top of page

Deep Dive into the Lives of Banaras' Dom's in 'Fire on the Ganges' by Radhika Iyengar. Book Review

Fire on the Ganges: Life Among the Dead in Banaras

Author :Radhika Iyengar

Published by Fourth Estate India (An Imprint of HarperCollins)

Genre: Ethnography

Pages 352

MRP: Rs. 599/-

Acknowledgent: Thank you @harpercollinsin for a media copy of the book.


Fire on the Ganges is a poignant and insightful non-fiction book that explores the lives of the Doms, a Dalit sub-caste that performs the Hindu rite of cremation in Banaras. The author, Radhika Iyengar, spent seven years interviewing and observing the Doms and their struggles, aspirations, and dilemmas in a city where they are treated as untouchables despite their sacred role. The book is a powerful testimony to the resilience, dignity, and humanity of a community that is often ignored or stigmatized.

The book is divided into thirty eight chapters, each of which focuses on a different aspect of the Doms’ lives and work. The chapters cover topics such as the history and mythology of Banaras, the caste system and its impact on the Doms, the rituals and practices of cremation, the economics and politics of death, the gender and family dynamics of the Doms, and the challenges and opportunities of modernity. The author uses a mix of personal narratives, ethnographic observations, historical research, and critical analysis to paint a vivid and nuanced picture of the Doms and their world.

One of the strengths of the book is its rich and evocative language. The author has a keen eye for detail and a poetic sensibility that brings the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of Banaras to life. The book is full of memorable images and metaphors that capture the essence of the Doms’ experience. For example, the author describes the Doms’ work as “a dance with death” that requires “a delicate balance of reverence and detachment” . She also compares the Doms to “the invisible hands of fate” that “shape the destiny of the living and the dead” . The book is a pleasure to read for its literary quality alone.

Another strength of the book is its empathy and sensitivity towards the Doms. The author does not shy away from the harsh realities of their lives, such as poverty, discrimination, and exploitation, but she also does not reduce them to mere victims or stereotypes. Instead, she portrays them as complex and multifaceted individuals who have agency, creativity, and dignity. She shows how the Doms use their skills, knowledge, and networks to navigate the challenges of their profession and to pursue their dreams and aspirations. She also highlights the diversity and heterogeneity of the Dom community, which includes different castes, religions, and regions. The book is a testament to the power of human connection and understanding.

The author assumes that the readers are already familiar with the basic concepts and practices of Hinduism, Banaras, and the caste system, and does not provide much background information or explanation. This can be frustrating for readers who are not well-versed in Indian culture and history, and who may struggle to understand some of the references and allusions. The book could have benefited from more footnotes, glossaries, or appendices that clarify the terms and concepts used.

The author sometimes repeats information or details that have already been mentioned earlier, or that are not relevant to the main argument. This can make the book feel longer than it needs to be, and can distract the readers from the core message. The book could have been edited more tightly to eliminate the unnecessary or redundant parts.

Despite these weaknesses, Fire on the Ganges is a remarkable and important book that deserves to be read widely. It is a book that challenges our assumptions and prejudices, and that invites us to see the world from a different perspective. It is a book that celebrates the beauty and complexity of human life, and that reminds us of the power of storytelling to connect us with each other. It is a book that will stay with you long after you finish reading it.

If you wish to purchase the book, consider purchasing the book from our link. We get a small commission at no added cost to you:



bottom of page