Dear Babasaheb, you have uplifted our lives, which can never be laudable without your mention… You are in our every breath, but in our long journeys, we forget to recollect the moments when each one of us first met you. Today I want to go back to see the time when we first met.
I was in fifth standard then. Our municipal corporation had organised a program to pay homage to Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar on the 6th of December. This program was followed by a drawing competition and the subject given was “Life of Babasaheb”. The venue of the competition was Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Research Centre. Run by the Municipal Corporation, it had a library and photos of Babasaheb kept for display. This was one of the least known centres at that time.
When I happened to read about this competition, I got very excited, most of all with the prize list. The first prize was 501 Rupees, the second 301, and the third, 101. There was a good reason for me to get excited about the prize money. Since that year, our school timings had changed and we were to attend a morning shift between 7:00 AM and 2:30 PM. Children in morning shift school were considered elder and were called dada or taai (elder brother or elder sister). I thought, “Oh yes! Now I have grown up.” I had very few friends in the school. My best friend belonged to a Brahmin priest family, and they had a huge temple in Aurangabad as their family business. She would get pocket money regularly every month; she always had money to buy everything she wanted. I never felt the need to get pocket money as I felt I had everything I wanted.
But yes, I was in desperate need to have that Prize money.
Since the school timing was from 7am, I would wake up early in the morning. Going to school in winters was the bit I hated the most. I had only one sweater to keep myself warm, and every day, the class teacher would say, “Pradnya, ask your mother to buy at least 2 sweaters for you, aren’t you bored wearing the same sweater every day?” She would sometimes even say, “Wearing the same sweater daily makes it dirty and smelly. You should change it at least on alternate days. If you stink, I will not let anyone sit next to you”. This, despite me telling her that my mother washed it every other day. Her annoyance with my sweater often resulted in her caning me. All my fantastic ideas of joining 5th standard were shattered. I was even hesitant to share this with my parents as I thought that simply because of my teacher’s remarks I should not bother my parents and make them waste their money by buying me a new sweater. But the everyday fear of facing the teacher would not go away. So, it was for this particular reason – to buy a sweater – that I decided to participate in the competition. I secured the second prize, and winning rupees 301 was like a long awaited dream-come–true. With this money, I decided to buy a cheap sweater from the Tibetan woollen market which used to be there only during winters. But I couldn’t hold on to the secrecy of my intention and plan. Something was making me worried: what will happen when my mother comes to know about this new sweater? I felt like I was cheating my parents. As was the practice at that time, my parents were also there for the prize distribution. The announcer called up my name saying, mine was a wonderful work. I had made a painting of one of the very important incidents of Babasaheb’s life – the Pune Karar (Puna Pact). Well, at that age, I was not capable of understanding what it meant but thought of drawing it as this particular incident where he spoke with Gandhi was portrayed as a victory of Babasaheb in the Marathi movies about him. In my drawing, I showed Babasaheb sitting on a chair wearing a blue suit while Gandhi sat on the ground near Babsaheb’s feet, Gandhi’s team wearing torn cloths. I wanted to reflect the dislike for Gandhi in some way. The first prize was given to a person who drew about Mahad Satyagraha and third prize for Babasaheb’s Conversion to Buddhism.
After the program, we came out of the hall and my father saw that I was a little upset. At that time, he didn’t ask me anything, but as we reached home he did ask about what happened to me and if there was anything to be unhappy about. I refused to tell him anything and told him nothing was the matter.. I was unable to sleep that night thinking about whether I should really spend the money buying a new sweater or not. Should I tell my parents and see if they have something to say? How else to save the money from being wasted by buying new sweater? How was I to face the teacher next day without a new sweater??
I kept that prize money near the TV. Even after three or four days, no one asked me why the money was still there. I used to get very disturbed whenever I saw that. Finally one day, my father said to me jokingly, “It’s fine if you don’t want this money. I can take it, right?” The moment he said that, I became furious and replied “No you can’t! I need it.” So he asked, then why it still stayed near the TV untouched. “I replied that I haven’t yet decided what to do with the money, and until I decide on something, to please let it be there.” After that there was no mention of the money. I was getting very burdened with the thought of that money.
One day, when I went to school, my teacher asked me not to enter the classroom. She made me stand outside for almost two and half hours until the recess. She came out and started shouting at me, saying that the whole class was unhygienic because of me, and that I should immediately go home, change my sweater and come to school! She also said things like “Doesn’t your mother care about you?”, “You people are so dirty!,” “Go change it or leave this school and go to some other ZP (Zilla Parishad) school.” This shook me to the core, and I took my bag and left the school. I was furious that she had called my mother careless. How dare she call my mother careless? And say I was dirty?
