To go somewhere. To do something.
“It is like this, didi”, says Priyanka, when I bring forth my nth ‘why’ (a sort of ineffectual why-spoon to excavate the layers of her 17-year-old life: Why did you leave school? Why did you not take the class IX exam? Why did you not perform in the play you had rehearsed for?), “it is like this. The boys, they can go everywhere and do anything. We – she means girls – can go nowhere and do nothing”.
The enormity of Priyanka’s “we can go nowhere” is, remarkably, even more overwhelming than that of the average Indian girl – if there is such a person – and her carefully regulated and circumscribed movements. It slowly takes shape as we sit chatting in a communal space outside her house, as her female relatives and neighbours add their narratives and the area social workers pour in their own thoughts and experiences. It emerges, honed, sharp, perfected and piercing in the Mind Boggling Case of the Invisible Dom Queen.
Priyanka’s community – the Dom – is a small, localized community in Varanasi, performing a very specialised service. They are the ones who ritually light the cremation fire for the bodies of dead Hindus who are brought to the sacred ghats (river banks) of the Ganga in Varanasi. They are “in charge” of the cremation. But they occupy a strange ‘necessary-evil’ kind of space in the local imagination. They must initiate the burning, but being so closely associated with corpses, they are stigmatized in a Hindu society defined by purity-pollution paradigms. In a hierarchical caste system that is cruel to the ‘lower castes’, they are supposed to be the worst off – outside the pale of caste. They are considered ‘untouchables’. The Doms have a ‘king’– the Dom Raja – a hereditary leader who monopolises and redistributes their cremation earnings. Once the Dom kings’ wife, an unlettered middle-aged lady, was invited by some social workers to come out of her house and join their classes; maybe she could learn to write her name? Her relative answered, “She has only come into the front room of this house three times or so in her entire life. How will she come out of the house?”. How indeed?
A haunting question which, however, Priyanka and her friends are trying to negotiate in whatever way comes naturally to them. Mostly with a smile. The negotiation involves crossing literal and metaphoric boundaries that are practically oceanic, it seems to me, given that Priyanka is not supposed to visit even the lane that is two lanes away from hers. The Doms only marry within the community (as do nearly all traditional caste-oriented people in India). If Priyanka can be married into a household in a particular lane then she must not visit there or be seen by any potential in-laws, especially male ones. These norms seem mildly relaxed for pre-pubescent girls, which may explain why girls like her go to school till around classes V to VII and then tend to drop out. An adolescent girl should ideally not be seen and a young married woman must keep her face entirely covered.
Feisty Bandevi and Priyanka (smiling behind her) in their much loved sewing class
Priyanka and I are sitting about a three-minute walk from the Ganga. From those famous ghats of Banaras where travellers come from all over the world to sit, gaze, photograph, paint… the river’s serene majestic presence. Right now, in this humid oppressiveness of August, it would be lovely to spend time in the river breeze. But it seems unthinkable for Priyanka and me to go off for a stroll on our own, to sit and chat at those ghats. And the monsoon winds blowing in from the river bring mostly cremation smoke and soot into her world. “This is nothing”, she laughs, as my eyes water. In heavy monsoon, when the river swells up and the ghats are flooded, cremations are often held right in the adjacent lane.
So this really would have been Priyanka’s entire world (but it is not, as we shall see) as it is the world of most of the women she knows – this tiny lane, with communal sitting in the lane itself. This tiny world made of the human, the animal and the crematory in almost equal parts. As she talks to me, Priyanka is surrounded intermittently by women – her mother, aunts, sisters-in-law, a grandmother…. Several goats run in and out of our congregation, as do a few mongooses, rodents and a monkey, while a cow stays tethered near by. Cremation smoke is a constant and partly used cremation logs are brought in for cooking – it’s free fuel. Kerosene or gas stoves are not the norm here. Priyanka wakes up every day at five, helps in the cleaning, cooking and other chores, and the women spend the entire day chatting with other women of the lane or sleeping and lately watching TV. One of the chores is getting water for all purposes from a hand pump in the adjoining lane; the taps here don’t deliver much water. But. “If a cremation is taking place in the lane with the hand pump”, says Priyanka’s mother, “and I am thirsty, I have to bear it till a boy passes by and I can ask him to get me water”.
