'Fire on the Ganges' book review: Inferno of the outsiders

A well-researched book on the city’s Dom community exposes harsh caste and gender inequalities 
A cremation ghat in Varanasi
A cremation ghat in Varanasi

Ah, the worlds that live beyond the worlds we know; Radhika Iyengar’s Fire on the Ganges takes us into one such. It leads us into the world of the Doms, which could well be a part of Dante’s first circle of Hell. The Doms—by caste, burners of the dead in Varanasi—are considered to be special among those who do this necessary but heinous task, because they can ferry the soul to moksha. Yet, their profession keeps them trapped within the narrow confines of the Chand Ghat, where caste barriers prevent them from mingling with their Yadav neighbours, or even moving about freely without fear of censure.

Iyengar has spent much time researching the book, and it could not have been a pleasant experience. Walking through the ash and trash-covered cremation grounds; watching the Dom children snatch tinsel-edged pieces of cloth covering corpses, before they are burnt, so they can be sold for a few paise; listening to profanities that ‘galloped on their tongues... with great relish’; watching the dead burn as the corpse-burners pushed down rebellious limbs or dealt with the cracking of bones or the bursting of a stomach could hardly have been pleasant, but have all been witnessed and endured.

Iyengar weaves the tapestry of the community’s life through visits to Dom homes, and the lives of some of the inhabitants. Dolly, a widow whose husband she believes was murdered by his friends; her brother, Lakshya, who is in love with Komal, a girl from a higher caste; 24-year-old Bhola, who dares to move away to educate himself at a university in Ludhiana, leaving behind both the caste and profession he was born into; Kamala Devi, his mother and an imposing matriarch, who has birthed nine children, share their lives and stories with the author. It is a measure of her sincerity and empathy that after the initial reserve, the families open their innermost hopes and troubles to her. Knowing that she comes from the highest caste, and is yet not chary of sharing space with them, works its own charm.

A picture of utter deprivation comes alive in the pages. The community is shunned, even as what the men do is considered vital. They, in turn, treat their women no less harshly, as if passing on to them the indignities that they receive from the world outside. Dom women cannot leave home without the permission and the company, of a male member of the family. They have no schooling or rights within the home or outside it. When Dolly, seeking to support her five fatherless children, decides to start a shop, she is ostracised and labelled wanton.

The book does tend to get academic in parts, and the extended descriptions about the caste system, wedding ceremonies, and customs add it to the list of books that hope to catch the curiosity of the West. But, Iyengar saves it by incorporating love stories—of Dolly and Secon Lal, who marry after many twists and turns; and of Komal and Lakshya, where the latter is determined to treat his wife as his equal. 

A despairing air permeates the book as the main characters, who stand lowest in the Dom hierarchy, struggle to eat two meals a day and fight the horrors of their profession. When Bhola in Punjab, earning enough to send home a mixer-grinder to his mother, is forced to return to Chand Ghat to tend to her when she gets cancer, the inevitability of his fate leers wickedly.

Iyengar, however, is able to show us, through the trajectories of Lakshya, Dolly, and Bhola’s lives that the time for change could be near, as her three protagonists carve their own paths out of the mire of their caste. Fire on the Ganges is a true eye-opener. Not always easy to take in, it is a valuable document and a scathing indictment of the true state of a nation which, 75 years ago, promised equality for all. 

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