Growing up in Banaras meant being reminded ever so frequently that you were fortunate to live there, but that you would be most fortunate to die there. This city of Shiva, this city of death, this city of mukti – to be bound to it is as much cosmic reward as fate. But like all myths, that of Benaras lives off a disturbing reality. Tied to the city is also the fate of those who facilitate the passage from this world into the next: the Doms, whose lives form the subject of Radhika Iyengar’s debut book, Fire on the Ganges.

The Doms, the Hindu caste group tasked with handling the last rites of the dead, live in bastis or ghettos, concentrated in dwellings cut away from the main city. Fire on the Ganges is about life in one of these bastis, Chand Ghat, situated close to the cremation grounds where they make their livelihood. In Chand Ghat, the living quarters are cramped, the surroundings are often less than sanitary, and everyday life remains untouched by the wave of religious and political attention that grips the rest of the city. Frequently, Doms – occupying some of the lowest rungs in Hindu caste society – are shunned in crowded marketplaces if recognised and treated without respect anywhere outside their congested living areas, making their movement outside less than free. This is truer for Dom women than anyone else, who cannot go to the city unaccompanied by men from their families, and even then, they must cover their heads and bodies with a large sheet worn over their regular clothes.

The Doms, as they are

Over almost seven years, Iyengar traces the lives of several Dom men and women (all names changed) as they chart their paths forward in life. Lakshya is determined to break off from the family occupation of corpse burning; he wants to make something of himself, and he wants to share this life with someone of his choice. His sister Dolly is a widow, a shadow of herself in the wake of her husband’s mysterious death, but also the first woman to own a business in Chand Ghat. Their neighbour Bhola, desperate to escape the suffocating environment of Chand Ghat, dedicates himself to making the most of the opportunities that come his way. Several other people and their stories feature prominently in Iyengar’s exhaustively conducted reportage, as they try to make sense of their realities, sometimes by rationalising it, other times by questioning it.

But transgressions are costly, and the tricky matrices of caste and gender are punitive. To navigate their way through it, they must cross difficult bridges, including their own shame over the hand they have been dealt.

In this period, regular life happens, but also the world around them changes. When the second wave of coronavirus infection battered India in April and May of 2021, for example, theirs became a unique predicament: on the one hand, they were in unprecedented demand, and on the other, there was barely any thought given to their safety amidst a raging pandemic. The construction of the Vishwanath Corridor, the Prime Minister’s brainchild and an ambitious, expensive project meant to give a facelift to the area that houses one of the city’s chief religious attractions, is another such disruption.

Author Radhika Iyengar.

Then there are the deplorable working conditions: in the heat, Dom men often work through the day amidst raging fires for little money, forced to turn to substance abuse to cope. The ashes and remains from the ghats often make their way into the river, where Dom men sieve through the sludge for anything valuable – fragments of melted gold or silver, or any scrap of metal that can resold for a paltry sum. It is a livelihood devoid of both dignity and financial security: between their families and a future of uncertain struggle lies only one unfortunate event, made worse by the fact that most Dom men do not live very long. It is perhaps here that greater historical grounding and a more sophisticated account of caste politics in Uttar Pradesh could have helped the readers make sense of how the Doms have been failed by both electoral politics and caste reform movements.

Iyengar’s exhaustive account also points to other grotesque tragedies: Dom children often run between rows of burning pyres to steal the red chunri off of dead bodies which if intact, can fetch them ten or 20 rupees. There is the disturbing image of an economy that works on duping grieving families, but more darkly macabre is the picture of children who find themselves amidst dead bodies, all to ease a little burden off their struggling families.

A divinely ordained role

What makes Fire on the Ganges a stimulating read is Iyengar’s refusal to treat people as substitutes for clean political puzzles. Instead, the book lends itself as a malleable medium for the expression of the full humanity of its protagonists – probing and sensitive by turns, it reserves its fidelity, firstly and most importantly, for the complicated truths that colour her subjects’s lives.

Out of the 84 ghats that line the banks of the Ganges in Benaras, two are dedicated to performing the last rites of the deceased, where bodies trickle in throughout the day at a steady pace. The first is Manikarnika Ghat, where pyres burn through the night, its entrance crowded with shops that sell wood and other religious paraphernalia. There is also Harishchandra Ghat, where in addition to the space for traditional funerals is an electric crematorium, initially heavily subsidised upon opening and then eventually made free by the government in order to curb the pollution caused by the burning of thousands of corpses every year. It is here that the full complexity of the caste question emerges: despite it not being a reserved position, the electric crematorium is only managed by Dom men and those that Iyengar interviews seem intent on claiming it as their right, even in the face of the terrible injustice that is life within the institution of caste.

For them, this is a divinely ordained role; not simply a vocation but a duty that the gods handpicked them for. You can call these necessary fictions, you can call them life myths, but for those whose realities are set in stone by these accidents of birth, they are no lesser truths than the laws of gravity: they give reason to the absurdity of their universe. It is a credit to Iyengar’s genuine curiosity in her subject that these puzzles emerge with the clarity that they do, and her control over her voice shines through most clearly when she steps back quietly, never confusing direction for opinion.

At some points, however, the writing in Fire on the Ganges is tinged with a dramatic element – perhaps to make a difficult subject appear appealing to an unfamiliar, often foreign audience, such as when it tries to underscore the import of an event, for example, by translating it into the vocabulary of sometimes overstated emotional reaction.

There is a world of life, and there is a world of the afterlife. Between these is the hell of living as outcasts in a caste system. Fire on the Ganges is a compelling read – by creating space for the experience of Doms on the margins of Hindu society, it asks powerful questions about how people contend with a fate that they have little say in writing.

Fire on the Ganges: Life Among the Dead in Banaras, Radhika Iyengar, HarperCollins India.