Why am I not surprised that each of these women consume up to 25 mildly intoxicating tobacco-filled paans in a day? Their menfolk are near-constantly drunk. It is seen not so much as social/personal evil as an occupational necessity. “They drink all the time”; “They say they can’t survive without it”; “The work is so tough, the heat is so harsh”. The work consists of giving fire to the pyre, breaking the skull, staying with the burning corpse, gathering body parts that fall off, sifting any personal valuables or utility items from the ashes and from the Ganges in which the ashes are ritually immersed, collecting and selling bones, figuring out what to do with half-burnt bodies when the relatives can’t afford wood for a proper cremation…. The deadening that all this necessitates comes from day-long intoxication which is so par for the course that even children start off on their tobacco-paans fairly early in life.
The fact is, gender discrimination being what it is, Priyanka and her ilk hardly stand too many chances of self-fulfilment and advancement when even her brothers are unable to conceive of alternative life possibilities. All her male relatives hang about the cremation area waiting for their turn to officiate (the community has to ensure that every family gets its turn). A brother runs a small shop close by – and he too sells cremation related objects and ritual materials such as shrouds, incense, garlands, ghee…. The boys go to school till a point but whenever their labour and earning capacity is needed by the family, studies fall by the wayside. “How do you study on an empty stomach”, asks my 17-year-old, worldly-wise philosopher. Without requisite education, it’s difficult for the boys to get jobs or access training and other schemes. If they turn to other informal employment their caste comes in the way. A boy recently lost his job as a shop assistant because a customer refused to drink the water he served, since he knew the boy was a Dom.
“When I was a child there was a dai (nanny) in our school who was a Brahmin. She had been there long and she was very influential. She used to tell other children not to sit with us, not to play with us. The teacher was not so bad…”. That there should ideally have been no question of the teacher being casteist at all doesn’t quite seem a possibility in her choice of words. Priyanka went to school till class VII. Why she dropped out is a bit vague. The school offered classes only till class VIII. This was the only government school that was close enough. It had to be a government school because of their affordable nominal fees. Priyanka’s friend and companion-in-arms Bandevi is more clear about why she had to stop studying around the same time as Priyanka. “I used to go in a group of girls. Then the others got married. So, of course, I couldn’t go by myself.
At 17, Priyanka got married, rather late by the prevalent Dom norms it would seem. She is shyly giggly about questions regarding her husband and future life. The feisty Bandevi has “escaped” so far – “Who wants to get married? Life gets ruined after marriage. Can’t do a thing”, she says. But Priyanka has accepted her marriage as one accepts the natural order of things. “If there’s a likely groom and if they have some money, parents marry off their girls at any age – 7, 10, 12…” What does her groom do? He goes of to work in far away Daman. Priyanka can’t quite conceive how far Daman is. The Varanasi Cantonment area, some five kilometers away, is far enough in her life (“I couldn’t go for those classes because Cantt is so far away, obviously they wouldn’t let me go.’) After marriage? Well, we will live with my parents-in-law and I’ll have to cover my face and do what they say. If my husband and I start living separately, we can have a little more autonomy. Of course, I would like to earn my own money, stand on my own feet, do something with my life. Of course I will try to educate my children better.
