The unseen Dom women
Within Varanasi's community of corpse-burners, the Dom women remain absent from public spaces
Khushi Chaudhary sits cross-legged with her deep-green ankle-length skirt tucked between her legs as she grinds a crayon into the ground pensively. It is recess time in school and she is sitting on the road that frames the institution’s lawns.
“I wish I was a boy," says the 13-year-old. Khushi belongs to a low-caste community of corpse-burners, called the Doms, in Varanasi. Currently in class VII, she has one more year before her parents pull her out of school. “I cannot study beyond class VIII. My parents have only one goal set for me: marriage."
Like other girls her age in her community, Khushi wakes up at the crack of dawn. She braids her shoulder-length hair into a tight plait and busies herself in helping her mother light the fire and prepare breakfast for the family. Her father sleeps on a wooden bed that occupies half of their small 9x9ft home. Her three brothers sleep on the floor. While the boys are allowed to sleep in, Khushi kneads the dough to roll out chapattis to be cooked on a griddle. The kitchen is a makeshift room on the terrace, which is also where Khushi and her mother sleep.
She cleans the utensils before getting ready for school. Her classes begin at 8am and end at noon. When she returns home, she quickly washes her face and fills water in a bucket, which she will throw across the floor of the house and clean with a bristled broom.
In the city of Varanasi, the Doms are a poor community that by tradition are bound socially and professionally to burn the dead. The men work at Manikarnika ghat and Harishchandra ghat—two of the city’s open cremation grounds. The former is considered to be the holiest, and an important cremation ground for devout Hindus. At the age of 12, the community’s boys are trained to lay the corpses on wooden pyres and set them alight using a long bamboo stick. Amidst rows of decomposing bodies, burning pyres and insufferable heat, the Dom men work for hours at a stretch. They numb their senses by drinking copious amounts of alcohol and smoking cheap ganja. In this community, the men are the breadwinners. While they are at liberty to roam the streets, their women remain out of sight, confined within the walls of their home.
In the winding alleys of Meer ghat where Khushi lives, young men stroll with their chests out. As she and I negotiate our way through the streets, dusk settles in and amid the shrill cries of the cicadas, a group of men slip out their beedis and huddle in a corner to play cards. Wafts of ganja lace the air. “The men drink, smoke and chew tobacco—no one says anything to them," says Khushi, fidgeting with her dupatta as we walk. A frown rests on her forehead. “The younger ones—boys my age, like my brothers—don’t have to do any work. My older brother (in his early 20s) helps my father burn bodies at the ghat, but my younger brothers come back from school, sleep and in the evenings run about flying kites or loiter around on the streets, while I sit at home and chop vegetables for dinner." Her voice trails off as a handful of Dom boys march past us, punching their fists in the air and chanting the name of a local party representative. The local civic polls are coming up and party representatives have gathered the Dom children to participate in a mini-parade. Khushi sighs. “See, these boys have nothing to do," she scoffs. “It’s easy for them to go wayward. Nobody cares."
Meer ghat is a patchwork of houses made of clay and mud, painted in colours of pista green, yellow and powder blue. Most Dom families live in small, poorly lit, one-bedroom homes. Cows block the passageways; domesticated goats scurry about in home-knit sweaters. Children bolt from one corner of the street to another, expressing shyness and curiosity in equal measure; some linger behind you as a watchful presence, others break out in a chorus of “hello!" followed by ecstatic hand-waving. At Meer ghat, nothing is static—there is life in every corner, at every turn.
Khushi introduces me to her neighbour, 27-year-old Simple Chaudhary, who invites me into her home. Her eldest daughter, 10, opens a metal trunk and pulls out a bedsheet which she spreads on the floor. When Simple settles down beside me, she immediately sends her daughter off to buy tea from a stall.
Over the course of my visits to the community, I’ve learnt that offering tea is not only a sign of hospitality for the Doms, but a gesture carrying deep undercurrents. It is the community’s way of levelling the power dynamics that exist between them and other castes. A visitor’s willingness to drink tea from their cup indicates the former’s ability to look at Doms as equals.
Simple’s face is sunken and her hair is tied loosely in a low bun. She pulls out a paan from a tin box and places it in her mouth before she begins to speak. “The moment a girl reaches puberty, she is forbidden to step out of her home alone without a male relative. It’s the only way a young woman will be protected from the sexual overtures of men," she says, as she pulls the sari pallu over her head. “If married women walk alone in the neighbourhood by themselves, people call them ‘loose’."
Simple is a widow who wishes she were educated and allowed to earn. She lost her husband in an accident a few months ago. Hours after her husband’s final rites were performed, her in-laws threw her out of their home, with her five children (two girls, three boys) in tow. “I am forced to live at my parents’ home," she says. “I never paid attention in school because I knew I would get married and then my husband would look after me. Now I don’t know what to do, because I’m not educated and neither does this community allow women to work."
Centuries of tradition dictate that women must depend on their husbands. Their financial, social and personal identity is inextricably linked to the man they are wedded to. Women are not allowed to work since a working woman would imply that her man is “incapable" of earning. Not only would that undermine his manhood, it would upend the conservative patriarchal order. In addition, by not letting women work, their “purity" is kept intact; it is ensured that they cannot interact with men other than their husbands.
But what happens to the widows?
