"You have not cared to inquire into my past," BR Ambedkar wrote to his fiancée Sharda Kabir in 1948. "But it will be available to you at any time in the pages of many Marathi magazines." Thus, in a terse statement, the towering leader of the untouchables dismissed his private preoccupations, almost like an afterthought, and put a premium on the recorded instances of his biography in the public domain. What we read of him, in the papers and in other sources, Ambedkar seems to be saying, is who he is.
The image of Ambedkar that persists in popular memory is a composite one — that of a visionary who dared re-imagine the destiny of the oppressed; a revolutionary thinker who defied every obstacle in his path to get the best scholarly education for himself; a tireless fighter for social justice who transformed the accident of his birth and circumstances into an ideology of empowerment. But the spectacle of history, with its tall mementos to heroism and sacrifice, often tends to obscure the human details — all the flaws and fears that even the bravest among us can't escape.
In Ambedkar: The Attendant Details (Navayana, ₹295), editor Salim Yusufji employs a rare combination of scholarship and sensitivity to paint a portrait of the mass leader as a man who was as vulnerable and bitter as anyone else, though, of course, redeemed by the extraordinary genius and fortitude that made him who he is. The organisation of the material, as Yusufji explains, aspires to the form of a "photographic album", in which Ambedkar is resurrected, bit by bit, through the reminiscences of all those who knew him, either from a distance or intimately.
As the "ephemera of his life" keep flowing in, Ambedkar steps out of the aura of sainthood bestowed on him by history — revealing blind spots, prejudices, a mercurial temper and often fragile humanity. As flashes of his Maharashtrian pride surface from time to time or he hits his secretary for being unable to find a book or a paper, he descends from the pedestal history has put him on to venture among the wretched of the earth. Every story about him, apocryphal or recorded, is intensely moving and powerful, no matter how seemingly insignificant the details.
The adulation Ambedkar got from the poor was extraordinary. On a visit to Nagpur in 1942, for instance, a group of "women in tattered saris" accosted him with garlands of marigold. They had sold extra bundles of firewood and grass to be able to afford their modest gifts. An emotional Ambedkar recounted to them his own early years, spent in need and misery, promising to do his utmost to uplift the lives of their children. "If I cannot do this, I will take my own life with a gun," he said.
'For so long we have cleared the dirt, now let the one creates the dirt learn to clean it.'
His message to the lower castes, however, was one of unequivocal rebellion among the ranks. Ambedkar urged them to not do the menial tasks they did (and continue to do in some parts of India even decades after him) for a paltry sum. "Stop eating the flesh of dead cattle to quiet the fire in your stomach. Stop cleaning the dirt of the village," he thundered at them. "For so long we have cleared the dirt, now let the one creates the dirt learn to clean it."
Such anecdotes abound in this collection, narrated by Ambedkar's accomplices and acquaintances, or by those who knew him only at a remove. Acclaimed Dalit writers Urmila Pawar and Bama, who write the Preface and the Introduction respectively, remember the moment of Babasaheb's death and its aftermath. In another essay, writer Mulk Raj Anand remembers Ambedkar telling him about his preference for the Buddhist greeting Om Mani Padmaye ("May the lotuses awake") over namaskar, with its casteist Hindu connotations.
As the book progresses, the focus gets closer on Ambedkar's person — his habits and indulgences, weakness for books and dogs, cheeky humour and singleminded commitment to his cause come through. Particularly absorbing is Ambedkar's editor UR Rao's remembrance of their dynamics during the publication of his books. From rewriting the blurb of Thoughts on Pakistan, or the Partition of India to advising Babasaheb on which new books to buy, Rao was one of the fortunate few to have known the fastidious leader and his expensive tastes from close quarters.
Always impeccably dressed in Western attire in stark contrast to other national leaders who usually donned swadeshi clothes, Ambedkar advocated spending half of one's salary on buying books. By the end of his life, he could have made several lakh rupees by selling his collection, but instead, chose to donate the entire holdings to the college he had helped establish in Bombay.
Ambedkar advocated spending half of one's salary on buying books
Kartar Singh 'Polonius' recalled being told by Ambedkar about the three books that made him weep — Life of Tolstoy, which he also recommended to his fiancée Sharda Kabir during their courtship as an example of the portrait of an unhappy marriage; Victor Hugo's Les Miserables; and Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd. No less was Ambedkar's enthusiasm for newspapers, which he read every day thoroughly and filed away stories from in folders over the decades.
The richness of these accounts is supplemented by an essay by Ambedkar that concludes the collection. 'Waiting for a Visa' was the closest he came to writing directly about his life, going back to the trials of growing up as a Mahar in rural Maharashtra. In a singularly heartrending episode, Ambedkar describes a journey he undertook with his siblings to meet their father, only to be refused shelter and water by most along the way for their untouchable caste. Much later in life, after several years of education in England and America where he felt no discrimination due to his caste, when he returned to India with a PhD from Columbia University, he was suddenly, and shockingly, reminded of his pariah status. He failed to rent lodgings with anyone in Baroda, where he was employed in the service of the Maharaja. Eventually, he stayed at a Parsi inn on false pretences for a few days, but was discovered and hounded out. Even his friends, who, like him, had the advantage of a foreign education, refused to offer him refuge for fear of inciting a mutiny among their household staff.
The potency of this volume derives not only from the intimate portrait of the national leader it draws but also from his resonance in contemporary India, which remains ambivalent towards Ambedkar's legacy. On the one hand, political parties from across the spectrum co-opt him as a symbol of their democratic and egalitarian credentials, while, on the other hand, reports of atrocities against Dalits keep flowing into the news cycle. The persistence of such abominations, as Ambedkar had presciently said, would not fade for at least another century.
In a country where students commit suicide for being discriminated on the basis of their caste, a man is lynched on the suspicion of eating forbidden meat and Dalits refuse to remove the carcass of dead animals after being assaulted for doing their duties, this revisiting of Ambedkar's thoughts provides a much-needed reality check — especially so for being articulated either by him or by those who knew his philosophy well.
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