'Our Society Doesn't Want the Dom Community to Stop Their Caste-Based Work'

In conversation with Radhika Iyengar, the author of 'Fire on the Ganges', about her research into the Dom community and their daily lives and ambitions.

New Delhi: Hindu rituals and beliefs say that on a person’s death, only someone from the Dom community can provide the cremation fire if salvation is to be achieved. The Dom caste comes under the Scheduled Caste list in India. Ironically, those whose ‘fire’ is said to be required for salvation are treated as ‘untouchables’ in society; any food and water they touch is avoided by those who follow the oppressive caste system.

Speaking politically, before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached Varanasi to file his nomination papers for the second time, the late Dom raja Jagdish Chaudhary was with him and offered his support – though this did nothing to change the Dom community’s standard of living. The community continues to live on the margins of society, with basic facilities out of their reach. They are neither recognised socially nor represented politically.

In Varanasi, called the city of life and death, Hindu last rites are performed at two ghats, Manikarnika and Harishchandra. The Dom community lives near the Manikarnika Ghat. Journalist Radhika Iyengar has recorded their daily lives – laced as it is with death – in her book, Fire on the Ganges: Life among the Dead in Banaras. She spoke to The Wire about her research and writing.

Parts of this interview were conducted in Hindi and have been translated into English.

You do not have any special connection with Varanasi, you grew up in another state, studied abroad. Then why Varanasi? And you chose the Dom community as a subject of interest – what was the reason? 

I was doing my Masters in Journalism at Columbia University when, as an assignment, we had to submit a thesis on a subject we wanted to report on. For that, I read an article about the Dom community and was interested in learning more about them. So, I started researching. However, whatever information I could find on them at that time was very limited—it only revolved around their work at the cremation grounds of Banaras. I wanted to know more about other aspects of their lives…For instance, what was it like for Dom men to work at a cremation ground as corpse-burners? How did they feel working there? You must realize that they have a dangerous and risky job—so, how did working close to the burning pyres and how did working with fire, affect them physically? How do they cope with these everyday problems?

Apart from this, I wanted to know about the children, whether they were going to  schools and whether these schools offered a conducive studying environment; what dreams did the children nurture about their future and whether the internet was having any effect on them? And then, the women in the community – I wanted to know about them. What was their lives like, what were their dreams – did they have the freedom to go out of the house on their own or enjoy any kind of autonomy? I was curious to know all this, but as to my knowledge, there was nothing recorded about it anywhere. This is where my desire to research about the community was born.

Then, the book started taking shape. It took me eight years to write. I started in 2015 and completed it in early 2023.

Almost every aspect of Varanasi has been well documented – the ghats, the shops, the stories – it is and has been at the centre of attention for everything from tourism to politics. But there has not been enough talk about the Dom community. Are the writers indifferent or does it seem like a privileged gaze? 

Academic work has been done on the Dom community but this too is limited to the crematory work done by the Doms at the cremation ground. There is no in-depth detail about the community at large or the lives led by the men, women and children who belong to it. I feel that the Doms are not visible because people belonging to dominant castes don’t want to know about them. It doesn’t matter much to them—as long as there is a Dom available to do the work at the cremation ground, everything is fine.

And it is a matter of living in a privileged bubble because it is convenient for people like us to remain indifferent towards the Doms’ existence. It is true that they have an important role in the funerary last rites, but apart from that, no one cares what life they are living, what conditions they are living in, what difficulties they are facing.

Nowadays it is often heard that discrimination doesn’t exist anymore, but you have mentioned in the book that even today, if women from the Dom community are touched by someone by mistake, then they have to face humiliation.

Even today, many people say that caste discrimination and untouchability no longer exist in the country. Listening to them, I wonder what imaginary world these people they are living in? Caste is the reality of our society, even in the 21st century.

I have seen this in my reporting experience as well. Not only do the Dom women face humiliation but the children as well. When I was reporting in Banaras, I had to travel between Chand Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat for field work. Many times, the children from the Dom community would accompany me. I noticed that they were always avoiding one particular bylane. I couldn’t understand why we were always taking a longer route and kids used to say, “Didi, we don’t like that gali.” Later one day, it came to light that there was a temple on this route, where the priest used to scold the Dom children and shoo them away as soon as he saw them anywhere near the temple. As a child, when you are constantly belittled, humiliated, called an ‘untouchable’, shooed away from the temple, what effect will this have on your mind?

