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Haunting tale of the two sisters who locked the world out

April 14, 2011 20:45 IST

What made sisters Sonali and Anuradha withdraw from the world and lock themselves up in their Noida flat for months on end, living in a state of starvation and squalor? Sahil Salim tries to piece together the haunting tale

She lies on her bed with an array of tubes inserted into her body. She sleeps most of the time and when she wakes up, she asks the nurses to cover her up.

"She feels very cold," one of the nurses tending to her says.

When she was rescued, Sonali Behl was wearing three layers of woolen sweatshirts inside a stuffy house with no electricity.    

Sonali, 38, and her elder sister, Anuradha, 42, were rescued from their house in Sector 29, Noida after a six-month long self-imposed exile. The sisters had survived strictly on bread, biscuits and tea for the first four months. In the last two months, they had probably starved themselves.

Sonali has not yet been informed that her elder sister has died of a cardiac arrest. Doctors fear it will send her into a state of shock. 

Explaining Anuradha's death, Dr Amit Kumar, chief medical officer at Kailash Hospital told rediff.com, "Strictly speaking, Anuradha died of starvation. Because of malnutrition, she suffered from multiple organ failure, which ultimately led to a cardiac arrest. She was unconscious when she was brought in and her mouth was bleeding. Both sisters were immediately shifted to the ICU for better medical care. But we lost Anuradha on Wednesday morning at 8 am. We had done all we could (to save her)."  

The sisters had shunned everyone from their lives. When neighbours went to check on the sisters, they would scream back at them and ask to be left alone. After some time, even the neighbours stopped bothering the 'mad sisters', as they later came to be known. The only contact the sisters had with the outside world was through a grocery delivery boy, who has never even seen their faces. 

"They would call the grocery owner asking for supplies. They did not order any proper food items except for bread and biscuits. When I went there to deliver it, one of them would ask me to leave the packet outside or open the door by a crack to retrieve the items before locking herself in again. I have never seen their faces, neither have I ever been able to see the inside of the house," says Birpal Randhava, the delivery boy at thenearby grocery store.

The sisters stopped ordering even biscuits and bread sometime in February.

The police have not yet been able to piece together the complete story, but they believe that the sisters locked themselves up after their pet dog died nearly six months ago.

"According to the neighbours, the last they saw of the sisters was before their dog had died. Prior to that, the elder sister used to come to the shopping complex nearby to buy vegetables and groceries. The younger sister was seen almost daily taking out the trash. But after the dog died, they just locked themselves up, only opening the door to take supplies of biscuits and bread," said Inspector Vijay Prakash from the police station in Sector-20, Noida.

Nobody seems to know why the sisters punished themselves in such a brutal manner. The girls encountered their first tragedy when they lost their father, Colonel (retired) OP Behl, in December 1992 in a road accident in Agra. In 1995, their mother died of a heart attack. The sisters then lived with their brother, Vipin Behl, who moved out after his marriage in 2007. 
"That was the last time we saw the sisters happy. After Vipin moved out, they stopped interacting with anybody in the neighbourhood. Nobody visited them and they visited nobody. The last time we saw them was sometime in November I think. We don't even know how they managed to make ends meet after Vipin moved out," said neighbour Poonam Singh. 

After the Behl sisters' plight made headlines on Wednesday, various stories and speculations are doing the rounds of this neighbourhood, which is inhabited mostly by retired government officials. 

"They had a fall-out with Vipin's wife," says one neighbour, while another chips in, "They were undergoing treatment for depression after their mother died." 

At Kailash hospital, Vipin Behl sits outside the ICU, visibly nervous. He looks like he is about to have an emotional breakdown himself.

"I don't know why all this is happening. I moved out of the house because I got a job at Bangalore, not because we had a fight or anything. I used to send them money every month. I recently came back to the NCR and I am currently working with a private company in Gurgaon. Before taking up the job in Bangalore, I had a minor fight with my sisters, who wanted me to transfer the property in their names, which I did," says Vipin, who is ten years younger than Sonali.

According to the police, Vipin stays in Noida's Sector 50 with his wife and a maternal uncle.

"From what we could ascertain, the sisters had a fight with the entire family, after which they abandoned her," a police officer says.

Vipin denies this allegation. 

"It is not like that. We had not abandoned them, they abandoned us. They refused to see us or answer our phone calls. I don't know what happened. I think they went into a complete state of depression after Chotu (their pet dog) died," Vipin says. 

Since January, the sisters have been living without electricity after the connection was cut due to their outstanding bill, which runs into several thousands. As they had neither ordered for any groceries since mid-February nor stepped out of the house, they may not have eaten anything for over two months. 

Explaining why they didn't inform the police earlier, the neighbours said they don't interfere much in other people's lives.

"We did try to help them but whenever we knocked on their door, they would ask us to leave them alone. When we asked if everything was okay, one of them would scream and say yes and insist again that we leave them alone. One of their neighbours had even called the police in February. Even when the police arrived, the sisters told them that they were fine. In such a scenario, why would anybody bother," said one of them. 

Efforts were taken to help the sisters only after some of the neighbours informed social activist Usha Thakur about their condition. 

"When I came to know about them, I went to their house and knocked on the door. There was no response and a foul odour emanated from their house. I went to the terrace to peep into the house and saw the two women inside. One of them had her eyes closed and was on the sofa, while the other abused me. That was when I called the police," Thakur says. 

When the police broke into the house, it was in a state of disarray.

Inspector Vijay Prakash says, "There were thick curtains on the windows and the house had not been cleaned in months. Biscuit wrappers and polythene covers were strewn all over the place. Anuradha was unconscious on a sofa while Sonali kept shouting at us."

Anuradha died on Wednesday morning. Sonali has been declared out of danger and is still recuperating in the ICU of Kailash hospital. 

Unconvinced by the most plausible explanation, mental illness, the police, meanwhile, are trying to ascertain why the sisters punished themselves like that.

They are also considering filing a case under Section 304-A of the Indian Penal Code (death due to negligence) against the Resident Welfare Association of Sector 29, Noida, after receiving a complaint from social activist Usha Thakur, in which she has accused the RWA of negligence. 

Sahim Salim In Delhi