A man comes up to me on the burning ghats. “Burning is learning” he says, suggesting a spot to stand and watch, “cremation is education.” Don’t take photos, he warns, there was a fight here just the other day with some rude tourists.1 He tells me he works on the ghats as a dom, wants to share his culture with me. He doesn’t want money, no charge, no charge, but people who come here to die are left in a hospice over there–he waves his hand in some indeterminate direction–and they need money for food and a pyre. If I just give him a small donation, he’ll take care of them, he promises. He’s insistent, strangely pushy for someone who thinks of himself as a charitable, cultural ambassador for a sacred space. I relent, hand over a few rupees. He waits for more. Desperate to be alone with my own thoughts, I give in. He leaves, but returns a little later to tell me the spot I’m sitting in, surrounded by a ring of empty space, is reserved for families.
Something suggests this isn’t totally above board.
The advice from other people on the ghats is to avoid giving any cash. It’s unlikely he’s a dom, or if he is, he’s definitely not employed as a guide. But there’s no sense of condemnation, the way one might imagine if a door to door salesman dropped by a visitation.
I sit and watch and try to understand. The corpses are burned in all their regalia, dressed to impress for their journey to the next life. But, though perhaps the true essence of the jewelry and gold may move on, in a more mundane sense there are pickings left over. A man leans on his friend’s shoulder, doing a little soft shoe in the ash-filled water. People look like they’re panning for gold, prospectors who have hit a solid vein.
Doms negotiate their wages in public, with a certain flair.2 Johnathan Parry describes the negotiations:
“But whichever Dom has rights on that is the raja of the cremation ground, and the mourners are never allowed to forget it. During the negotiations over his ‘tax’, he makes a point of touching the mourners, and treats them with the haughty disdain an Untouchable might normally experience at their hands. Lounging on a bolster, he addresses the mourners with the disrespectful second person singular pronoun tu, while they use the polite ap and call him ‘elder brother’ or ‘Chaudhuri (headman) Sahib.’”
He then quotes a particularly colorful argument:
“Your respected father won’t die again and again. You won’t perform his last rights time after time. Your father raised you, educated you. Now you must give with an open heart. You have brought him to Kashi to burn. Do the work happily. You will die also….So how did he die? Did you poison him…You say you are poor! You want to teach me how to fuck? If you can’t give more than that, then go. Take your corpse away, and take your money too.”
But while negotiations with families are fierce, it would be a mistake to call it a market. The right to sift for jewelry (sona) or receive the lion’s share of the fee is given to each dom on a scheduled day. The rights are heritable and unequally distributed, enforced through professional bonds and old record books, with the male children splitting their father’s position in the rota after he dies. The allocation changes depending on the deceased’s ethnicity, whether they are South Indian or North Indian or Bengali. Similar temporal arrangements are made for the Mahabrahmans (funeral priests), who stand in for the deceased’s vengeful ghost and must be appeased. The supply of funeral labor is essentially a cartel. So, while hustling a clueless foreigner is not ritually condoned like the dom and the Mahabrahman3, it isn’t as untoward as it seems at first.
Or if it is inappropriate, it’s also expected. According to the Hindu faith, we are living in the Kali Yuga, the fourth and most degenerate age of the universe, a time when people are faithless and cynical in their dealings and material matters have replaced spiritual enlightenment. In dark times like these, the world is always on the edge of chaos, and some semblance of order must be retained to avoid a war of all against all. Parry observes “Hindus often appear to see themselves as engaged in an endless battle against impeding chaos and disintegration, of which the ever-present danger of a disintegration and degeneration of the actor’s own person is the most immediate and apprehensible manifestation.” So, “the rota system is quite explicitly represented as a device to eliminate conflict and competition between members of the same occupational group” as an assurance of some form of order in a world without trust. There’s no way you can trust the family of the deceased to treat you fairly, but you can at least insure your fellow doms will have to follow some rules.
In comparison, when I talked with funeral directors in Ireland, there was hope for regulation to protect grieving families from greedy funeral directors, or, more cynically, to protect the reputation as an industry. But there, the focus was on controlling market forces, dealing with an information asymmetry between the clueless family and the upselling director. In India, the information asymmetry is a given, the dom feeling out what the family can pay and trying to maximize his haul. But a full on market has to be avoided at all costs. Without rules to govern behavior, the theory goes, one’s very self is at risk. Identity and the soul are contingent on ordered systems.
Or so it seems to me. In writing this, I am aware of how much I’m relying on second-hand accounts, like Parry’s 20 year old book. I don’t know the language, I didn’t have a translator. I felt distant from the specific, personal narratives that I feel form the heart of my work. I found those unusually hard to get for reasons I’ll go into another time, but there’s so much happening at the ghats, I feel it’s inevitable as an outsider to misunderstand and mischaracterize it.
1. Every day I visit it seems like I’d just missed a brawl.↩
2. An important piece of context: Doms were previously known as Untouchables, the most impure of the impure. While legally caste discrimination is no longer permitted, there is a taboo around interacting with them. The aggressiveness in their negotiations is partly a reflection of the inversion of power brought about by death. The lowest caste has incredible authority in the negotiations, regardless of the status of the deceased, and it’s a chance to exact some revenge. ↩
3. The comments from Indians on the ghats labeled these scammers as drunks or drug addicts.↩