Death Pollution

Casteism & Death Pollution in India

My two remaining grandparents passed away this past September. Within a fortnight of each other. They had been married for 60 years, not necessarily because they reached developed country grandparent age but because child marriage was rampant in my grandmother’s generation. This was by no means my first brush with death. But this was my first experience of death and the rituals that follow in India (previous grandparent losses were processed and mourned over phone across continents). And it was a lot.

I have come across the phrase “death pollution rites observed” in anthropological archives and sociology research papers before. I had a vague sense of it being linked to caste — associated “pollution of purity” notions (that IMO are one nucleus of a lot of despair and inequality in India). But experiencing the drama firsthand was something else.

First, the rules.

Note that this was a Bengali household and I’m sure there is variation across social groups and regions but here goes.

  1. For 10 days after a family member dies, the rest of the family will mostly remain restricted to their household.
  2. Everything you wear during those 10 days must be discarded.
  3. You do not go close to temples etc. during those 10 days because you are polluted..
  4. Interestingly, these rules did not apply to me since I’m married and “do not belong to my family anymore”. This caused some confusion. I attended Dussehra festivities as a lone ranger because my parents were ostracized. Some neighbors couldn’t resist asking me if my 10 days were up and what I was doing there. Some asked me to not touch anything around the temple area. Till someone brought up that I am an outsider via marriage so I shouldn’t be harassed.
  5. During those 10 days, immediate family members can only eat porridge, boiled veggies and fruits..
  6. These diet restrictions following my grandfather’s death resulted in my already ailing grandmother developing hyponatremia, getting hospitalized, and passing away 12 days later. FYI, she was the staunchest gatekeeper of these very rules.
  7. My father was expected to place a little square cloth before he sat on any surface since he was “polluted”

… and the list goes on. I’m sure I have forgotten many. This was the lite version of rules we ended up observing.

Now, how did it feel to go through this week of “polluted” living?

Absolutely absurd. When we’d step out of our apartment for walks, people would look at us as if we were exotic animals. Relatives, who typically don’t call you, will call to ask what you’re eating and what you’re following (mostly checking on whether you’re following the rules or not). Everyone involved knew how absurd every single rule was and grew tired of my questioning. To me, this whole operation was a stunning display of unabashed caste-ism. It is the same thinking that causes ostracization of sub-castes whose “traditional occupation” is working at cremation grounds. It is the same obsession with “pollution” that results in a society where generation after generation, a group of people are expected to manually clean and empty toilet pits. This was my first experience where people refused my family members entry on grounds of “purity”.

The whole experience was deeply disturbing. But it doesn’t even scratch the surface of what Dalit communities have gone through in our country. The next time I come across the phrase “death pollution rites”, it will hit differently. Social structures are rigid. It will take a lifetime to understand how and why they on one hand, persist for generations, and on the other, get upturned overnight.

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