Born a cremator: An Indian boy’s fight for an education

Yogi, a Dom, born into Varanasi’s community of cremators, is given an opportunity to study and try to change his future.

Yogi knows that his fight to succeed in his studies is also about taking on the hold that India's caste system still has, particularly on traditional communities like his. [Radhika Iyengar/Al Jazeera]
Yogi knows that his fight to succeed in his studies is also about taking on the hold that India's caste system still has, particularly on traditional communities like his. [Radhika Iyengar/Al Jazeera]

The night Yogi Choudhury’s father died, the teenager was asleep in his boarding school. 

His older brother had travelled some three hours along a dirt track to find the school. He asked the warden to wake Yogi up so he could break the news.

Four years later, in December 2015, Yogi recalls the dread he felt upon being woken. “Right then I knew something was wrong,” Yogi says in Blue Lassi, a cafe in Varanasi in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

The cafe overlooks a lane leading to Manikarnika Ghat, a well known cremation ground for Hindus on the banks of the Ganges, the river that borders Varanasi in a sweeping arc.

It was at Manikarnika where Yogi’s father, a Dom, burned human corpses for a living. He died of alcoholism at 52.

“In our community, everyone either dies of drinking or disease,” Yogi says. “The men drink, or smoke ganja [marijuana], to cope with the smell of melting flesh.”

Yogi has raven-black hair slicked back and to the side, a sturdy build and is of average height. A meticulously trimmed moustache runs across his upper lip. He believes he is either 21 or 22.

His birthplace, the city of Varanasi, is more than 3,000 years old. Venerated for its tradition and religious significance, it is believed by devout Hindus to be the direct gateway to heaven. The city is characterised by its ghats – ancient flights of stone steps that have drawn in throngs of pilgrims and worshippers for centuries – which lead down to the waters of the Ganges.

Hindus believe that Varanasi is one of the few places on earth where Lord Shiva – considered the destroyer of the world – dwells, in order to impart true enlightenment to his disciples. For the believers, dying in Varanasi holds the promise of “moksha”, or liberation of the soul from the mortal coil.

Devout Hindus prefer to have their funeral rites performed at one of the cremation grounds – either Manikarnika Ghat or Harishchandra Ghat. The Doms, the community to which Yogi belongs, is an isolated, less privileged one relegated by tradition to perform cremations. Their identity is inextricably linked to their profession, and as they deal with corpses, they are often looked down upon.

But Yogi is desperate to become much more than what his caste defines him to be.

He is a Dom in an unusual situation – one that will test whether it is possible to escape the fate usually assigned to those born into his community – for he has had the rare opportunity to receive a private school education. Yogi, whom I met at the end of 2015 when he was in the 10th grade, has been receiving sponsored education from a yoga instructor in New York along with three other Doms.

“When people tell me that a Dom child can never move forward in life because of his caste, I sometimes get disheartened,” Yogi says. “I feel that if God is willing, I’ll be able to get out and make something of myself, and if he isn’t, I won’t. I’ll remain here – like everyone else.”

A Dom child stands near piles of wood. For Dom children, the cremation ground is their playground. They grow up watching scores of corpses burn in front of them every day and start to work there as children. [Radhika Iyengar/Al Jazeera]

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Stealing shrouds as children

Outside Blue Lassi, a crescendo builds: “Ram Naam, Satya Hai! Ram Naam, Satya Hai!” (God’s name is the truth.)

A Dom tends to a cremation, while behind him lie abandoned shrouds, like the ones Yogi and his friends would steal as children and sell to shopkeepers who would wash, iron and resell them in glossy, transparent packets to mourning customers. [Radhika Iyengar/Al Jazeera]

In the narrow lane next to the cafe, a group of men dressed in simple, loose-fitting pants and shirts marches past, shouldering a bamboo bier with a corpse covered from head to toe in an orange shroud. The men soon disappear around a corner, their chant trailing behind them as they head for Marnikarnika.

