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Behind closed doors: Stories of loneliness in the capital

Some of the other such cases in the Capital that made news.

Sonali Behl’s  home in Noida Sector 29. Source: Amit Mehra Sonali Behl’s home in Noida Sector 29. Source: Amit Mehra

Last week, a 25-year-old woman died lonely in a west Delhi flat, shutting herself out from the world. SHALINI NARAYAN revisits some of the other such cases in the Capital that made news and tells their stories — of loneliness in the big city.

Thirty-one-year-old Neerja Gupta lies on her bed on a hot Tuesday afternoon, talking to her 80-year-old mother Nirmala Devi, who shuffles around the house looking for a comb she remembers she had kept near the TV but can’t find now. On another bed lies Neerja’s elder sister Mamta, 40, whose eyes only seem to follow her son Shubham, who has just come back from school. The 15-year-old tells his mother he scored the highest in class in his Business Studies paper and that his teacher had congratulated him.


But Shubham knows his mother isn’t listening. Her eyes are now fixed on the door. For her, every movement is suspect. With every sound, her heart skips a beat. And then, she sees it — a black dog at the door, baring its teeth at her son.

She lets out a cry and Nirmala comes running. “I told you to keep the door shut,” she hollers at Shubham. He quietly gets up and shuts the door, his academic success all but forgotten. Shubham doesn’t try telling his mother that the black dog she saw is only in her mind. He knows his grandmother and mother are hallucinating.

On June 16, 2012, Neerja and Mamta were rescued from their home in north Delhi’s Rohini Sector 8. They had been starving and their mother had alerted their neighbours. When they were admitted to Baba Saheb Ambedkar Hospital, Neerja weighed 25 kg and Mamta 15 kg. They were discharged after four months of treatment. That’s when Shubham first heard of ‘schizophrenia’ and since then, he has learnt to live with it.


The cramped room in the double-storeyed house reeks of urine and sweat. It’s as if nothing has changed from two years ago. A bedpan lies beside both Neerja and Mamta, but neither uses it. Neerja’s bed is brown and bloodied as she is menstruating. “They defecate and urinate in their beds. Naani cleans it sometimes. But every time she tries to lift the sheet, they scream,” says Shubham, rubbing his mother’s arm as she winces in pain.

“I had to stop going to school for about six months because my grandmother thought there was this black dog that would bite me,” says Shubham who goes to a government school in the area. “Naani accompanies me to school everyday and 10 minutes before school ends, she is waiting for me at the gate,” he says, smiling at his grandmother.

“Woh bada kutta hai. Kaat lega toh bahaut dard hoga (It’s a big dog. If it bites, it will hurt a lot),” says Nirmala.

Shubham shows a photograph of his mother that speaks of happier times —vermilion on her forehead, wearing a red sari with a gold border. Mamta manages a smile and, embarrassed, covers her face with her hands. “Mamta was the most beautiful girl in our family, but her marriage was a mistake. Her husband worked at a furniture shop. He would come home drunk and beat her everyday. She was forced to leave him and come home to us. After that, even Neerja didn’t want to marry,” she says.

Mamta lies listless. Her hair is patchy, but Shubham wipes it every now and then and combs it with his comb, careful not to touch her scalp. Neerja is more enthusiastic, talking to anybody who cares to listen. The doctor has asked her not to keep lying down, so Shubham helps her take a few unsteady steps around the room.

“Naani says there is no need for medicines. We manage with the pension she gets. At least she now lets me turn on the fan and I no longer sleep with the three of them in the same room. I sleep in my own room upstairs. Now my mother and aunt eat kadhi-chawal when I tell them to. Earlier, naani would only make ghiya and tori ki subzi,” says Shubham.

His uncles live a few blocks away and he visits them every day after school, staying back to play video games with his cousins. “Earlier too, my uncles would call me home. But my family wouldn’t let me go, saying I would get hurt,” he says.

“We tried reaching out to them,” says one of his uncles. “But they never wanted our help. We paid for as much as we could, but we have our families to look after. They brought this upon themselves. Now we are trying our best to make sure that Shubham does well.”

It’s 4 pm and Shubham is preparing to leave for an uncle’s house. His mother begins to wail as she sees him change into his shorts and T-shirt. “I will only be an hour,” he says. Mamta lifts her hand and manages a slight wave.