“The Dom community is tightly knit and the Chaudharys marry within their caste—inter-familial marriages are a norm. It is also permitted for young widows to remarry," says Meena Kaushik, author of the research paper “The Symbolic Representation Of Death", over the phone. She has extensively researched the community, particularly their rituals of death. “It is done to prevent the financial strain from falling on the woman. In fact, when a husband dies, within a few days, there is a ceremony where the woman is given coloured glass bangles to indicate that she can remarry. So, from that point of view, the community is quite progressive. But while women can marry again, they don’t really have the authority to choose who they can get married to. That decision rests with their fathers or brothers."
“I can’t remarry though," Simple says, holding her newborn in her lap. “I have five children. Will my new husband care about them or his own?"
Dom women have never stepped out of their homes to find work. But Simple is desperate. “My brother is supporting us right now, but he has his own wife and children to take care of. For how long can he feed six extra mouths? I want to work, but other communities refuse to give me a job. They cringe at the sound of my surname."
In Varanasi, all Doms are Chaudharys, and are considered to be “untouchable" because their community is associated with the burning of the dead. Due to the nature of their work, they are socially relegated to the lower caste. “It’s a struggle finding a job—I have approached houses for cleaning utensils, washing clothes or cleaning the house. So far, no one has been willing to give me a job, except the one which involves cleaning the latrine."
Simple’s neighbour, 27-year-old Chandramukhi, who had peeked inside her home out of curiosity a few minutes ago, comes in and sits next to her. Chandramukhi is taller than the women in her community and carries a remarkable air of self-assurance. Her neatly parted hair is covered with her sari’s pallu, and when she walks, her payals (anklets) announce her arrival.
“Even if we don’t tell our surnames, people figure out who we are," she offers voluntarily. “It’s the way we talk, the way we walk, our dialect, our body language—even the way we wear our veil. Moreover, our community women eat a lot of paan"; she leans forward and smiles widely, pushing her chin upwards to show her rust-coloured teeth. “The moment they see our teeth, they say, ‘Oh, you’re the Chaudhary women from the ghats, aren’t you?’" Chandramukhi says animatedly, putting her hands on her waist. “And we say, ‘Yes, of course!’ What’s the point in denying it? And as soon as we say that, people ask us to step aside. We have the same blood running through us, didi. But caste is caste."
Also Read: A day in the life of a corpse-burner
Even if Simple does manage to get a job, she might be ridiculed by those in her community. “Our kind does not respect women who work," says Chandramukhi. “She is immediately labelled as a prostitute or a ‘loose’ woman. To us, the very idea of a woman who earns is inconceivable. You know, the moment a woman steps out of her house alone, people begin to talk and rumours surface: ‘Why must she go out? Why is she working? Does she have no self-respect? The only reason a woman works with unknown men is because she sells herself.’ These are a few things people think," she says, counting the reasons off her finger. “If we even forget to wear a dupatta before we go out, people think we have a poor moral character."
She momentarily pauses and notices that I am not wearing one. Then, almost under her breath, she says, “If we didn’t know you, we’d say the same thing about you."
While the women have no authority, they are, however, deeply entrenched in the community’s informal information system. “The women know a lot in terms of what is happening. Whether it is how much money their husbands are making, whose turn it is to burn bodies according to the paari system, or the internal Dom politics—they are pretty well-informed," says Kaushik. Paari is a rota system, where each Dom is hired (by wealthier Doms, referred to as maaliks) to work at the ghat for a certain number of weeks.
When it comes to their community, the women are repositories of knowledge. Although they aren’t allowed to attend funerals (not a single Dom woman has ever stepped on to the cremation ground), “they know the entire step-wise process of rites to be performed", says Kaushik. Dom women are not permitted to attend marriages, unless it is a really close relative’s wedding, like a brother or an uncle. And if they attend a wedding, they must go with their husband. They cannot go with their maternal family. But even though the women rarely attend such celebrations, “they know everything from how the rishta (match) was made, to what rituals are performed in a traditional Dom wedding", says Kaushik.
When she was 17, Chandramukhi’s parents wedded her to a man she had never met. Within the first few months, her mother-in-law began creating problems. “Five years ago, when I was pregnant, she began beating me up ruthlessly. I lost my child. My husband wanted to leave me earlier and having a child was a responsibility he never wanted. My in-laws forcibly put a hot coal in my mouth. They tried to break my bones. Eventually, I ran away from home."
A few weeks later, Chandramukhi’s husband divorced her and married another woman.
Chandramukhi, however, continues to put sindoor (vermilion), wear bangles and bichhua (toe rings)—symbols of marriage. When I ask her why she still colours her forehead, she seems to be caught off-guard. Simple interrupts our conversation, “Arre, he is alive, so how can she not wear it?" she asks. “My heart knows he is alive," Chandramukhi explains defensively. “In the eyes of god, I am still his wife. I will mark my forehead till the day he dies," she says. “Our community doesn’t believe in divorce, didi. Just by imprinting your thumb on a few court papers, you cannot undo a marriage. We have been married in a temple, in front of god. He has witnessed our wedding. In his eyes, I am still married to my husband. Nah," she clicks her tongue. “We don’t believe in paper divorce."
Chandramukhi then leans forward and places her palm on my shoulder. “But I do pray to god to take my husband away, so that I can smear off this maathey ka kalank (blot on my forehead). I want to live the life of a widow, which is far more peaceful than the life of a married woman."
This is the second of a three-part series on the Dom community in Varanasi. The writer is a Sanskriti Prabha Dutt Fellow 2017 and this piece was produced as part of the fellowship.
The writer tweets at @radhika_iy