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Learning survival mode early at Manikarnika Ghat

A new book, Fire on the Ganges, offers a glimpse into the everyday realities of young boys from the Dom community in Varanasi

Getting injured at Manikarnika Ghat is not uncommon. While on the job, the children accidentally cut their foot on a shard of glass, unknowingly step on a nail, or on hot ash freshly spewed by the surrounding pyres. Photo: GETTY Images
Getting injured at Manikarnika Ghat is not uncommon. While on the job, the children accidentally cut their foot on a shard of glass, unknowingly step on a nail, or on hot ash freshly spewed by the surrounding pyres. Photo: GETTY Images

Lakshaya believes that his childhood memories are of little value. There is a keenness in him to rearrange his life around the present rather than bury his head in the past.

He shrugs. ‘What is there to tell?

When he was seven years old, his father pushed his small body out through the doorway and told him to go work at the ghats.

The house was drowning in a financial crisis; it was all hands on deck. Lakshaya has been in survival mode ever since.

At Manikarnika Ghat, he befriended other boys, like Aakash, who picked shrouds wearing faded shorts and half-buttoned shirts. Profanities galloped on their tongues. Each time a new swear word was learnt, it was used at the end of every sentence with great relish. The heat was crippling and the humidity left their scalps prickly.

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The children learnt the value of money very early on. ‘Sometimes, I burned corpses too, just to make some extra cash,’ Lakshaya says. ‘Initially, it all felt good. Suddenly, I was earning and it helped pass the time.’ Lakshaya worked tirelessly, just to hear the clink of the coins in his shorts’ pockets at the close of the day. ‘As I grew older, though, I realized that the job was terrible. We were constantly at the receiving end of abuse and beatings from other men who worked at the ghat.’

Shroud-picking is an acquired skill. Lakshaya and the other children had to be swift on their feet and deft with their fingers. If slow, they were sometimes caught by older men who would try to snatch the shroud, engaging them in a tug of war. The boys’ small bodies would betray their sense of strength, and they would hit the ground hard, often scraping their thighs.

Once, Lakshaya watched Aakash, who was ten or eleven at the time, steal a shroud that lay on the ground. Aakash waited patiently, looking for the perfect window to lunge. Suddenly, he leapt towards the shroud, grabbed it and darted in the other direction. His slippers slapped against the ground; his ashen hair rose and fell in sync with his scamper.

A few men began running behind him. One of them yelled, ‘Catch him!’

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Aakash steered intuitively, jumping over dogs lazing in the sun. The men hastily circled around him. Before he knew it, Aakash had run straight into them. A thick-armed man caught hold of him, pulled him by the collar and pinned him against a brick wall. Then he dragged Aakash to the riverfront, lifted his small body and threatened to throw him into the river.

The boy screamed, ‘Arre, arre, don’t! Don’t you dare!’

Soon, the commotion intensified. People began to gather around them. When the man realized that there were too many eyes on him, he lowered Aakash to the ground. Before walking away, he wagged his fat finger and grunted, ‘Don’t keep doing this shit, boy, I’m telling you.’

Aakash caught his breath before running off to meet Lakshaya and the other boys, who had watched the events unfold from a distance. A smirk lingered at the side of Aakash’s lips. He pulled back his shoulders to broaden his narrow chest. He felt victorious. Lakshaya glanced at Aakash’s feet and noticed that they were covered in patchy burns. He must have accidentally burned himself while running too close to a lit pyre. Before Lakshaya could draw his attention, Aakash had already picked up a few stray marigold petals from the ground, squashed them and spread the ochre paste on his wounds.

Getting injured at Manikarnika Ghat is not uncommon. While on the job, the children would accidentally cut their foot on a shard of glass, unknowingly step on a nail, or on hot ash freshly spewed by the surrounding pyres. Since they could not afford to consult doctors, they alleviated the pain with marigold paste; they learnt this on the job. Sometimes, if they were lucky, their mothers would soak pieces of cloth in warm kerosene oil and dab them on their burns.

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Aakash placed his hands on his waist and spat on the ground. He had watched the older men at work do so and thought it exhibited manliness. ‘So, what now? What’s next?’ he asked, acting as though nothing had happened. Even if he had been petrified of the man who had nearly thrown him into the water, Aakash did not show it. He wanted everyone to know that he was fearless. Sometimes this fearlessness transformed into arrogance.

‘Aakash was a bit of an asshole,’ says Lakshaya, sitting cross- legged on the floor of his home. ‘When we were young, the other kids and I were all smaller in size, so he would bash us up. The kind of work we did and the filth we worked in, these fights were inevitable.’

Lakshaya pauses a moment to assess the room and then changes the subject. ‘Now things have changed. I don’t do that kind of work anymore. Never will. Plus, when you have a girlfriend, your expenses rise exponentially. You have to up your game,’ he says with a dry laugh.

Initially, Lakshaya struggled to find better-paying employment. One of his first jobs after leaving his shroud-picking life was spotting excited tourists with plump wallets who were waiting to be ferried across the Ganges. One of his friends from the Mallah caste (a community of boatmen) put him on the job.

Every evening, Dashashwamedh Ghat comes alive during the Ganga aarti, a religious performance that is a famous tourist attraction. After attending the aarti, tourists often want to explore the waters at night. Lakshaya recalls the magical experience of the boat pulling away from the dock and sinuously cutting across the river’s smooth back. He would row the boat farther and farther away from the bank, until the riverfront, lit by tungsten lamps, became a thick, glittering band of light. Above, the sky was a heavy canopy of darkness. ‘We would row from Harishchandra Ghat to Manikarnika Ghat,’ he says. ‘And my friends and I would tell the tourists about each spot.’

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Lakshaya worked with a group of ten to fifteen boys. Each boat had two or three kids assigned to it. At the end of the day, the collected earnings were divided and Lakshaya would pocket 200–300. In 2019, working as a tour guide, he is shin- deep in the business of religious tourism, and is making three, occasionally four, times that amount. Through an established, sinewy network of a-friend-who-knows-a-friend, Lakshaya has worked his way up. He has formed ‘settings’ with drivers who ‘work at hotels in the city’s cantonment area’.

He explains, ‘They bring the tourists to me, and I take them sightseeing to the auspicious spots in the city. Ganga aarti, the ghats, the temples and so on.’ Lakshaya chaperones his clients to the Kashi Vishwanath temple—the city’s religious centre for Hindus—where he introduces them to a ‘Brahmin’ at the temple who assists them with the darshan. During our interaction, Lakshaya used Brahmin interchangeably with ‘pundit’—a priest—which underscores how deeply caste is embedded in the religious lexicon.

In a day, he earns about 900–1,200. ‘Sometimes, if my clients are generous, they give a big tip. Those are the good days. Those days I can earn almost three to four thousand rupees,’ he says.

Lakshaya is saving the money to fund his wedding in the future and eventually open a sari shop.

Excerpted with permission from Fire on the Ganges: Life Among The Dead in Banaras, authored by Radhika Iyengar and published by HarperCollins India

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