Interview: The Doms Must Be Given The Respect and Dignity They Deserve, says Radhika Iyengar

Radhika Iyengar at the signing of her first book Fire On The Ganges at Kunzum, Jor Bagh. Photo by Bhavneet Singh Aurora

Debutant author Radhika Iyengar‘s first book Fire On The Ganges looks at the lives, ambitions and travails of the Doms – a community of corpse burners on Chand Ghat in Banaras. We caught up with her for a quick interview at Kunzum, Jorbagh. Here’s what she has to say about the Doms, her experiences at Chand Ghat and her book.

BSA: Your book brings together a lot of human emotions in one place; there’s love, there’s jealousy, there’s death. How did you manage to put it all together? 

Radhika: That’s a tough question. I had to sit with the material that I had collected over hours and hours of interviews with the individuals whom I spoke to for the book. I really had to sit with myself and figure the kind of story I had to tell. It’s a big responsibility as a journalist, who is writing non-fiction to be true to the individuals’ lives who she is writing about. As far as the structure of the book is concerned, I knew I had to follow the lives of six to seven individuals from the community and I wanted to have their lives interweaving through various chapters. Of course, I stuck to the facts and I did my research, but I also wanted to try and tell their stories in a way that was accessible to the reader. It took me a while to really understand the best way possible of telling these very important stories.

BSA: When you started interviewing all these people from the Dom community, how difficult was it to get them to open up to you?

Radhika: It took a while. I’ve spent eight years reporting on the community. When I went to Manikarnika Ghat the first few times, the men were initially not interested in speaking to me. They weren’t very forthcoming. And that’s understandable because I was an outsider, and who would want to open their worlds, their lives, to a stranger? Moreover, I was a woman. The men weren’t used to a woman approaching them and wanting to talk to them. They were also very focused about the work they were doing, so they could not give their time to someone who was an outsider. And I respected that. So, I pulled back and stayed at a distance. I patiently observed the corpse burners—how they worked and how they interacted with each other.

When it came to speaking to the women, it was different. I feel as a woman reporter, it was easier for me to speak to the women, than I assume it would be for a male reporter. This is because the Dom women, if they’re married, are generally not allowed to speak to other men.  

My initial conversations with the community members were very formal. Over a period of time, because I kept going back to Chand Ghat and I kept meeting them, we got to know each other. The conversations became less formal, and it was then that I could really get the essence of the people who I was speaking to, because their inhibitions were sort of pulled down.

BSA: Were you ever invited to sit and have food with them?

Radhika: Yes.

BSA: How was it? 

Radhika: Kamala Devi, Bhola’s mother, and I’ve written about her in the book–she made the most delicious aalu ki sabzi with puri for me once and it was just out of love, you know? You get to know each other over such a long period of time and a friendship, a kinship, sort of gets established.

Also read: Review: Radhika Iyengar’s Fire on the Ganges is a deep dive into moksha, casteism, love and hope

BSA: The Dom community boys and girls, boys mostly, they get the opportunity to get an education, like there’s this gentleman who’s got a Masters in English, but he’s still working at a crematorium. In such a situation, with the society not letting them break away from their traditional profession, what is the future for the generations to come? 

Radhika: Individuals like Bhola, for example, had to really struggle a lot to break away from Chand Ghat and from Banaras. He realised that education was his ticket to achieving something more in life in terms of taking the reins of his own life. And so, he studied very hard. He’s extremely ambitious and through the generosity of an American sponsor, he was able to leave Banaras and study in Ludhiana where he pursued his degree. But he hid his background, his identity and his caste, and the reason he did that was because, in his own words, if he told people his background or that he belongs to a community of cremators, they would start distancing themselves from him. It’s a tough life and he really had to push through and overcome a lot of obstacles to reach where he has. For him, it takes a lot of commitment and drive to be able to break away from this caste-bound profession and find an alternative profession.

BSA: You spent eight years talking to people in the Dom community. You’ve stayed with them, you’ve had food with them during the course of your writing. How did all these experiences affect you? 

Radhika: It did affect me. I think if you are someone who’s reporting closely on a community that is working at the cremation ground and you get to see the number of corpses that come in every day, all that will affect you mentally. Of course, the community’s own experiences—what they tell you, the struggles they have gone through, their own grief, their pain, all of that will also affect you when you are reporting. You are human after all.

But I had to remind myself that at the end of the day, I was a journalist and I needed to be clear-eyed when it came to reporting and that was something that I had to constantly remind myself. That’s how I encouraged myself to pull through and report. 

BSA: Banaras is known as the city of moksha, where people go to die and attain moksha. Yet the people who provide them with that moksha, the Doms, they live in substandard conditions. What do you have to say about that? 

Radhika: That’s a very important point that they are considered to be a community that provides moksha. But at the same time, they continue to be considered ‘untouchables’ and they continue to be invisible. But as Vicky Choudhary, an individual in my book who’s also from the Dom community and works as the chief operator at the gas-powered crematorium, says, “Chahe raja ho ya fakir, aakhir mein Chaudhary ji ke pair pakadna hi pakadna hain. Whether you’re a prince or a pauper, in the end you have to fall at a Dom’s feet.” So, there is a lot of pride in the fact that they are the ‘chosen ones’ by Lord Shiva to give moksha to the deceased. I feel that this glorification of the fact that they provide moksha is a way to justify their place in society that has, for a very long period of time, not given them the kind of respect that they deserve.

BSA: What was the most memorable part of doing the interviews and writing the book? 

Radhika: Most memorable part was a love marriage that I attended, of a young man from the Dom community and a young woman from a dominant caste. You must read the book to understand what they went through and how finally love won.

BSA: Anything you’d like to say to the readers? 

Radhika: I hope the readers are able to really engage with the individuals in the book and empathize with them; that they learn something important about the community and become more informed. This is a community that is doing very specialized work and should be given the kind of respect and dignity they deserve. I really hope that that’s what they take away from the book.

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