Ravi Chaudhary is 15 years old. He spends almost all his time at the Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi. He picks the shrouds off dead bodies and sells them for a few rupees. Thats how he earns a few hundreds a month,and thats what feeds his family. In the last five years,he says he has cremated over a thousand bodies.
Rajesh S Jalas excellent documentary Children Of The Pyre,out for the first time this week in India,tracks Rajesh and his gang as they go about their gory business among the burning ghats along the Ganga. The sacred fire is not allowed to be doused. Its been here,they say,from eternity. If you burn your dead here,they will go straight to heaven. But the ancient belief and its practice has pushed the lives of Rajesh and his fellow shroud-pickers into a living hell. Like the dead,they burn.
Laash aati hai,khatam ho jaati hai, says a very young shroud-picker who looks,impossibly,still like a child. Yeh toh murda jalane ki factory hai. The children sleep right there. We see them on the ground,much like the bodies they service. They smoke dope,to tune out the acrid smoke that permanently wreathes them. They never seem to eat: at least we dont see them doing it in the film. Wheres the scope of appetite with the sights and sounds of the mass funeral filling your soul?
What we do see is rows and rows of bodies,with legs and heads sticking out from pyres. Family members sometimes want the boys to make sure that they burn right,by poking a stick into the chita. Its enough to drive anyone insane,and the good cheer and resilience that Jala catches is amazing. He follows them to a late-night nautanki with a girl gyrating to Beedi jalai le on a make-shift stage right above the ghats: the irony is inescapable.
One of the boys sings,not very accurately,the national anthem to mark Independence Day,and you wonder at the children and their lives: freedom to do what,to be what? Last year,Jala began working with the help of an NGO to educate the boys,to get them out of themselves. A worthy step.