“When I was four or five years old, I began working on the ghats,” Yogi says. Like other Dom children, his parents sent him to work there.

He grew up watching his father, brothers and uncles burn bodies throughout the day, but it was his oldest brother, Mithun Choudhury, who taught him how to pick shrouds.

“I used to steal shrouds for a living,” he says. “At that time, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I began stealing shrouds because we had financial troubles at home.”

He would sell each shroud – which is removed from a corpse before the body is laid onto a pyre – to a shopkeeper, who would resell it to mourning customers. Yogi would earn about $1 a day.

The occupation of burning bodies remains an inherited one - passed from father to son

It was dangerous work. Yogi and his young friends burned their legs and almost tripped into the fires. Sometimes they’d return home with nails dug deep into the soles of their feet. “We didn’t go to doctors because medicines are expensive,” he says. Instead, Yogi’s mother would dip a cloth in hot kerosene oil to massage his foot.

The Doms are keepers of a sacred fire called the Eternal Fire – supposedly burning for centuries – to which only they have access. They use it to light the funeral pyres. The fire is kept in a secluded area near the cremation ground, where the maliks (bosses), Doms who overlook the cremation, sit.

A Hindu legend that Doms like to share describes how the community acquired this fire. According to the legend, Goddess Parvati (Lord Shiva’s consort) lost her earring at the ghats one day. While Shiva searched for it, a member of a Brahmin (the most privileged caste) family discovered the earring, and instead of returning it, kept it. When Shiva found out, he condemned the man and his family to the least privileged caste. The man begged for mercy and eventually, Shiva’s heart softened. He decided to give the family an inextinguishable flame which would ensure the liberation of a Hindu’s soul. The Doms are believed to be descendants of this family.

Today, the occupation of burning bodies remains an inherited one – passed from father to son. Despite performing this important Hindu ritual, the community is treated as “untouchable” by Hindus from more privileged castes.

Boats loaded with wood for funeral pyres sit in front of Manikarnika Ghat where hundreds of corpses are cremated every day. [Radhika Iyengar/Al Jazeera]

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Centuries-old caste inequality and violence 

According to the varnashrama dharma, an important religious text in Hinduism, Hindu society was traditionally made up of four distinct castes – the Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants and traders) and Shudras (servants). Each caste had its own designated, hereditary profession.

Beyond these divisions are the Ati-Shudras which include the Untouchables, whose occupations consist of cleaning sewage, cremating corpses and working with leather. Owing to the nature of their work, the common belief held was that Untouchables were impure, something that has only been reinforced by their imposed occupations.

Today, the term Dalit is associated with being “untouchable”.

B R Ambedkar, a Dalit economist and reformer, one of the key people to have drafted the Constitution of independent India, condemned the caste system. In his iconic undelivered speech, Annihilation of Caste, Ambedkar wrote: “There cannot be a more degrading system of social organisation than the caste system. It is the system which deadens, paralyses, and cripples the people, from helpful activity.” As late as the 19th century, if the shadow of a Dom fell on a Hindu from a more privileged caste, the latter had to bathe immediately to “purify” himself.

Eighty years after Ambedkar’s speech was first published, the caste system persists. The rise of the middle class has slowly blurred caste boundaries, but it hasn’t expunged it.

People from less privileged castes continue to endure atrocities.

In May 2017, members of the more privileged caste Thakur community burned down 25 Dalit houses in Shabirpur, a predominantly Dalit village in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The Thakurs were holding a loud procession to celebrate the birth anniversary of Maharana Pratap, the 16th-century Rajput warrior-king. When the Dalits raised their concern about the loud procession going through their village, there was an altercation between the two communities, which led to the Dalit homes being set on fire by the Thakurs.

In one brutal case in May 2016, on a crowded market street, a 22-year-old man was hacked to death in broad daylight in Udumalaipettai, Tamil Nadu. V Shankar was a Dalit who had married a Hindu woman from a more privileged caste who came from a family that held political standing in society. The wife’s family had arranged the murder of the young man, sending five men to do the job.