Similarly, when I visited Chand Ghat during one of my early field trips in the beginning, I met an elderly couple, who greeted me with folded hands and bowed before me. This left me bewildered. I was old enough to be their granddaughter. This incident became even more relevant and poignant to me when recently I read in the news that two dominant caste men had beaten an elderly Dalit man because the latter did not greet them with folded hands. What I am trying to say through these examples is that caste atrocities continue to exist even today.

And perhaps this is where their identity crisis begins. They do not want anyone to know their identity; for example, Bhola in the book is portrayed as someone very particular about not revealing his caste and identity, especially in school and college, so that no one knows where he comes from. Why is it so?

Yes, and it’s not because he’s ashamed of who he is. He takes immense pride in being a Dom. But at the same time, he fears that if he tells anyone about his background, they will distance themselves from him, humiliate or ridicule him in some way. So, he feels he needs to protect himself. That’s why he hides his caste, his identity. He believes that this is the only way he can move ahead in life. Otherwise, society at large will not allow him to move forward. And we have many examples in our history to indicate that those who belong to oppressed castes are often, quite brutally discriminated against. If we talk about education alone, there are several examples in the last five-ten years only – Rohith Vemula, Muthukrishnan Jeevanantham, the young boy Indra Meghwal who got thrashed by his dominant caste teacher for accidentally drinking water from his earthen pot, and many like them. Discrimination is everywhere, in every field, in every corner.

So can we say that Doms are satisfied with their lives or they have no expectations from anyone, they just continue to live like this?

They are living like this because they have no other option. If you visit the basti where they live—you’ll realize that they are battling their everyday circumstances. Many families don’t have access to basic amenities. Several of them—some having 6-7 family members; some more—live in extremely cramped spaces. There is water shortage; electricity issues etc., and of course, there is crippling poverty. It’s a hand-to-mouth existence, where education isn’t a priority, earning is. This leads to many parents pulling their children out of the government schools and sending them off to work at the cremation ground, so that the young can support their family—‘nahi toh chulha kaise jalega? (How will the household run?).

So in a way, this vicious cycle is continuing. People from the Dom community, especially the labourers, are forced to live in poverty. Generations change but there is no change in their lives. Why do you think that is?

There are many reasons for this. Society at large plays a role. For instance, in my book, I talk about a generous, kind-hearted American man who took on the responsibility of sponsoring the education of four Dom boys. He once informed a local dominant caste man about his intentions of educating the community slowly – and the man turned around and asked the American, ‘Who will cremate the dead then?’ That question itself paints a stark picture of our reality, doesn’t it? This dominant caste man is society’s mouthpiece. We don’t want the powerless to progress because that would inconvenience people like us.

The second reason is that many of the Doms truly believe that they are fulfilling their God-given duty. That, only they can provide moksha (salvation) to the deceased’s soul; that Shiva has given the boon of the sacred fire only to them. One of them had told me, ‘Chahe raja ho ya fakeer, ant meh Chaudhary sahab ke pair pakadne hi pakadhne hai’ (Be it a king or a beggar, in the end, one has to fall at Chaudhary ji’s feet). The Chaudharys in this context, are of course, the Doms. So, there is a sense of pride attached to the work they do, and this is because they want to justify their existence in society—in a society which otherwise shuns them, keeps a distance from them, considers them untouchable and does not respect them. The ability to give moksha is their religious capital that makes them feel valued in a way.

Let’s talk about Dom women. Varanasi is transforming, moving on the path of ‘development’, but the women of Chand Ghat are left far behind, where they do not even have the freedom to go out without covering their heads.

See, this is an orthodox community, so there is severe patriarchy. On top of that, the women are living at the intersection of caste, gender and poverty. I met a woman while she was cooking in a small, one-room house without electricity during peak summer. When I told her that we could step out of her house for fresh air later, after she finished her work, she told me that she did not have ‘permission’ from her husband to do so. This meant that she could not even step out of the house on her own will.

