Radhika Iyengar’s ‘Fire on the Ganges’ is an invitation to a shared act of empathy – and a fine example of long-form journalism too
GN Bureau | December 8, 2023
Fire on the Ganges: Life among the Dead in Banaras
By Radhika Iyengar
4th Estate / HarperCollins, 348 pages, 599
‘Fire on the Ganges’, by Radhika Iyengar, is about the Dom community, who perform cremations in Banaras. Based on the author’s interactions with many members of this community over eight years – from 2015 to 2023, the book is the outcome of possibly the most intense and longest reporting assignments in recent times. ‘Fire on the Ganges’ is also the first attempt to chronicle the quotidian life of the Doms.
The Doms aspirations and realities change over the years, though their fate remains the same. Theirs is a Dalit sub-caste, and they have been among the more suppressed among the suppressed groups in Hindu society. Yet, it is also believed that they have the ownership of the ‘sacred fire’ without which the soul will not achieve liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. That should have earned them respect from others. But, as one of them tells the author, “Even today, if we walk in the same lane as an upper-caste Hindu, chances are that he will abuse us. And if we touch them by mistake, they criticize and threaten us.”
Iyengar holds a Master’s degree in journalism from the famed Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and the craft of long-form writing (show-don’t-tell, telling detail, creating images, and so on) is at work here; telling multiple narratives in a way that would make the reader keep turning the pages. ‘Fire on the Ganges’, also described as a work of slow journalism and oral history, takes an outsider into the unseen world of the Doms, and invites the reader to look at the world from their eyes. The result is a shared act of empathy – even as the narrative remains strictly objective.
The ancient city of Banaras forms an intriguing backdrop to the Doms’ stories. ‘Fire on the Ganges’ “plunges into Banaras’s historical past, while narrowing its lens on a few spirited characters from the Dom community. Through their tales of struggle and survival, loss and ambition, betrayal and love, it tells the at-times-heartbreaking, at-times-exhilarating story of a community struggling to find a place beyond that accorded to it by ancient tradition”.
In a statement, Iyengar says, “In Banaras, the Doms are a community of corpse-burners, treated as “untouchables” by a majority of dominant caste Hindus. Yet, within this community, there are a few individuals who are striving to become much more than what tradition and society dictates. This book documents their courageous, life-altering decisions and experiences, of how they are doggedly changing their own narrative.”
As a work of long-form journalism and as a deeply researched portrait of contemporary India, ‘Fire on the Ganges’ joins the ranks of ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ (2012) by Katherine Boo and ‘The Good Girls’ (2021) by Sonia Faleiro.
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