Two months later, a group of Hindu men from a more privileged caste stripped four Dalit men who were skinning the carcass of a cow – one of the professions of the less privileged. The men beat the Dalits with iron rods and publicly humiliated them. They accused the Dalits of butchering the cow.

In January 2016, Rohith Vemula, a high-achieving 26-year-old Dalit student in Hyderabad Central University, committed suicide. His story was widely reported. Vemula had been expelled from the university for allegedly attacking a student leader from a more privileged caste who belonged to a right-wing political party. As a result, his scholarship was revoked.

“My birth is my fatal accident,” wrote Vemula in his suicide letter. “I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.”

The caste system, in place for millennia, still weighs heavily on the Doms even as Indian society moves into the 21st century. As India holds firmly on to its rituals, particularly those associated with the final rites, which involve cremation, tradition binds Doms from birth to this profession.

Till now, no Dom has been able to move forward in life.

Yogi Choudhury

Education is perhaps the only way a Dom can challenge this status quo.

The struggle to receive proper education, however, is an arduous one and many give up halfway.  

“Till now, no Dom has been able to move forward in life,” Yogi says.

Private education is inaccessible to a majority of Dom families owing to their impoverished situation. There are several Hindi and English-medium government schools in the neighbourhood that offer free schooling until the eighth grade. But the education is substandard. The schools often face power cuts, rarely have furniture or blackboards, and lack competent teachers.

Many Dom children are enrolled, but their names only exist in the register. Their parents would rather have them work at the ghats to earn money. Yogi was also enrolled, but his father spent all his earnings on alcohol.

“At that time, the government school fee was two rupees (the equivalent of three cents) per month. He couldn’t even pay that! I was forced to drop out.”

Only men are traditionally allowed to set foot on the Manikarnika Ghat cremation ground; the reason given is that bereaved female relatives could disrupt the solemnity of the place. [Radhika Iyengar/Al Jazeera]

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The cremation ground

In the early afternoon, Yogi and I head to Manikarnika Ghat, negotiating our way through a blockade of cows. About 100 metres before we reach Manikarnika, a strange, disturbing smell hits me – the smell of burning flesh. Close to the cremation ground lie piles of wood about five metres high.

On the way down the ancient, dusty, betel spit-stained stone steps leading to the cremation ground, thick smoke rises from the burning pyres, which spew ruby-red embers. Flames lash and the wood crackles.

As a Dom, it's impossible to study or make something of your own without leaving this place.

Yogi Choudhury

Along the riverbank, a tableau of death is being performed in the open. Bodies on bamboo biers line the steps, logs of wood lie scattered and stray cows roam about. The pyres rage, emitting an excruciating heat. Flakes of ash drift down onto the marshy ground, mixing with squashed marigolds, cow dung and urine. Relatives of the dead haggle over the price of each cremation with the Dom men. Kites and seagulls fly overhead

Nearby, four men lift a corpse by the bier and walk towards the shallow waters. As ordained, they dip the body five times into the water and then carry it to the pyre. In the distance, a man walks towards the shore, unzips his pants, and relieves himself in the water.

“Since childhood, I knew I wanted to study. I knew that if I wanted to make it, I needed to get out of my locality, my community,” Yogi says, standing next to me on the steps.

“As a Dom, it’s impossible to study or make something of your own without leaving this place.”

A corpse wrapped in white cotton lies on a funeral pyre at Manikarnika. In Hinduism, the dead are cremated. Hindus believe that fire is a natural element that cleanses the soul and liberates it from the body. [Radhika Iyengar/Al Jazeera]
A view of Manikarnika Ghat from the Ganges River. The city is considered a place of sacred crossing from this world to heaven. It is said that when one is cremated in Varanasi, Lord Shiva himself whispers the ‘taraka mantra’ – the passage mantra – into the ear of the dead. [Radhika Iyengar/Al Jazeera]

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The filmmaker and the yoga instructor

In the summer of 2006, Rajesh Jala, a Delhi-based documentary filmmaker, visited Varanasi.

