The firewalking ritual occurs on the Day of Ashura, a Sh’ia celebration. The Sh’ia population in India is a minority group, with approximately 50 million followers and is a day of mourning for the martyrdom of Hussain Ibn Ali (credits to Wikipedia).
Here are some images of Sh’ia Muslims marking the occasion around the world, the images are quite graphic but each ties back to the notion of trying to inflicting pain on oneself in order to get a sense of the pain and grief that Hussain suffered.
The tradition of fire-walking can be seen in a number of religious practices, including orthodox Christianity, Hinduism and Sh’ia Islam. This ritual draws attention to the role of religion in the novel – Ma Franci as a Christian missionary, Hindu teachings are pervasive and also Sh’ia Islam which plays a role.
Animal is quite adamant that his participation is not for religious reasons (215), but I don’t think it is entirely for the sake of preserving his honour. I think it also the notion of promises, which Elli introduces to him and he is fixated over, constantly trying to find how music (the meaning of life to Somraj) and promise (the meaning of life to Elli) intersect. At one point, as he is preparing to make the trip across, he says, “nothing is going to stop me keeping my word” (214).
In other traditions, walking on fire is considered to be a ‘rite of passage’ and so considering the positioning of this passage, just before Animal’s disappointment at being labelled “unique” by Nisha (223) this element of proving oneself is certainly at play. Does fact that he falls and does not himself complete the ritual mean that he has failed in ‘becoming human’?