It is easy to underestimate the importance of this articulation, these ‘of-course-desires’. But it would be a mistake. I can’t imagine asking Priyanka’s mother or even her sister-in-law, something like, what do you want from life, what do you hope for from the future? Life is these lanes, this gossip, these drunk menfolk, this cremation smoke. The future is these lanes, this gossip, these drunk menfolk, this cremation smoke. (A job for my son, is the only answer that elliptically floats up once, and that because I am a seemingly influential visitor from powerful Delhi, I seem to be in a position of doling out patronage). But Priyanka has made it possible for me to ask her this question. And has made it possible for herself to not be fazed by it. And has been able to articulate an answer to it.
Half-used cremation wood brought for cooking at home
So, from where have the seeds of these answers come? Seven years of formal schooling, help and inspiration of activists from a local NGO who have been patiently working with her community, the lack of any fierce resistance from her own father and family, some English-speaking classes, some sewing classes and a basic computer course. This is how that nebulous ephemeral thing called change comes about, in the mind of a girl who is able to giggle and say, “On Sunday there is no computer class, English class, or sewing”. We don’t like Sundays. Boring”.
What do you like most among the things that you do? The English-speaking classes she says. Both Priyanka and Bandevi have homed in on the advantages of spoken English with clarity – “in today’s world you must know English”. She shows me her book. ‘They teach through ‘translation’ ” – she uses the correct English word a bit self-consciously but, it seems to me, with a little pride too. The book contains simple-to-complex sentences in Hindi with their translation into English. The fees of Rs 600 per month would have made this course an impossibility for Priyanka – that she learns English is nobody’s priority and definitely not at such a cost – but the activists are helping fund this. In her own turn, Priyanka tries to teach the youngsters in her colony informally, with the help of charts and the attractions of copies and pencils.
The 4-month computer course is an offering for underprivileged caste groups from the District Urban Development Authority; it’s a vocational scheme. So today, the first among the girls of her community has learnt to handle a computer, switch it on, figure out a mouse and keyboard, and though ‘Microsoft’ is yet an alien word and concept, she has learnt to draw digitally. “You can make things with a pencil and rub them out with an eraser” she says shyly. She can attend these classes because she had an escort in her brother who attends as well.
Priyanka has even taken part in a theatre workshop and rehearsed for a play that tried to communicate to the world what exactly the Doms do. A step-by-step guide to the cremation process in the hope that understanding will bring humanity closer. And an attempt to address some basic problems a step-at-a-time: let little children not be involved in cremation processes, let them not be involved in procuring alcohol, let them go to school. She was only allowed to attend rehearsals after the NGO workers promised to escort her to and fro, bring her back by an appointed hour and ensure her safety. There was the time when she was late returning (they came back at 6.30 pm instead of 5.30!) and her father refused to let her continue. And finally, there was the fact that, having performed in a space away from the ghats, she could not actually perform publicly in the ghat area itself. “My father-in-law was to be there, so I couldn’t…”.
But it is still a couple of years till the father-in-law and his world turns into Priyanka’s concrete everyday reality. She is married but the ritual called gauna, with which the bride shifts to her husband’s home, has been fixed for a two years later, primarily after some gentle persuasion from the activists. This pleases her. Unselfconscious, unaware of her potential as a role model among the girls of her community, uneasy with notions of very radical change, what Priyanka (and friends) look forward to is a 2-hour sewing class everyday. ‘How can we have friends”, Bandevi had asked earlier, “they may come to our house but we can’t go to theirs’ and we cant’ go to have fun with them anywhere else either”. But the sewing class is a space of friendship, laughter and learning something practical that may actually help them earn later. It is close by and a group of girls makes its way there daily.
Away from her family and kinship space, Priyanka’s articulation becomes a shade less vague. “You have done so much” she says to the NGO activist, barely two years older than herself. “But among our community, we girls can keep thinking, thinking, thinking, till we die. Nothing much happens”. But she is laughing as she says this. She is young and strong and her life lies ahead. And for now, there’s two hours of teasing, banter and gossip to look forward to. She quickens her step with the other girls, merging her giggles with theirs’, all of them moving on like a flock of happy mynahs.