Fascinated by Manikarnika Ghat, Jala ended up making a documentary called Children of the Pyre (2008), about a coterie of seven corpse-burners’ children, including Yogi, who stole shrouds.

For Jala, the biggest challenge was convincing the children to participate in his film.

“They were very suspicious of my presence,” Jala told me in Delhi. “They believed that I would document their illegal work and splash it across television screens.”

Despite their apprehension, Jala persisted.

“Wherever we would go, he would follow us with his camera,” Yogi recalls. “One of the boys often picked up bricks to throw at him. When he’d approach us with his camera, we would throw the shrouds over our heads! We would even abuse him, but he ignored it all. Then one day, Rajesh Sir sat us down and asked, ‘Do you kids want to continue to work here or do you want to do something more in life? I can help you.'”

They were very suspicious of my presence ... They believed that I would document their illegal work and splash it across television screens.

Rajesh Jala, Delhi-based filmmaker

That was the first time the children started thinking about their future.

“They began to have an impact on me,” Jala says. “One day I said to myself, ‘I can’t just make a film, use them and leave them.’ I told [the children] that I’d try and help them. So I tried.”

Miles away in New York in the summer of 2009, Kevin Ryder, a yoga instructor, watched Jala’s documentary at a screening at the Museum of Modern Art.

Ryder had been fascinated by Varanasi ever since his first visit there in 2006. The city, including Manikarnika Ghat – where life and death are celebrated in equal form – drew him in.

Inspired by the children, Ryder contacted Jala wanting to fund their education. Jala was ecstatic.

But when Jala and Ryder approached the children’s parents with this proposal, the adults flatly refused. “They didn’t want to send the kids to school because the kids were making money, you see?” Ryder says.

The community was also suspicious.

“Our relatives and neighbours would instigate our parents by saying things like, ‘Don’t send your children to school; don’t listen to Jala – he will ensure that everybody in the community goes to jail!'” Yogi recalls.

However, when Ryder offered to pay 1,500 rupees ($23) per month as compensation, the parents agreed.

Through an acquaintance, Ryder discovered the Alice Project’s Universal Education School, an institution located about 13km from the heart of the city, in Sarnath.

Valentino Giacomin, an Italian Buddhist, set up the private school to educate rural children. It was decided that four of the children from the documentary, including Yogi, would be enrolled there. The other three, uncomfortable about being dislocated, felt they were better off working at the ghats.

Yogi (right) and his Dom friend Ansh Choudhury, both students at Swami Harsewanand Public School, Banpurwa, want a better future [Radhika Iyengar/Al Jazeera]

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Opportunity for an education

One afternoon in December 2015, Yogi took me to meet his family. They live in Meer Ghat, a 10-minute walk from Manikarnika. In his neighbourhood, blue and green houses stood stacked on top of each other like a pyramid of matchboxes on either side of the street. Freshly-washed nylon saris flowed down from the balconies. In Yogi’s gully, a series of unevenly laid brick steps led to his home.

We entered a sparsely furnished three-by-three metre wide room. There was a wooden bed in one corner, a collection of idols of Hindu gods and goddesses, and a clothes line that ran along a blue wall. Beneath it, ashy patches were visible on the wall. These were from the family leaning back against it in the evenings to watch Bollywood films on a small television. A bamboo ladder connected the room to the terrace. Downstairs, there was another small room. Eleven family members used to live there – Yogi, his parents, his four brothers and four sisters.

They would say, 'Hey Kevin Sir, can you please ask him to keep the light on because we want to study? We've got half of our lives to catch up on.'

