Sunaina Luthra On  Apr 04, 2024, In Book Review, Fire on the Ganges By Radhika Iyengar– Non-Fiction

Rating: 5/5

How can we all be spiritually aligned to the divine? Has the thought ever signaled you to a path where panpipes screeching harmonious melodies from heaven beseech you to meditate on the creator, or the mortality issue is over casted by acceptance of his will? Let me explain! Many times we wish to visit sacred temples and abodes but ill-disposed uncertainties make us indolent. But, when right time permits, we are there face to face with the divine, snapping our feet hurriedly, hands folded in gratitude to pray. I got lucky this time, and had the opportunity to visit the most sacrosanct city of India, popularly known as the ‘City of Ghats in Varanasi.

Varanasi’s essence truly lies in its versatility, with a confluence of people from all over the world, and its profound historical heritage that imbues it with religious significance.

Improbable at first, but the visit made me believe that ‘Divine will’ is unquestionable but at the same time is devoid of its sanctimony.  It’s not ‘me’ but the ‘infinite’ that etches the path to my connection with it. The auspicious ‘Ganga Aarti’ impinges on the sanctity of the river; drifting along the Ganges from the Namo Ghat, the tranquility of the holy water envelopes me. Last I wandered to the Manikarnika where solemnity of death intertwines with the quest for moksha. The palpable sight of the funeral pyres; the burning flames indubitably reckon the life’s prolificacies to end on the wooden logs, each corpse longing for an eternal bond with the divine.

These cremation ceremonies are performed by Doms – a Dalit sub caste nestled in Chand Ghat fringes. They inhabit Varanasi’s obscured corridors for their livelihood. They work under harsh working conditions which involves managing the intricacies of Cremation process smoothly including preparing the pyres by adhering to religious customs and traditions. In the face of centuries of discrimination, historical stigma and limited opportunities of growth, the resilient community works tirelessly.

Radhika Iyengar ‘s ‘Fire on the Ganges’ brings forth trials and tribulations of the Dom community by exploring tumultuous lives of several members. To name a few and their ongoing struggle; Saroj, a young widow and mother of five; Lakshya a tour guide in Banaras, Bhola the sole individual in his community in Chand Ghat to receive education and Mohan -Bhola’s older brother-a corpse worker. Radhika stitches together a narrative from disparate threads of their struggle, loss, shoddy living conditions, growth and self-respect. The stories are heart -breaking and worth a read.


One of the popular tales in the book propounds on the wrath weighed on Dom community by Shiva, to find recluse by Brahma’s forgiveness. The imprecation has left them groping in the dark, isolated them to anchor their own ship and save it. Their livelihood continues to be devoid of dignity and financial security. This makes me wonder if the city known for its religious and spiritual significance will ever dismantle the barriers that lie on their path to development and progress.

We may have reached the Moon but can’t aim for the stars until the rigid caste hierarchies crumble. We need to behold each community with impartial eyes and honor the dignity of labor.

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