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Radhika Iyengar’s Fire on the Ganges is a nuanced exploration of the business of death in Banaras through the lens of caste

Much has been written about Banaras and its relationship with death. From Kabir to Mark Twain, poets, writers, anthropologists and artists have long been fascinated with the city’s central role in Hindu rituals and Indian iconography.

To this large Banaras canon comes an illuminating new addition: Radhika Iyengar’s debut nonfiction book Fire on the Ganges: Life Among the Dead in Banaras. The book goes beyond the mythical and ephemeral stories of life and rebirth that have come to occupy the popular narrative surrounding the city. Iyengar instead explores the business of death, centering the narratives of the labour that — metaphorically and literally — fuels the fire that is so critical to the city.

Through her interviews with members of the corpse-burning Dalit community called the Doms, Iyengar asks questions about who gets to work with the dead, why they do so, and how they cope with it. We learn about bones splitting in fire, shrouds being picked by kids and sold for a paltry sum, and ash and bones being laboriously sifted through to find remnants of metal that could be traded for a little snack. When a five-year-old encounters a corpse for the first time, it is that of a slashed man with a sewn-up eye. A cremator tells Iyengar that bodies that have been “tormented by illness” over weeks in a hospital and injected with fluids and medicines of different kinds take longer — about six to seven hours as opposed to the usual three — for the fire to catch up. “Saari lakdi jal jayegi par chamdi jalegi nahin (All the wood will burn but the skin won’t melt),” he says.

Caste is the lens through which Iyengar tells the story, for it fundamentally shapes and determines the Dom community’s position in society. Early on in the book, when Iyengar visits a Dom home, she observes: “The elders placed their palms together in a gesture of salutation and tucked their shoulders inwards to make their bodies smaller, so they did not take up much space in my presence. They sat at a distance, squatting on the floor, while insisting that I take the plastic chair, borrowed especially for me from a neighbour who was financially better off. It took several minutes to convince them that I was perfectly comfortable sitting on the ground beside them.”

In her author’s note, she also gets to the heart of the question on whether she can document these stories. “I am deeply aware that no amount of research, reading, interviewing and storytelling, could relay personally lived experiences…However, I realised this book needed to be written for the individuals who had carved out portions from their days to speak to me and tell me their stories.” Iyengar is also aware of the position she occupies in this narrative. The “I” keeps coming up, prodding, asking questions, and intervening when necessary. But the “I” rarely becomes the central point of the narrative — which a lot of what falls in the broad narrative non-fiction tends to become — and is instead reflective on the privilege that it occupies.

Festive offer

Once she gets past that, she meticulously details the social fabric of the ghats in the style of an academic. But what adds value to the narrative are the interviews, conducted over eight years, that capture the mindspace of members of the Dom community. We get to listen to the men who work day in and out at Manikarnika Ghat, burdened with a job that demands you to be “tough” of the highest order — not be afraid of death —- so as to cremate three to five bodies a day on an average . One man, Bunty, speaks of “feverish” dreams he has. Another, Mohan, hears “echoes”. It is no surprise then that there is an alcohol and ganja problem in the community.

In a chapter called “Fleeing the Crabs”, she documents an important story of mobility within the Dom community, of 24-year-old Bhola Chaudhary who happens to be the first within the Dom community to leave Banaras and “study at a private university”. We get to see Bhola’s experience of fitting in at a place far away from home, his unease around his affluent friends, and his reluctance with telling people where he is from. At one point he says: “I don’t let anyone know what or who I am.”

Through the interviews, Iyengar is also able to capture feelings of the many women in the book. They get to emerge as complex and transgressive beings — assured matriarchs, defiant daughter-in-laws, ambitious young girls — beyond the strict roles ascribed to them. One such woman is Komal, a young Bramhin girl living in a Yadav colony, and in love with a Dom boy named Lakshya. Like it so often is the case in India, she ends up bearing the “honour” of her community. After her relationship is discovered, she is harassed and tormented. She eventually gathers strength to take a step that could assure her a potentially better life.

The biggest strength of the book lies in its language: direct, sparse, journalistic and impactful. It also stands out because it captures Banaras through recent events that have changed its history: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Kashi Vishwanath Dham project and the Covid pandemic. By interspersing reporting with the history and myth that envelopes Banaras, Iyengar creates a new important work that re-examines not just what the city means to India but also presents a book through which the complexity of the country could be attempted to be understood.

© The Indian Express Pvt Ltd

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