Kevin Ryder, yoga instructor and education sponsor of four Doms

As a child, Yogi slept on the floor of this cramped room where rats occasionally scurried about in search of food. The first time he had a bed to himself was when he went to Giacomin’s school in 2010.

When Yogi saw the hostel room for the first time, he could not believe his eyes. Four beds with clean, fresh cotton sheets awaited the children.

“There were posters on the walls and curtains on the windows. Everything was new – the cupboards were freshly painted. There was even a carpet on the floor!” he recalls.

At school, desperate to improve their lives, Yogi and the kids gave it their all.

Ryder recalled the children asking him to request that Giacomin allow them to leave the light on in their hostel room a little longer at night.

“They would say, ‘Hey Kevin, sir, can you please ask him to keep the light on because we want to study? We’ve got half of our lives to catch up on.’ They didn’t want to screw around,” Ryder says. “They wanted to study.”

When the boys returned home for holidays for the first time after six months, members of their community were astonished.

“These boys began looking really smart. When Yogi was living at home, he was this scrawny, little boy. But the moment he returned from Sarnath, he had started looking like a foreigner! He would wear a cap and strut about in our neighbourhood. Everyone used to look at him with great admiration,” recalls Kapil, Yogi’s second oldest brother, who is a corpse-burner.

Everyone who had earlier mocked the idea of us going to school now started approaching us.

Yogi Choudhury

“And we began getting marriage proposals!” Yogi says, clapping his hands excitedly and covering his mouth to control his laughter. “After going to school, our ‘personality’ had improved tremendously – wherever we went, people wanted to know: ‘Whose boy is that? Which family does he belong to?'”

The transformation was evident. The children looked healthier because they ate regular meals that were provided at school, they could speak a smattering of English, and since they no longer worked at the cremation ground in the sun, they had begun to look fairer. “Everyone who had earlier mocked the idea of us going to school now started approaching us,” Yogi says. “Our neighbours would say, ‘Please do something for us too. We also want to send our kids to school. Please speak to Rajesh Sir for us.'”

In 2012, the kids moved to a bigger private school called Swami Harsewanand Public School in Banpurwa, Varanasi, which has a stronger academic curriculum and follows the pan-India Central Board of Secondary Education examination structure. Yogi, although being several years older than his classmates, had just entered seventh grade when he joined the school. However, he and the other three children had to stay at Meer Ghat and travel 42km to school and back every day.

Shashikant Sharma, the school’s administrative head, who was present on the first day to receive the boys, recalls: “The first time I saw the four kids, they didn’t look any different from normal kids.” Sharma has been the point of contact between the children and Jala, who by now had become their local guardian.

“However, being fully aware of the background they had come from, I was pleasantly surprised to see a ray of hope in their eyes. I could tell they were excited to be here.”

Of the boys, however, Yogi seemed different to Sharma.

“Yogi had a look on his face that said, ‘Now I have come here, and I’m going to stay. I’m not letting any opportunity go’.”

Yogi sits on his bed in his hostel room that he shares with two roommates at Swami Harsewanand Public School. [Radhika Iyengar/Al Jazeera]

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Hungry to learn

But the first year there was tumultuous. The school was close to three hours away along a dirt road that was tiring to cover in a rickety school bus.

Yogi would wake up at four in the morning to leave his home for school by 5am, with no food in his stomach, not wanting to wake his mother at that hour to cook him breakfast. By four in the afternoon, Yogi would return. Exhausted, he’d drag himself home from the bus station in the summer heat.

Half an hour later, the children were expected to attend their scheduled private tuition, organised by Jala and Ryder, a few blocks away.

They would rush to their lessons, often not changing out of their sweat-soaked, wrinkled uniforms. By the time they wrapped up the session, it would be 6.30pm. At home, Yogi would do household chores, quickly eat his food and collapse into bed.

While recounting this, Yogi shakes his head, startled at his own capacity to cope.

“How could I study then?” he asks. “Where could I study? During exams, I had to push myself to sit at the ghats and study,” Yogi says.

