In June, an outlandish phenomenon began to be reported in several states across northern and central India, including Gujarat, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Women—many of them residents of small towns and villages—found their long braids mysteriously chopped off. Some reported that they had fearful headaches and lost consciousness before the shearing took place. For the subsequent few weeks, the incidents occurred regularly, often within hours of each other in the same village or town. News reports of braid chopping have emerged as recently as 4 September, when, the Kashmir Life noted that the number of incidents had climbed to nearly 30 in Jammu alone.
The culprits were never found, although theories abound—a popular WhatsApp forward spoke of an insect named maiki, which, the text said, bites the hair of women and girls, chopping it off. A Facebook page called “The Voice of Bihar,” posted a video on 13 August demonstrating that a louse was responsible for the braid chopping malefaction. The video, which has been viewed over 1.7 million times, showed one man hold a louse while another held a strand of hair in front of it, which the louse appeared to bite or cut through. Others lay the blame on supernatural forces: a woman in Gurgaon said that a cat entered her room late at night, transformed itself into a woman, and then chopped her hair off.
In many states, the police, along with doctors and psychologists, insisted that the phenomenon was merely mass hysteria. Madhur Verma, the public relations officer of the Delhi Police, stated, “It is all psychological and people are just getting swayed by these rumours and panicking.”
On 3 August, the Hindustan Times reported that a similar braid-chopping incident had taken place in Ramchandra Basti, near Mayapuri, in western Delhi—a woman and her three daughters awoke in the intervening night between 2 and 3 August to find their hair chopped off. A few days after the incident, I visited the home of the Bakshis—the family that was victim to the incident. The family comprises Monika and her husband Ajay, their three teenage daughters—Divya, Priya and Chandra—and their four-year-old son, Raj, and lives in a room on the second floor of a three-storey building in a narrow lane in the basti. When I rang the doorbell upon reaching the house, a teenage girl peeked over the railing of the balcony on the first floor before letting me into the house.
The Bakshis are a joint family—three brothers, along with their wives and children, occupy the building. The youngest brother and his wife live on the ground floor, while the two older brothers and their families occupy rooms on the second floor. The family usually rents out the first floor.
Divya, the daughter who had let me in, showed me to her family’s room. It was small—about 15 feet by 10 feet—and crowded. A corner of the room had been fashioned into a kitchen. Along a wall to the left of the doorway was a large mattress—the only one in the room—next to which lay school textbooks. Opposite the doorway, at the other end of the room, stood two cupboards and a small mandir—an open wooden box mounted onto the wall, lined with images and idols of Hindu deities. Shoes were pressed into the corner to my right, and a small washing machine lay to the right of the door, below a television and an air conditioner.
Ajay works in the outsource department of BSES Delhi and sometimes in the store department, while the children help Monika with a small business. They buy loose noodles, heat them up to soften them, and then pack them. “It makes a profit,” Monika, who appeared to be in her early forties, told me. We sat down on the mattress to talk.
In the morning on 2 August, Monika said, all her children except Priya—who had a fever—went to school, and Ajay to work. During the day, she spent a few hours speaking with her sister-in-law who lives on the ground floor. (On the day of my visit, Monika’s sister-in-law was not at home. Monika said she had gone to visit her parents.) “When my children came back from school, I came upstairs and started preparing lunch,” she said. At around 4 pm, Monika continued, she left to drop Raj to a tuition class. She returned home at 4.30 pm, and spent an hour downstairs. “In the evening, I returned to the room to cook dinner.” Ajay returned home at about 6.30 pm, the family members said. “Everything was okay on 2 August,” Priya told me.
Monika told me that the first such incident that she had heard of took place in Mathura. “A few days ago, my second brother-in law and I were conversing about the incident,” she said. “He asked me to tell Suman, his wife, who was at her maternal home in Seelampur, to be careful.” Suman—who lives across the hallway—told me that Monika called her, and asked her to keep her hair safely in a bun. The sisters said they had heard of the incidents as well, but never paid any mind to them. “We even used to make fun of them,” Priya told me. “I just heard about them on the news, then in school,” Divya added. “It didn’t terrify me at all. I mocked it just like any other city-dwelling kid would do.”
I asked them if they believed the rumours. “There had been so many rumours before—sometimes about monkey man, sometimes about Mata Ji, and the like; but we never paid attention to them ever,” Suman said. “Today, when it has happened to us, to our own children, we have started believing in them.”
At close to 11 pm, Monika said, the Bakshis went to bed. The daughters slept on the mattress, and the parents, along with the son, on a second mattress on the floor next to it. Ajay, Monika told me, had a headache and had slept through most of the evening. “His work involves being in the sun,” she said. “When he came home, he said he had a headache. I applied balm on his forehead and gave him a pain killer.” She added that Ajay woke up at around 11.30 pm, and was unable to go back to sleep. “He was watching a film because his head was still aching. Then, at around 2 am, he slept,” Monika said.
Monika woke up at 3 am to go to the washroom. It was only when she came back to bed that she saw snipped hair lying on the mattress. She realised that her hair had been lopped off. “It was lying next to our heads,” she told me.