In addition, if married Dom women have to go outside their basti somewhere, they have to drape a ‘chaddar’ over their faces. They don’t like this but they have to do it. Also, the women must always be accompanied by their husbands or a male relative whenever they are leaving their basti.

For some time now, caste has become an important part of political discourse. Where do you find the Dom community in this? There is no one to represent them politically, to ensure their participation in society, to talk about them or to raise their local issues. 

A lot of development is taking place in Varanasi. Some locals are unhappy about it, some are happy, but they are accepting these infrastructural developments. When late Dom Raja Jagdish Choudhary was awarded the Padma Shri, his son Om Choudhary went to receive the award on his behalf and said that it was good that Doms were also getting some recognition on a national and political platform. When I asked a Dom woman about this, she said that, “All this is very good but the ‘development’ they are talking about has not reached us.”

I will talk about the bastis (settlements) that I have visited. As mentioned earlier, there are a lot of problems in the settlement, which is common in such areas, like water shortage, not enough space to live, poor sanitation etc. There are certainly government schemes but many Doms are not aware about them. And, even if they are, they do not always have the necessary documents required to apply for these schemes. I asked them if they had any activists or anyone who would fight for their cause, and the answer I got was that people are so involved with battling their everyday circumstances—that they really don’t have time to rally around for anything else. They are just trying to cope and survive.

In Hindu religion, women generally do not go to the cremation ground. You reported for such a long time, did your gender become any hindrance?

Yes, absolutely. Whoever has been to Manikarnika Ghat knows that there are mostly men there—the wood sellers, the corpse-burners, the samagri sellers, the shav yatris (relatives of the deceased who travel with the corpse), the tour guides. In such a situation, a woman holding a dictaphone in one hand and walking around with a camera around her neck, will naturally draw attention. In the beginning, I used to feel that all the eyes were constantly on me, and that’s a very discomfiting feeling, especially when you are trying to focus on doing your work. As a woman, I’m sure you know what I am talking about. So, it took me some time to come to terms with that, but I did.

When I tried to talk to the Dom men working at the ghat, they were a bit apprehensive in engaging with me. First, I was an outsider—they had no idea who I was. Second, I am a woman and they were not used to a woman coming up to them and requesting them to speak to her. It took a lot of hard work to have them take me seriously and eventually pull their guard down. When I kept returning to Manikarnika Ghat again and again, they started trusting me. But still (laughs), there was one person who thought that I was some undercover cop and mostly avoided me.

You come from a world very different from the challenges of this community, so while writing the book, how much did pay attention to not being judgmental about their situation, their lives, society?

As I have also written in the book, I am well aware of the fact that I come from a privileged class and caste, and I was mindful of this while I was reporting on the community and writing the book. I was careful not to let my own voice overshadow that of the Doms’. I also worked closely with a sensitivity editor for the book. My aim was to record the lives of the Doms – that was my priority. And I did so by doing solid field research, conducting countless interviews, listening to them carefully, spending long periods of time with them, and writing about them with sincerity and commitment. At the same time, I was aware that no matter how much intensive research was done, it could not replace the lived experiences of the Doms. However, I felt it was still important to record their lives and the brave decisions certain individuals in the community were making.

At some points, your book reminded me of the 2015 film Masaan. At the end of the book, you have thanked the actor who played the protagonist in the film. Is there any connection between the book and the film?

It is a very interesting thing that in public consciousness, whosoever has any memory related to the Dom community, it is from this film. Masaan is a very important film. During my reporting, I brought some children of Chand Ghat (who are mentioned in the book) to my guest house and showed them this film. I wanted them to watch it. Till that time, they didn’t even know that a feature film was made on their community, so they were very excited. But when they saw it, they said that the film is good, but that their life was very different from it.

They were young at that time and felt that their lives could never resemble that of Masaan’s lead character, Deepak. In hindsight, though, if you read the book, you will get to realize that in present, the lives of two of them have followed almost the same trajectory as that of Deepak. As part of my research, I interviewed actor Vicky Kaushal to find out what his experience was of working at Manikarnika Ghat. But that interview was a small part of the research. Apart from this, I had looked at various other sources for research purposes.

Read this interview in Hindi here.