Forty kilometres away from Rohini, in a flat in Sector 29, Noida, Sonali Behl returns from her evening walk. Clad in a red-and-white ikkat salwar-kameez, her hair neatly trimmed, Sonali walks up briskly to a letter box at the entrance of the building and checks it. When asked if she would be willing to speak, she says “certainly not”. A neighbour greets Sonali and she responds with a “fine, thank you” before rushing into her first-floor apartment, shutting the door behind her.


On April 12, 2011, Sonali and her sister Anuradha were rescued after neighbours complained of a foul smell from their flat. Their father Colonel O P Behl had died in an accident in 1992 and their mother of a heart attack five years later. Their younger brother Vipin Behl, a software engineer, had moved out after his marriage in 2007. Somewhere down the years, Anuradha, a chartered accountant, had left her job while Sonali, who worked at an export house, paid the bills. But by 2008, they had stopped eating and withdrawn from society.

Three years ago, when the sisters were finally rescued from their home, their mouths were lined with fungal infection and they had sores on their bodies. Two days later, Anuradha died of multiple organ failure at Kailash Hospital in Noida where she and Sonali were admitted. Sonali survived, though she barely weighed 30 kg then.

Sonali briefly moved in with her brother, but shifted back to her Noida home later. Neighbours say her brother visits her every Sunday and has been helping her financially. They say she is particular about her walks. “She leaves home at 4.30 am for her walk and then later to fetch bread and milk. In the evenings too, she goes for a walk at 5.30 pm. She doesn’t like talking to the media and if she ever senses them around, she changes her walk schedule,” says a neighbour.

Balak Ram, a guard at the building, says, “Madam has changed completely. Earlier, her hair was always unkempt. But when she recently got a hair cut, we couldn’t recognise her. She has three domestic helps who work for her. During Diwali last year, she lit candles and changed the curtains.”

Dr Nimesh Desai, Director of the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS), says the case of the Noida sisters was particularly worrisome as they had “paranoia”, an advanced stage of schizophrenia. “They had shut themselves from the rest of the world. If the NGOs had not acted, they would have died. There is always a trigger, though one cannot pinpoint a reason for such state of mental illness,” says Desai.

Dr G R Golecha, a psychiatrist who treated Sonali at Kailash Hospital, says, “She recovered well. She was willing to do all her household chores. She was responding well to the treatment and we discharged her a few weeks after she was admitted. It has been a year since I heard from her. She was advised to go to the OPD regularly but I don’t think she has been doing that. She had told me that she was looking for a job.”


For Shalini Mehra, 45, her D-block Saket home had been the cocoon she built around herself. So when her 80-year-old mother, the only other person in her world, died, she lived with the body for at least six months till she was rescued on September 6, 2010, when an electrician complained of foul smell from the flat.


Ever since, she has been at IHBAS where she is being treated for schizophrenia. Doctors treating her say she was delusional and worried about “enemies” coming to attack her. “She kept saying she wanted to fix a new latch on the door, that her enemies would kill her and take her property away. Her thought process was disconnected. But she is better now, she has come to terms with her mother’s death,” says a doctor who treated her.

Shalini, who worked at the British High Commission, had been diagnosed with an acute form of schizophrenia. Her husband had remarried after divorcing her and their daughter Rehana, who is in her mid-20s, now lives in Bangalore.

“For two years, IHBAS has made efforts to rehabilitate the patient, but her family has shown little interest. She needs a community setting to heal,” says IHBAS Director Dr Desai. “We do not want her to be neglected. There has to be a coordinated effort among court-appointed officials, policemen, NGO workers and doctors to ensure her well-being,” Desai says.

In a petition, Shalini’s daughter told the court that she did not want her mother to be rehabilitated in a “family setting” at their Saket home and preferred that she be put in a shelter in Delhi. She, however, told the court that she was willing to be the “guardian and manager of her (mother’s) properties and assets”.

But Shalini, say her doctors, keeps asking when she can return home.

Last week

* Neha, 25, who lived alone in her flat in west Delhi’s Rajapuri Colony, died six hours after she was taken to hospital. Her neighbours say she had not eaten for a week and that they complained to Neha’s neighbour Pushpa when the stench from her flat became unbearable.

* Neighbours know very little about Neha, saying that she probably worked with “specially-challenged children in an institution”. While the post-mortem has been conducted, there are no claimants to her body that has been lying in cold storage.

* “This is a clear case of a woman who lived alone, fell ill and died. No one reached out to her,” says a senior police officer associated with the case.

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