A Family Loses 3 Generations of Women in India Crowd’s Panic

Vinod Kumar was away from home on Tuesday, as he usually is for days at a time in search of masonry work, when he got the dreadful call.

All the women in his family, three generations of them, were dead, crushed in a stampede.

For the rest of the day, Mr. Kumar and his three sons went from hospital to hospital searching for their loved ones among the bodies of the 121 people who had died when a large gathering of a spiritual guru broke into deadly panic.

Close to midnight, they found the bodies of his wife, Raj Kumari, 42, and daughter, Bhumi, 9, at the government hospital in Hathras, laid out on large slabs of ice among the dozens others in the corridor.

“Why did you leave me just like that? Who will scold the children now and push them to go to school?” Mr. Kumar wailed at the feet of his wife.

But he couldn’t afford to be entirely lost in grief yet. The body of his mother was yet to be found. He bent over to pick up his daughter for one last embrace. Bhumi wore a yellow top, and her hair was tied in a ponytail with a pink band.

“Let her sleep,” Nitin, Mr. Kumar’s oldest son, told him, pulling the girl away from his father to lay her back on the slab so they could continue the search.

“I don’t know when I will find my mother’s body,” he said, moving on with the search. “I want to do their last rites together.”

Mr. Kumar’s mother, Jaimanti, was the family’s matriarch. And she was its main devotee to the guru, keeping his posters at home and frequenting his sermons.

Suraj Pal, a former policeman who refashioned himself as a spiritual guru known as Narayan Sakar Hari or Bhole Baba, catered to women like her, families like hers: on the margins of India’s deep economic inequality, and at the bottom its rigid caste hierarchy.

Women from the Dalit caste, who make up a large part of the Baba’s congregation, have long faced discrimination as “untouchables” and have historically been denied access to temples.

When Mr. Kumar’s mother, Jaimanti Devi, heard that the guru was holding a large gathering so close, there was no way she would miss it. She persuaded her reluctant daughter-in-law to come along.

As for Bhumi?

“You know how children are,” Mr. Kumar said. “Our daughter had said she won’t stay back without her mother.”

As dawn broke on Wednesday, Mr. Kumar had shifted the bodies of his wife and daughter home. Zipped in dark body bags, they were placed on slabs of ice in the narrow alley outside their brick house. His mother’s body was found in a morgue in the city of Agra, about two hours away. When the ambulance finally brought her home, neighbors and relatives helped lower the body and place it next to the other two.

Mr. Kumar, held by his sons, broke down completely.

The Kumar family has lived here for at least two generations. Mr. Kumar’s father, who died several years ago, was a mason just like him. That they have been barely an afterthought in India’s development plans, left to fend for themselves, was clear.

Around them, the village overflowed with sewage water from the narrow drains. A larger drain, carrying the sewage of a neighboring town, brimmed, large piles of trash rotting by its banks. Dengue and typhoid fever are all-too-common ailments here.

But Mr. Kumar was trying to give his children a better future. With the $200 a month he made as a day-laborer and mason, he ensured they attended school. Bhumi was particularly fond of her studies, he said. She wanted to become a police officer.

“We have always been poor. That is our life’s story,” he said. “Now it’s over with the death of my dear daughter, wife and mother — in one single blow.”

First, it was his daughter’s turn for the final rites. In the local tradition, children are buried while adults are cremated.

A stretcher made of bamboo was laid out for Bhumi. The body is supposed to be wrapped in new clothes before the final rites. For her, Mr. Kumar had bought an unstitched piece of blue, floral cloth to cover her torso, and a dark blue cloth for her legs.

Men lifted the bamboo frame from all four sides and walked a couple of miles to a spot in the cotton fields, next to a small pond along the highway. Some of the men had already dug a grave. Mr. Kumar slowly lowered Bhumi’s body into the trench and let out a long wail.

Villagers helped to cover her body, scooping mud onto the grave.

Just in that moment, on the highway meters away, the motorcade for the state’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, raced past, taking him to the site of the stampede. Villagers were stopped from crossing the road while it did.

Mr. Kumar moved on to the bodies of his mother and wife, shifting them on bamboo to the pyres at the other end of the village. They were wrapped in bright colored saris, pink, red and green.

Thick pieces of cow dung were used to set the fire and then it was topped with thick logs of wood. The sky was overcast. Politicians trickled in, one with personal bodyguards who wielded rifles and wore all-black attire. The official stood and watched the bodies go up in flames, and then moved on to the next destination.

Among the villagers huddled around the pyre, some cursed the administration for laxity; others cursed the guru who had gone underground since the stampede, seemingly caring little for the well-being of the devotees or the families they left behind.

One of Mr. Kumar’s sons sobbed in a corner. He pulled the boy close and they both broke down in an embrace as thick clouds of smoke rose from the pyres.

They were left with just each other now, a family of devastated men.

“Don’t cry my son,” Mr. Kumar consoled, as they walked back into the village.

Mujib Mashal contributed reporting from New Delhi.

Related Posts

What Kamala Harris’s Path to the White House Looks Like

Vice President Harris has begun a new concerted effort to reintroduce herself to the American electorate after President Biden endorsed her to lead the Democratic ticket. Zolan…

‘There’s No Way to Turn Yourself In’: Migrants Rethink Routes to U.S.

In Tapachula, Mexico, migrants en route to the United States are being forced to reroute their journeys after President Biden’s executive order suspending and limiting asylum requests,…

Young Republicans on Why Their Party Isn’t Reaching Gen Z (And What They Can Do About It)

new video loaded: Young Republicans on Why Their Party Isn’t Reaching Gen Z (And What They Can Do About It) transcript Back transcript Young Republicans on Why…

How Donald Trump Shaped the 2024 G.O.P. Platform

new video loaded: How Donald Trump Shaped the 2024 G.O.P. Platform Recent episodes in Latest Video Whether it’s reporting on conflicts abroad and political divisions at home,…

Republicans Share Their Wishlist for Trump

We posed a question to R.N.C. attendees in Milwaukee: If Donald Trump wins, what is the first thing you want him to do as president?

In Milwaukee, Black Voters Struggle to Find a Home With Either Party

Black voters make up roughly 5 percent of the electorate in Wisconsin. But in this swing state where the election is likely to be won by a…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *