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Home / Opinion / Columns /  Delusions are infectious, and collective delusions shape history

One morning in 2018, all eleven members of a household were found dead in their home in Burari, a suburb of Delhi. Ten people of the family were found hanging from the ceiling in a small circle. They dangled like the vines of a banyan tree, which is more than a metaphor; it was their written intent. Moments before their deaths, they stood on five stools, maybe six, sharing the platform that they would kick away.

They were two middle-aged men, two boys in their teens, two women in their twenties, one in her thirties, and three middle-aged women. The family matriarch, who was about 80, was probably too old to climb a stool. She was found in another room, strangled. Those who were found hanging, except one man, were blind-folded, their mouths gagged, ears covered and hands bound. They probably helped each other tie themselves, or they were sealed in this manner by the man whose own fasteners were odd. The deaths are the subject of Leena Yadav and Anubhav Chopra’s documentary on Netflix, House of Secrets. It is a calm and terrifying recounting of an event that most Indians had only heard of through the hysteria of television news.

The deaths of the prospering middle-class family have long been solved as a case of mass suicide. Yet, they can also be interpreted as an accident, or mass murder. The clues that helped solve the case were in eleven diaries the family maintained over eleven years. Written chiefly by one man, Lalit Bhatia, but aided by others in the house, these had instructions on how to live, conduct themselves and perform some rituals.

The diaries began in 2007, soon after the death of Lalit’s father. Lalit, it seems, started believing that he was possessed by his father’s ghost, who dictated his views on what the family had to do to attain prosperity and spiritual enlightenment. On the night the family died, they were in the midst of a prescribed ritual. They may not have expected to die. According to an entry in a diary, they thought they would somehow return from the ritual. By most signs, this was a family that wanted to live. Yet, one man persuaded them to meticulously plan their own death.

A little known quality of delusion is that it is infectious. A person who is severely deluded can transfer it to someone in close contact with him. Some psychologists and psychiatrists refer to it as ‘folie à deux’, French for the madness of two, or, in clinical terms, a shared psychosis. But an imperfect translation of the French expression offers greater philosophical accuracy: ‘the folly of two’.

Milder forms of the-folly-of-two are more common than we would like to accept. There is evidence all around us. A man starts to think everyone in his office is out to get him; and his wife soon starts seeing that. Someone suspects the water is contaminated, and the rest of the family begins to get the odour. This does not look like a mental disorder; probably just poor mental health. We associate insanity only with the extraordinary because we think sanity is a majority condition.

The folly-of-two assumes the more serious name of ‘shared psychosis’ when people die, or become dangerous. Like when, a few years ago, two sisters shut themselves in their house and starved for many days until they were found. One of the sisters had started hearing their dead mother warning them that the world was trying to poison them, and the other sister also began hearing those voices, corroborating the delusion.

People of sound mental health are poor liars. To fool others, you need to first fool yourself. That is why the most influential spiritual gurus are never charlatans; they believe every word they say. That is how they infect. Shared psychosis is not only the transfer of an idea between two people; it is usually a transmission to many. And it appears that most people in the world are susceptible to secondary reception of a delusion. This is because a delusion can be very interesting.

The Bhatias of Burari, according to their neighbours, were an unremarkable family of seemingly sane and loveable people. Yet, Lalit had apparently convinced his family of not just one extraordinary phenomenon, but several. He made them believe in the ghost of his father, and that he was the deceased’s chosen medium, and that they must behave in particular ways, and that if they performed special rituals, something paranormal would occur.

When people recount the Burari deaths, they marvel at their own disbelief. The family had the trappings of modernity. There is a popular assumption that people who went to college or wear jeans are ‘rational’. But people do get swayed by a spectacular idea.

Lalit was in the spell of a powerful delusion. Despite that, or because of it, he had domestic gravitas. Though he wasn’t the eldest brother, he took over the family’s reins through the force of personality, eventually persuading them to climb a stool with nooses around their necks for a supernatural moment. In another age, Lalit could have started a religion.

The history of the world is the history of influence, and hence the history of delusion. Typically, a man sees a vision and begins to tell a captivating story. People misunderstand him, depending on their own mental states, and they think they see what he sees. And the ancient vision spreads, survives for centuries and lives among us.

People scoff at Lalit, but spirituality itself may have emerged from circumstances not too dissimilar. The sane trying to imitate the inimitable; all our tumults emerge from that. The spirits, the spiritual, the climate-paranoids, the enlightened—what if all of them were only Lalits, in a way, but Lalits who could persuade more than nine or ten?

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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