“It was hard, especially during summers – the heat was terrible.”

Jala and Ryder decided to register the children at the school’s hostel. There, Yogi could dedicate long hours to his studies. Slowly, life began to transform. He started moving further away from the trajectory that fate had pre-designed for him.

At school, the children were once taught a chapter on the Hindu caste system during a social science seminar. At that time, in Yogi’s class, a few students in the back row sniggered, particularly when the teacher spoke about the less privileged castes. “I didn’t like it,” he says. But he chose to remain quiet.

I feel scared because I don't want anyone to ever tell me that I'm wasting someone's money. I never want any teacher to point a finger at me, or complain to either Rajesh Sir or Kevin Sir that I'm useless.

Yogi Choudhury

Apart from Sharma and a few teachers whom Yogi has grown to trust, almost no one else at school knows that he’s a Dom.

“And I have no intention of telling them either,” he says. “What’s the point? I mind my own business and it is best they mind their own.” 

In the past, people have behaved differently towards him once they learned about his caste. “On the surface, they act like everything is OK, but I do sense that slight change in them,” he says.

At school, Yogi has never scored below 85 percent.

When pressed on why he wants to excel, he says: “I feel scared because I don’t want anyone to ever tell me that I’m wasting someone’s money. I never want any teacher to point a finger at me, or complain to either Rajesh Sir or Kevin Sir that I’m useless.”

He adds, with a shy smile: “Studying is my life. If I have to choose anything precious in my life, this will be it.”

At this school, Yogi had the opportunity to work on computers for the first time and became fascinated by them. The first time he tried to use one, however, he realised that the letters on the keyboard were in English, and he wasn’t too familiar with them. It made him want to learn English more quickly.

During weekly computer classes, Yogi would rush to pick up any book lying around the classroom, and open a text document on the computer to copy sentences in order to learn how to type in English. “I’d pick any book; it didn’t matter to me.”

Today, he’s faster on the keyboard, but admits: “It still takes me time to find the U or the I, but I can type ‘smart Yogi’ very quickly because of practice.”

Yogi types whenever he can. “I purposely email people, because it helps me increase my typing speed on the keyboard.”

On his first visit home during the school holidays, Kapil asked him to work at the ghats. Yogi refused.

Instead, whenever he goes home for the holidays he uses his spare time to learn. He often goes to a nearby internet café and watches YouTube videos of music maestros playing the tabla or classical Indian dance performances. He pays $0.22 per hour to use the internet from the pocket money Jala sends him every month. When he goes back to school, he volunteers to choreograph student dance pieces for annual school events.

Yogi convinced his elder brother Mithun to buy him a second-hand smartphone. One evening, when Yogi and I visited Dashashwamedh Ghat where devotional performances are held every evening, he recorded “Shiv Tandav”, a religious song which was playing over the loudspeaker. When I asked him about it, he told me: “I will listen to this song over and over again, and will learn to play the tune on the tabla under the supervision of my music teacher at school.”

Not only is he ambitious, he also helps others in his neighbourhood. He fills and submits school applications for children in his community, writes letters for identity cards, takes people to the hospital and helps them open bank accounts. Unlike his friends, he says he’s not afraid to approach anyone to ask them questions so that he can learn more.

Yogi and his friend Ansh, photographed inside a classroom in their boarding school, Swami Harsewanand Public School, during the winter break, are both pursuing an education with the financial support of yoga instructor Kevin Ryder. [Radhika Iyengar/Al Jazeera]
Mithun, left, Ansh, Yogi and Yogi’s mother Pushpa Devi sit in Yogi’s family home. [Radhika Iyengar/Al Jazeera]

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The brother who works at the cremation ground

While visiting Yogi’s home, Pushpa Devi, his mother who is in her mid-40s, tells me she isn’t convinced that pursuing an education is the best path for her son.

“Even now, sometimes I feel that I should call him back from school. It’s becoming financially very difficult for us,” she says, her wiry white hair pulled back in a bun.

