"The Hindus wanted Vedas, and they sent for Vyasa, who was not a caste Hindu. The Hindus wanted an epic, and they sent for Valmiki, an untouchable. The Hindus wanted a constitution, and they have sent for me." That was B R Ambedkar at his biting best. He went on to underline an existential misfortune of India: “The greatest tragedy of the Hindi belt is that the people of that region discarded Valmiki and installed Tulsidas.”
That was his way of saying that the impact of Ramcharitmanas was negative compared to that of Ramayana. Valmiki told a human tale without propagating any selective morality. Tulsidas turned that tale into a religious text with sanitised spiritual tenets for devotees to follow. Shrewdly, Ambedkar showed why the Hindi belt was culturally different, and less tolerant, than the rest of India.
Ambedkar has become a message, as only Mahatma Gandhi has. After their passing, a difference between the two messages slowly developed. Gandhism has been largely contained within its symbolic value, while Ambedkarism has developed into a cult inspiring a growing movement for social and political advancement. The number of Ambedkar statues across India bears witness to it.
And why not, when his observations on various issues continue to strike us as unusually perceptive? Yet another collection of these comments is presented in the Navayana publication rather bafflingly titled, Ambedkar: The Attendant Details. It is a collection of reminiscences that bristle with sagacity, humour and sheer wisdom. We get a peep into many aspects of his life—his poverty, his addiction to books, his illiterate wife’s rustic ways, his Dalit admirers.“Even though I had become a barrister”, he recalls, “the thought of practising law in Bombay made me nervous. No solicitor would accept me as his junior. Finally I took up a job in a commerce college for 150 rupees per month. I faced opposition from various quarters. I gave 50 rupees to my wife for domestic expenses.”
His wife Ramabai was a product of timeless traditions. She would walk two miles with a basket of dung cakes on her head, ignoring taunts by local women that the wife of Mr Barrister was carrying dung on her head. Mr Barrister for his part described Ramabai’s unique method of financial management. “She would take 30 pieces of paper, put one and a half rupees in each and keep it tied up in a piece of cloth. She kept five rupees aside for contingencies. Come what may, she would never spend more than the contents of one paper packet in one day.”
Ambedkar got married when he was 17. But he was Ambedkar and he went on with his education. He used to tell his followers to avoid early marriage so that they could focus on education. Books were his lifelong passion. A follower counted 8,000 books in his house in 1938. When Ambedkar died 18 years later, there were 35,000 books. He would have books on the bed, on side tables near it, on the floor, on his chest as he dozed off.
There was a rush of religious suitors when Ambedkar declared his intention to leave Hinduism. The Nizam of Hyderabad offered Rs 5 crore if he and his followers embraced Islam. The authorities of the Golden Temple explained to him about the equality that prevailed in Sikhism. Christians tried a trick.
The British bishop of Bombay took the highfalutin position that there was no point in conversion without conviction. At the same time other bishops, all Britons, wooed him with promises of Jesus Christ’s blessings. Ambedkar had no difficulty in turning away from the bishops because he knew that the caste system was a reality in Christianity, too. One of the most learned men of his time, Ambedkar knew that Buddhism was the right refuge for him.
Included in the book are excerpts from a diary kept by Devi Dayal, who looked after Ambedkar’s books and sundry household tasks. The title of the diary proclaims its uniqueness: Daily Routine of Dr. Ambedkar. It tells you all about what Babasaheb ate for breakfast (toast, eggs and tea), how he carried newspapers to the dining table, marking items with a red pencil to be cut and preserved, how he could recall from memory which cutting was in which file kept in which cupboard. The Dalit feminist writer Urmila Pawar sums things up in her foreword by saying, “The more we see him in the round, the richer we become,” a point that can be made about no leader alive today.