I was simultaneously crying and cursing my helplessness. When I reached home, I broke down in front of my father and told him to come with me to the sweater market and buy me a new sweater. I grabbed my prize money amount and waited quietly outside our home for him to come with me. He was clueless, wondering what was going on. He came and asked me what happened, but instead of answering, I only insisted that he either come along, and if not, I will manage to go by myself. He tried really hard to make me speak about the incident at school, and finally, after much coaxing and cajoling, I shared with him everything that had happened at the school. In a very calm manner, he started talking to me, and said I should have shared this before. Further, he asked me, “Do you know about Babasaheb?” This was the first question from him about Babasaheb, and I, in a very firm tone, answered, “Yes, of course, I know Babasaheb! Is this even a question? And what is the relation between this incident and Babasaheb? Why are you wasting time? We should hurry, and go to buy new sweater…” I was still impatient.
He then asked, “What do you see in Babasaheb? Who is he for you? What did he do?”
My answer was, “He is our God. We have only two Gods: Babasaheb and Buddha. Babasaheb is the male god and Buddha, the female god. They did so much for the society.” For at least half my life, I had considered Buddha as a woman, an impression I had looking at his long hair, his hands, fingers, and most importantly the Chivar he wore which in my mind, was a saree.
My father laughed a lot, and corrected me for the first time ever.
“There is nothing like considering them Male and Female, God or Goddess. Neither of them were Gods. Neither Babasaheb, nor Buddha. Buddha was not a woman, he was a man but not God.”
I asked, “Then why do we have their photos at home? If they are not Gods, who are they? Surely, they are not our relatives because our neighbours also have their photos? Our neighbours are not our relatives. Then how can we all have photos of the same people?”
“They are our leaders and according to their teachings, we should lead our lives. We should not worship them but read what they thought for us, our people and try to live our life accordingly.” Further, he explained, “Babasaheb was a great Man, who was born in an untouchable caste, like us. Ours is considered an untouchable caste. He was the most learned person amongst our people, someone who struggled for the whole of his life for the dignity of his people, and also showed them the way in which they should be dealing with their lives because our people face lot of discrimination due to the lower caste status from the upper castes and the Brahmins. They have created a system to brand us dirty, deprive us from education and economic stability and force us to live a miserable life. But Babasaheb fought and fought to take us out from the gutter of casteism, he gave a message to our people to organise, educate and agitate… He sacrificed his life for our people and we should not let him down.”
After listening to him, I became silent. I was trying to store in my memory all that I had just listened. Words like Jaat-Jatiwad (Caste-Casteism), dignity, and discrimination sounded very new when their meanings were revealed to me. Suddenly I said “Baba, I don’t want to buy a new sweater”. “But why? I am now ready and we can indeed go to market,” he said.
“No, I don’t want to buy a new sweater just because my teacher thought that I am dirty. Why should I abide by her order? And I know she is a Brahmin. Just as Babasaheb did, I will not bow down before her.”
“How do you know that she is a Brahmin?” my father was curious.
“Oh, because she wears a Mangalsutra. Aai (mother) doesn’t wear one. And in the class after giving us writing work, she reads Ganpatistotra, and she allows no one to touch that book – that means she practices untouchability. Right, Baba?”
He smiled and said “Gradually, you will understand, but you should never compromise upon your dignity.”
This was my first conversation with my father about the idols I considered to be my Gods without knowing the reasons behind it. Though this was not a very shocking out-of-the-world experience, I learnt from this to inculcate the habit of questioning. I also regretted that I allowed myself to go through such emotions. I wondered why it never occurred to me to ask about the photos I saw every day and every moment in my home. Had I asked about those images, I wouldn’t have borne the teacher’s insult as I did. This was how I met Babasaheb for the first time.
Every household in a Dalit Vasti has a story to tell. Every household is much attached with Babasaheb. My father never knew his real date of birth and could barely remember the year of his birth. As my grandmother would tell, my father was born in the last month of the year. When she was about to deliver the child, there was no one at the house. My grandfather had gone to Mumbai along with many others for Babasaheb’s last procession after he passed away. She remembered this because that was a day when every house was in mourning, in deep grief. Someone had told her that our leader had passed away. She had felt the heart-break of people in the whole Vasti; everyone was mourning in their own way, some were crying aloud while some stood stunned, they wanted to see their leader alive! That day and time was really dreadful. My grandfather set out, without letting anyone know about his journey, from Aurangabad to Babasaheb’s funeral in Mumbai. He returned after almost one and a half month as he had no money left to buy return tickets. He came back in a goods carrier truck.
I studied in Milind College, Babasaheb’s very own educational institution – People’s Education Society’s colleges in Nagsenwana. Here I met friends coming from far interior parts of almost every region of Maharashtra. Many friends came to study in this college for the sole reason that it was touched by Babasaheb’s feet, because one of their parents had studied here, because they feel Babasaheb here, because it has a memory of Babasaheb throwing bricks on people who would try to touch his feet. Because it gave teachers who used to never allow their students to call Babasaheb as Dr. Ambedkar, and instead taught them to address him only as “Babasaheb”, saying we are far behind to address him as Dr. Ambedkar. We should only call him Babasaheb with respect.
Babasaheb, there are myriad reasons to be grateful to you – for the life you offered us, for the vision you showed us, for the image you gave us, for the dignified past you created for us. We are striving and shall strive till the last breath of our life to fulfil your dreams… We are keeping our heads high, Babasaheb!
Pradnya Jadhav is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.