Yogi is one of her five sons, and she expects him to work and contribute towards the family’s finances. Women don’t earn in the community, so her daughters, all married now, have never stepped outside the home to work. Pushpa Devi’s oldest son Mithun, who burns bodies day and night at the cremation ground, is the sole earning member of the family. Kapil, Yogi’s second oldest brother, works at the cremation ground when he wants to, pocketing his earnings to live a carefree life. Dipu, Yogi’s younger brother, earns his pocket money by rowing a boat for tourists on the Ganges, while the youngest sibling, Anil, studies at a local government school.

If anything happens to Mithun, Yogi would be forced to abandon his studies and his dreams and return to the ghats.

Mithun, 28, is the one person who is shielding Yogi, standing as a bulwark between his studies and the cremation ground.

Yet Mithun, 28, is the one person who is shielding Yogi, standing as a bulwark between his studies and the cremation ground.

Mithun has been working at the ghats since the age of five. He has short black hair and a scar near his right eye. Sitting cross-legged, wrapped in a thin, white shawl, he shapes tobacco in his hand before slipping a handful beneath his tongue. Though quiet, he has an intimidating presence.

Mithun spends hours performing the back-breaking work of sifting through mountains of ash to cull tiny pieces of melted gold and silver – remnants of jewellery the deceased were wearing – to later sell for a meagre sum of money. Out of respect for their dead, families leave the jewellery (often a necklace, a few bangles, a gold nose-ring, or a gold tooth) on their relative before performing the last rites. For the Doms, the competition to find these tiny, precious pieces is cut-throat. As soon as the ash from a burned out pyre is swept into the river, an army of men – with pants rolled halfway up – rush in, wading through the murky water. To reduce the competition, some throw in broken glass and razors to make the process more arduous for others.

If a man gets wounded or contracts a disease, anti-tetanus shots and visits to the doctor eat into his family’s finances. He cannot work and his family suffers, until he is fit to work again. Many are in debt in order to feed their families and pay the bills.

Dom men sift through ash to cull tiny pieces of melted gold and silver – remnants of jewellery that the deceased were wearing. Yogi’s oldest brother performs this task to earn for his family. [Radhika Iyengar/Al Jazeera]

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‘All of us who burn bodies have to drink’

Ten days of strenuous work will fetch Mithun the equivalent of $15. In the midst of flames and smoke, Mithun works tirelessly, night and day.

“Our blood burns inside, it boils. Our head swims because of the extreme heat. We can drink as much water as we like during the summers, but there will be no urine. And if there is, it will be dark, red-brown. Even if there is fire all around us and the dead burning around us – we have to do the work,” Mithun says. The work conditions cause boils to erupt on their backs.

All of us who burn bodies have to drink. How else can we bear the revulsion at the muck we see?

Ganesh Choudhury, Yogi's relative

“It’s tough being responsible for an entire family,” Mithun says. “Sometimes it gets very difficult. The body aches all the time. After breakfast, I don’t eat throughout the day. If I eat during the day, I cannot work, because it all comes out as vomit. Sometimes I even have loose bowels.”

Many Dom workers are forced to stay on the grounds for long hours at a stretch, depending on the number of bodies that come in. They’re always on call. To cope with the smell of the burning flesh, the men numb themselves out of their senses with drugs and alcohol.

Yogi’s relative, Ganesh Choudhury, started drinking alcohol at the age of 15 after cremating a dismembered body.

“All of us who burn bodies have to drink. How else can we bear the revulsion at the muck we see?” he says. “We see fractured skulls, chests slit opened right down the middle, intestines falling out with everything else. We have to drink, chew gutka (crushed flavoured tobacco), eat betel leaf … we see burned bodies with kerosene poured over them and bodies of people with their tongues sticking out, probably because they hanged themselves …people with gunshot wounds … when we sleep our brain works over what we have seen.”

