Domghouse, in Bhojpuri, is a slang name for the economic bargaining that funeral workers undertake at the ghat which involves a relentless asking for more than what the funeral travellers may initially offer. Jonathan Parry, in his classic monograph Death in Banaras (1994), has exquisitely shown the social and economic organisation of funerary work at the cremation grounds through caste and lineage-based heirship. He shows how the work of cremation operates through devolution and rostering and how a non-standardised format of seeking cremation fees is operationalized by the practitioners. This format is indeed of a painstaking and time-consuming bargaining between the funeral workers and the funeral travellers.
How may we view Parry’s discussion in light of the fact that this mode of bargaining is an ethicised practice equally used in varied other social contexts, for example, bargaining for dowry or bargaining for paying less than the quoted fare in daily commute. We notice that there is a name for it and that it is a performative practise that continues beyond the cremation ghat into everyday social relations.
The name is “Domghouse.” The prefix Dom in this case is the caste name of the community associated with cremation work. The participation in the economic bargaining entails an active involvement from the funeral workers and in response a gradually intensifying reciprocal participation by the funeral travellers.
Visualise with your postcard, the high heat of June at the ghats. More people than usual are dying as they do in extreme weathers. Most dead are old people. The ghat is full of colourful biers. The biers of the old are decorated to honour their good death and auspicious exit. Crowds of funeral travellers are congregating and dispersing. A new corpse enters the scene. The funeral travellers find a place to keep the bier on the floor and a few head to the funeral-in-charge (Dom raja/Chaudhary). Questions are asked, information exchanged.
True to their higher control in the bargaining, the funeral workers ask key sociological questions to weigh the auspiciousness of the death, stature of the dead and the place from where the funeral has travelled. Like any other occupation based on behaviour observation and fee improvisation, the funeral workers are mostly spot-on in profiling the funeral travellers. A quote is made for the sacrificial fire by the senior funeral worker. The funeral travellers balk. They quote back a much reduced sum. The funeral worker says the day is exceptionally busy and he does not have time for haggling. He gestures, wagering, go, go. Time is passing. More funeral travellers join the bargain. The bargain resumes. The senior funeral manager does not talk directly to this set of funeral travellers.
Instead, he gestures and directs his workers to get busy with organising the pyres for which the fee is agreed. The funeral travellers express agitation. Some senior members chide the young and the inexperienced, asking them to stop speaking out of turn and plead their counterpart senior funeral workers to get the whole thing going for a reasonable sum. The senior funeral worker complies and quotes a new price. Then pauses, and adds two quintal grains to the quote. Another uproar amongst the funeral travellers. Never mind the grain sacks. A new price is quoted to counter the funeral worker’s quote. A senior member points at the bier on the floor and urges everyone to wrap up the bargain.
A new urgency settles in. The bargain is in its closing rounds, tempers are high and then something snaps. It has to be resumed again. By now, it is a topic of parallel conversations amongst the funeral travellers. There is slapstick marvelling and laughter. Then someone announces that it is settled.
A young Dom is allocated to oversee the pyre. Meanwhile wood is weighed and bought. The worker who sets the pyre is different from the one who gets the sacrificial fire. The latter enters into another round of bargaining. Then the worker who sets the pyre and does the work of cremation enters into another bargain at a final ritual stage.
What makes this practice feasible is that it is generic and it activates its own sustained continuity. The marvelling over the bargain while the dead is lying on the floor may appear remote to comprehension but its sensibility arises from the activity itself and thus it is not unethical or cruel to the participants. Jonathan Parry evokes “shares and chicanery” to make sense of the whole proceeding but when looked the way outlined above it appears as a self-referential terrain of dramaturgical practice with its own communicative rationality. Sure, variations make the bedrock of the continuity of the generic. The grain sacks are suitably pitched among a host of other desirable things like TV set, bicycle, land, refrigerator, mobile phone, bottle of rum, and so on. In contrast, the electric crematorium, on the side, has, in municipal theory, a flat fees charge. But our concern is, how do we think of the dead in this transactional relation.
Excerpted with permission from Dead in Banaras: Ethnography of Funeral Travelling, Ravi Nandan Singh, Oxford University Press.