be invalidated and dismissed.
Women are expected to adapt to the requirements established by the patriarch and any deviation would result in punishment, ostracization and humiliation.
This is highlighted in the documentary: there are numerous mentions of the punishment women would have to face if they disobeyed orders and constant guilt-tripping involved: to encourage them to do better.
The unconditional faith society places in men prevent any woman or child from speaking out. Women fear speaking out against harassment and violence they face on a regular basis because it is their word against a man’s.
The same fear would prevent the seven women of the Bhatia family from spilling the family secrets to an outsider. This faith extends beyond the family to society at large.
When speaking about Lalit, the neighbours and relatives continued to say that he was a nice man and had built the family up from the ground.
His control over the family was never questioned, even after the bone-chilling incident took place.
What was questioned instead, was why none of the family members (majorly women and minors) had ever spoken up about what was happening internally.
When the family patriarch feels as though he is losing his control, he may take extreme measures to regain the unquestioning submission of all family members. This can be harmful to the family as a whole, but especially for the member(s), he feels are questioning his power.
The feeling of loss of control generally stems from the loss of control over women and highlights the patriarchal hierarchy within society.
I would like to theorise that the engagement and expected departure of Lalit’s niece from the family was synonymous with the feeling of losing control, which in turn, triggered the so-called “ritual” that led to the family’s death.
As pointed out by journalist Barkha Dutt: “Did the women of the house have the right to not participate in that ritual? And if they didn’t, can it still be called suicide? Or, should it be called murder?”
The power that the family patriarch holds is extremely destructive and detrimental. It takes away the freedom and independence of every family member and forces them to behave according to the wishes of one person.
The joint family model resembles a cult in many ways.
We view the Burari case through the lens of an outsider, and so it appears as an alternate world detached from our reality.
But, this “othering” of the incident makes us believe nothing of the sort can happen to us and so, prevents us from understanding the causes and factors involved.
The main reasons for this bizarre incident are nothing new to us: patriarchy, powerless women and unconditional obedience to a man. These are deeply rooted in our society.
The intersections between mental health, patriarchy and gender inequality need to be brought into the limelight to prevent another such incident from taking place.
The current social and political climate allows for those in power to avoid accountability, by placing the responsibility on those who are already struggling.
Most importantly, we need to talk about the problems in our families just as much as we talk about the happy things: festivals, job promotions, births, weddings etc. Unless the good, the bad and the ugly is out in the open, the culture of secrecy is likely to sweep pertinent issues under the carpet.
Note: The author is part of the Sept-Oct ’21 batch of the Writer’s Training Program.