Now I tell Yogi to keep studying and become something. 'Show these guys what you are made of!'

Mithun Choudhury, Yogi's oldest brother

Once, while burning a body, Mithun hit the skull with a bamboo stick – a practice performed during the cremation – and the head rolled off like a ball. “It had been stitched after post mortem,” he explains.

“Strange things happen,” he continues, as his body leans forward and his marble black eyes hold me with an intense gaze. “Once, I was sleeping at the cremation ground at night. There was absolute silence. At about two in the morning, I heard: ‘Ram Naam Satya Hai’ (what is said while a body is being carried). I woke up and looked around for the voice, but no one was there. So we get scared like that and drink, or we drink to reduce our suffering. We are doing it out of compulsion, it’s our plight.”

Mithun began drinking when he was 12. But he quit when their father died, wanting to set an example for his brothers. Now he chews betel leaf incessantly.

Mithun doesn’t want Yogi to work at the ghats.

“This is my wish – all I want him to do is study and make something of his life,” he says.

“The people in our community taunt me, saying that Yogi will get spoiled at school. I believed them for a while, but all that changed when I heard him speak in English for the first time,” he says. “It was then that I knew that things were going to be different. Now I tell Yogi to keep studying and become something. ‘Show these guys what you are made of!’ I tell him.”

Yogi knows that if anything were to happen to his oldest brother Mithun, who works at Manikarnika Ghat, he would likely have to return there to earn money for his family. [Radhika Iyengar/Al Jazeera]

Fighting the caste system

Writing in 1874, Charles Phillips Cape, a missionary in Varanasi, wrote of the Doms: “We are trying to instruct their children. But sometimes it seems that the influences of home counteract any good that may have been imparted in the mission school. And as even small boys and girls can earn a few shillings a month by street-sweeping, it is impossible to persuade the parents to make the sacrifice necessarily involved in sending them to school.”

More than a century later, this attitude has changed little.

They are 'stuck', because they are neither in their ancestral profession which they want to escape, nor are they able to become mobile enough to reach a different kind of profession.

Nita Kumar, founder of an NGO supporting the education of underprivileged children

Nita Kumar is the founder of NIRMAN, an NGO in Varanasi that has for the past 25 years focused on providing education to economically underprivileged children. Kumar believes that the phenomenon of Doms transcending their caste status will require undoing centuries of traditional thinking and also removing certain prestige from the profession. “To make something out of such an underprivileged occupation, the ritualism of it was blown out of proportion,” she says.

“Many people who wish to break from their ancestral profession go to a government school, which is a decent school, but they still don’t get enough qualifications to actually move up the social ladder,” she says.

“So they are ‘stuck’, because they are neither in their ancestral profession which they want to escape, nor are they able to become mobile enough to reach a different kind of profession.”

Yogi has often found himself torn between his own dreams and his family’s wellbeing. “If my family insists that I return home, I might be forced to leave my studies,” he tells me one day. 

“I can see how the conditions at home are. Mithun bhaiya [brother] will never ask me to leave my studies, but if things worsen, I won’t be able to go to college, didi [sister],” he says.

Despite the support Yogi is receiving from Jala and Ryder – at least until 12th grade, which he completes in 2017 – he is acutely aware of what he is ultimately fighting against: the influence that the caste system still holds in Indian society.

“I struggle to work hard at school, yet there are people in my community who try to dissuade me. Many of them are jealous. They say, ‘Let’s see what you guys do in the future. We will remain here [at the ghats] and so will you. You are a Dom and you will never be able to get out.’ They say it because no one has even been able to move forward or leave,” he says, before looking away.  

Then he straightens his shoulders and looks up. “Yet, I’ve made up my mind that I’ll never burn a body. I’m never going to go back to the masaan [cremation ground] to work there. Even if I get married, even when I have kids, I won’t send them there,” he says.

“This is a commitment I’ve made to myself.”

Source: Al Jazeera


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