A portrait of Dom community opens a world not seen by many

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


#journalism   #caste   #Doms   #Ganga   #Banaras   #Society  
A view of many ghats along the Ganga in Varanasi (Photo: GN)
A view of many ghats along the Ganga in Varanasi (Photo: GN)

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.

 

Comments

 

Other News

“900 tenders worth Rs 150 crore?” For ward-level works: BMC

BrihanMumbai municipal corporation is floating nearly 900 tenders worth of Rs 150 crore in the next 10 days, but that is only for ward-level civic works, the BMC clarified on Monday, reacting to reports in a section of media.    “Since there are 25 wards in BMC, it involves m

Elections 2024: Banks, post offices to chip in for voter education

In a first-of-its-kind initiative, Election Commission of India (ECI) on Monday signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with two prominent organisations, the Indian Banks’ Association (IBA) and the Department of Posts (DoP), to amplify its voter outreach and awareness efforts ahead of the forthcom

Charming tales of the Snakeman’s early years

Snakes, Drugs and Rock ’N’ Roll: My Early Years By Romulus Whitaker with Janaki Lenin HarperCollins, 400 pages, Rs 699

Gripping graphic narrative helps make sense of pandemics past

The Moral Contagion By Julia Hauser and Sarnath Banerjee HarperCollins, 140 pages, Rs 699 The world has lar

“Globally, there is unprecedented positivity for India”

Addressing the Viksit Bharat Viksit Uttar Pradesh program in Lucknow on Monday, prime minister Narendra Modi launched 14,000 projects across the state, worth more than Rs 10 lakh crore at the fourth groundbreaking ceremony of UP Global Investors Summit held in February 2023. The projects relate to sectors

World’s biggest bird-a-thon begins in India

During the four days from Feb 16, more than a thousand birdwatchers throughout India are coming together with the goal of documenting as many birds as possible across the country’s diverse locations. Over one lakh birdwatchers globally participate in the annual Great Backyard Bird Coun

Visionary Talk: Amitabh Gupta, Pune Police Commissioner with Kailashnath Adhikari, MD, Governance Now


Archives

Current Issue

Opinion

Facebook Twitter Google Plus Linkedin Subscribe Newsletter

Twitter