“We were terrified,” she continued. “I woke my husband up and said that my hair has been chopped. Woh ek dum se chaunk gaye”—he was shocked. Monika then checked her childrens’ hair. Her daughters’ hair had been cut as well. “It was right there on the bed,” she added.
Monika told me that Chandra had slept with her hair open, Priya with hers in a pony tail, and Divya had twisted hers into a braid tied with a ribbon. “It was cut in a very disheveled fashion—in the middle, from the side; some sections was cut short, and others left long.” Priya and Chandra both screamed when they realised what had transpired. “I didn’t sense anything,” Chandra told me. “If anyone sits near you, you can sense it, but I could not sense this.”
Monika and Ajay then woke up Suman’s family. “My brother-in-law woke us up, asking if my hair was also chopped. He asked the other members of the family as well, who live downstairs,” Suman said. “The children started crying so we were comforting them,” she added. “We sat together in the same room because we were all scared and shocked.”
The Bakshis told me that they were reluctant to file a police complaint at first. But their neighbours, who were worried that their homes might be next, implored the family to approach the police. The next day, “about 25-30 policemen were present in the house,” Monika said. “They were threatening the children,” she added. “They said, ‘We will lock you up if you don’t tell the truth.”
Monika said that the family was under duress, and unable to answer the police’s questions. “We did not quite understand at that time because our mind had stopped working,” Suman said. “The pattern in which the hair was lopped, we were shivering with terror.” She continued: “Closed room, closed doors from top to bottom, how did this happen?”
After visiting the Bakshi’s home, I went to the Mayapuri police station. The station house officer, Inspector Rajkumar, refuted the family’s statement that over 25 officers were present. “We don’t even have that number in our police station, madam,” another police official at the station added. “It must have been 10–12.” The police officials said that a forensic team had been present at the scene as well.
I enquired about the status of the investigation. “The thing is, we only investigate if we sense that the investigation will yield something,” Rajkumar said. “But if we don’t get that sense initially, we don’t waste our energy, because there are many other cases which should be dug into.” He continued: “We saw that in the first place that there is nothing.”
Rajkumar alleged that the daughters cut their own hair. The teenagers study at Khalsa School—a Sikh educational institution, where, according to the rules, they are expected to keep their hair unshorn. “Report has been filed. A phone call has been made,” he said. “No one could scold them. You can sense what it could be. Do you understand what I am trying to say?” Rajkumar continued: “They couldn’t cut their hair otherwise, so the school would not suspect them if they cut their hair this way.” “How was everyone’s hair lopped but that of the 4-year-old son?” he added. “It’s only because the boy’s head was yet to be tonsured. But how would anyone know about this?”
“If we had to cut our hair, wouldn’t we get it done at a salon?” Monika said. “My own devrani”—sister-in-law—“has done a parlor course,” she added. “If we had to cut our hair we would have done it at our house only, it would not even have cost us money.” “I don’t believe that my children would do such a condemnable thing,” she continued. “They go to a disciplined school that offers a good education. If the school finds out that a student has got his or her trimmed, they charge a penalty for that.”
Police officials told me that they had seized a pair of scissors from the spot, and that it had a few hairs stuck to it. “My youngest daughter was using it to paste pictures for her homework. After she was done, I told her to put in back in the bag. She put it back,” Monika said. Ajay told me during a phone conversation in late August that he had taken the pair of scissors from the bag and handed it to the police himself. “The police later said that that scissors had hairs stuck to it, and my finger prints. Ab mujhe kya pata tha ki mere finger prints aa jayenge”—how would I know that my finger prints would appear?
During my visit, the SHO told me the police suspected Ajay as well, but Ajay rubbished these allegations. “This is futile,” he said. “When the police could not come to any conclusion, they look for loopholes by blaming the victims. In this case, it’s me.”
“They wanted to close the case. It is closed anyway,” he said. “If they are accusing me, I am ready to undergo a lie detection or narco test.” “I know I am honest, my children are truthful,” he added. “Agar hum jooth bol rahe to sir katwa lenge, aur agar sach hua to sir kaatne ki himmat bhi rakhte hai”—if we are lying, we are ready to be beheaded, but if we are right, we possess the strength to cut heads as well.”
Suman had told me on the day of my visit that “the children have stopped going outside after the incident.” “They ask us to accompany them even to the washroom.” “We can’t say why his hair didn’t get cut,” she added, referring to Raj. “Since the time we heard that [in other incidents] men’s hair was also chopped, we tie the hair of our son and sleep,” Monika added. “My son’s head will be tonsured next month, and it would be very wrong if his hair was cut before that,” she continued. “I carry this tension as well.”
In the days following the incident, I followed up with Ajay and the police officials on the progress of the case. During a second visit to the police station, 22 August, the SHO Rajkumar, told me that the police was waiting for the forensic report. On 5 September, Ajay told me that he had called the police repeatedly, but had not received an update on the case.
Ritu Versha is an independent journalist and currently an intern at The Caravan.