Stories of starvation deaths that appear in newspapers usually emerge from severely malnourished, poorer parts of our country. Not from cities. And so the story of the two Bahl sisters found in a starving, disturbed state in their Noida home was shocking. It also sounded terribly familiar. Their story echoed line by line that of the Bali sisters found in a similar state in their Kalkaji home four years ago.
The stories once again made for the same explanations of loneliness, social neglect and apathy. The sisters had been on their own, unable to sustain themselves because of unemployment and lack of other support systems.
But the similarities and the too easy explanations require a deeper examination. In 2007, the youngest of the Bali sisters, Neeru, was 30. She had died of starvation when the police made a forced entry into the home. But the other two were in their 40s, as the Bahl sisters.
Noida and Kalkaji, like most suburbs of the National Capital Region, are witness to continuous change. Neighbourhoods transform swiftly, familiar places alter within weeks and the city soon appears totally unrecognisable to longtime residents. This is a story that rings true across most Delhi suburbs and sectors in the wake of the Commonwealth Games, which have witnessed rapid modernisation.
Arguably, most of our cities now cater to short-term residents — the itinerant travellers, the occasional visitors — than to the long-term resident. So there are more takeaways, more hotels and residences, but no libraries, old age homes or even recreational centres. Even the local ‘kirana’ feels threatened by the malls, despite the fact that the latter may offer viable discounts but doesn’t ‘home deliver’.
If the Bali and Bahl sisters didn’t step out of their homes it was perhaps because the world around them had changed too much. Another sweeping statement made soon after the Bahl sisters were taken to a hospital attributed their “depressive psychotic state” to the recent loss of their parents. Both sets of women were in their 40s, single and isolated.
Did they, as single women, run out of options to live by? Was it also a ‘depression’, if at all, driven by a poor self-image? The belief that there can be only a few ways to live for women — to be married or be successful in some way — and that these sisters fell through the cracks concludes that they were ‘failures’?
The story also speaks to us about social apathy; systems like the police checks of isolated people, which are in place for the elderly, are actually failing. But apart from the vital need to establish and maintain connectivity between citizens, cities, in a way, have deprived us of the equally important need for solitude.
Cities are now greedy living entities, where life must be lived out in the open — in malls, restaurants and public transport systems. To live in a city now stands for living among crowds — even the nightlife has its own meaning, its own crowds. Solitude is a word viewed with suspicion.
In the wake of this tragedy, we need to look anew at reasons for isolation; why solitude becomes unbearable for some, and in a city can we still be happy in our own, perhaps different, selves, living simultaneously with many other selves?
We need to ask why and when loneliness became a bad word.
(Anu Kumar is a Singapore based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal)