Radhika Iyengar’s book Fire on the Ganges is an indictment that compels us to confront our own positions—and complicity—in perpetuating the caste system by looking away from the ugly and uncomfortable sight of burning corpses, write Drishya Maity in this review.
“Manikarnika Ghat is not for the weak,” Radhika Iyengar writes in her first book ‘Fire on the Ganges: Life among the Dead in Banaras’. “It is not for those who turn pale at the sight of burning flesh. Working at the ghat, in the midst of hostile pyres, is akin to the feeling of a thousand tiny needles piercing your skin and settling deep within. Water becomes a haunting thirst. Fire and wind bellow in unison, like the angry litany of wild spirits.”
This is the domain of the Doms, a Dalit sub-caste in Banaras, who are designated by ancient tradition to perform the rite of cremation. Orthodox Hindus believe that the Doms of Banaras are the keepers of a sacred flame—supposedly burning for centuries—over which they have sole ownership. “Lighting each funeral pyre with the Doms’ fire is considered not only auspicious,” Iyengar writes, “but also crucial. Without it, it is alleged, a devout Hindu will not receive moksha, liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. (…) For generations, only the male members of the community cremate corpses.”
And yet, even though the work the Dom men do is considered crucial, the community is shunned and considered ‘untouchable’ within the strict confines of Banaras’s Hindu caste society — oppressed and exploited at every possible turn by dominant-caste communities like Brahmins and Yadavs, and segregated to ghettos like Chand Ghat, where they are relegated to a life of abject poverty and inhuman suffering in cramped, one-bedroom accommodations; “isolated and unseen,” in Iyengar’s words, “unless you go looking for it.”
That’s exactly what Iyengar did. She went looking for it. Between late 2015 and early 2023, she visited Chand Ghat several times to interview Dolly, Aakash, Lakshaya, Komal, Ajay, Bhola, Mohan, Twinkle, Sunny, Shortcut, and other Dom inhabitants of the locality whose lives and livelihoods depend on the business of death. She documented their personal hardships, tragedies, hopes, and aspirations with journalistic rigour, and in doing so produced a singular book that is, at once, insightful, informative, poignant, and empathetic. It is the result of a fastidious anthropological exploration into the everyday realities of the Doms, passionately researched and meticulously detailed, and yet, a breezy read that never for once feels overly academic.
Iyengar achieves this feat that so often eludes similar works of longform narrative reportage by positioning her subjects against their caste and gender locations within Chand Ghat’s claustrophobic living quarters and narrow alleyways which, in Iyengar’s skilful word-work, become a microcosm of India’s caste society. She moves seamlessly between interviews, personal anecdotes, and cold, hard data, drawing from her training as a journalist, and narrates the personal histories of her subjects—Dolly, Bhola, Aakash, Lakshaya, Komal and others—with a voice that is always empathetic but never patronising.
She narrates, matter-of-factly, how dominant-caste Hindus and well-off Dom men dictate and police what the Dom men who work in the cremation grounds can and cannot do, and how these men, in turn, dictate and police what the Dom women in their lives can and cannot do: Dom women cannot, for example, go outside their homes without their husbands or a male family member once they come of age, they are not allowed to work and earn, or marry someone of their own choosing either. In this way, she lays bare and examines the kyriarchy that exists at the centre of everyday life in Chand Ghat, and how young men and women like Dolly, Bhola, Shortcut, Lakshaya, and Komal are going against the grain and breaking through Banaras’s caste barriers at great personal cost, one small step at a time.
She never sensationalises the lives of her subjects, nor does she point an accusatory finger on their behalf, but the book is still an indictment that compels us to confront our own positions—and therefore complicity—in perpetuating the caste system by looking away from the ugly and uncomfortable sight of burning corpses, a choice so many of the book’s subjects simply do not have because of their caste and class identity.
Near the end of the book—in the Author’s Notes, in fact—Iyengar writes about how, while writing the book, she realised that this book needed to be written for the individuals who had carved out portions from their days to speak to her, to tell her their stories over eight long years. “Many of them, particularly the women,” she writes, “wanted someone to listen to them, to hear them, to befriend them, to see them. They told me their experiences in the hope that the world would know about them—that they are not just a community of cremators (…), but that they are real people living real lives.”
This is an endeavour Iyengar succeeds in and then some. I will never know the real identities of her subjects (all names mentioned in the book have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals) and I will never be able to recognise them even if I were to walk past them someday, but as I finished reading the book and sat quietly in my study, I wanted to tell each and every one of them: I hear you. I see you. I know you.
About the reviewer:
Drishya (he/him ⸱ b. 1997) is a writer + artist based in Kolkata, India. He was shortlisted for the Mogford Prize for Food & Drink Writing and nominated for the BBA Photography Prize – One Shot Award in 2022. He is @drishyadotxyz on Instagram and Twitter.
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