Published: 07th June 2017
BR Ambedkar Diwas: Read this book about how Ambedkar continues to help GenX decipher caste
Dalit literature has always been perceived as staid and idly revolutionary. What Babasaheb Ambedkar Means to Me is different because it is written by young Dalits who studied with you and me
It may be 2017, but even today Dalit literature is often considered to be for revolutionaries and is very often not associated with the young.
What Babasaheb Ambedkar Means to Me is a book that has been carefully written, edited and scripted by writers, students and Dalit intellectuals who are mostly aged 24-32 and the result is a book that has created a storm online.
Reflecting on the fact that Ambedkar realised early on that even an education wouldn't stop the caste system and had once said that he didn't deem it his responsibility to educate 'people' about it either, the book talks about how he wanted the Dalits to be aware of their rights, to be educated, come together and fight against oppression on their own.
Which is why, even though things continue to be grave in 2017, there are a few things that have changed - for one we have lived to see a day where several Dalits embrace this ''ídentity'' that society thrusts upon them.
Through this book, we are now at a juncture in history where young Dalits want to revisit their history, want to document it, want to speak about the oppression they face, write about oppression their ancestors faced and they want their names to be stamped against these works.
We have lived to see a day where a book like 'What Babasaheb Ambedkar means to me" not only sees the light of day but sees a 1000 downloads in two days and finds its place not just in Dalit homes but non-Dalit ones too.
Book for all ages
'What Babasaheb Ambedkar means to me' is the second book that The Shared Mirror is publishing, the last one being Amazon's best seller 'Hatred in the Belly''. The Shared Mirror promotes Dalit-Bahujan literature and writers and aims to further the anti-caste discourse. The latest book, released on the 126th birth anniversary of the revolutionary leader, is a compilation of almost 30 articles on the authors' first or most memorable tryst with Ambedkar, on how he leaves a mark on their everyday lives and how he pushes them to break barriers and emerge victors.
One might assume that all the writers are Dalit but that is untrue with this book, as it also includes narrations of how Babasaheb had managed to ''unblind'' the upper caste writers of this book and get them involved in the movement against oppression
The average age of the writers in this book is between 24-32 with a few exceptions, while many of the authors are writers, poets and academics who have pursued or are pursuing research on caste for their PhDs, there are a few writers who are engineers and IT professionals as well. One might assume that all the writers are Dalit but that is untrue with this book, as it also includes narrations of how Babasaheb had managed to ''unblind'' the upper caste writers of this book and get them involved in the movement against oppression.
Keeping it light, yet insightful
What stands out about the book is that there is no heavyweight theory or statistics or philosophy, these are stories written from the heart which is why it inevitably touches the reader's heart too.
In the very first essay, Swathi Kamble speaks about meeting Babasaheb for the first time when she was still in her mother's womb because of those around her who would keep up the oral tradition of spreading their beloved Ambedkar's words. She speaks about her early memories of the community coming together to celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti, about how 'her' people did not have the right to drink from the public water facilities, about growing up learning that caste was not restricted to the country and how she dreams of a day when there will be "'thousands of Ambedkars" who strive towards becoming the essence of him!
The variety of experiences, thoughts, and memories that people associated with Babasaheb was extraordinary! There was hardly any uniformity - several strands of Babasaheb’s thoughts and facets of his personality drew people to him! This was when we started thinking of compiling these as a book – to document how, at this point, Babasaheb lived among people. We did not pick and choose for the book – every article received was included in the compilation. No article was rejected – there was obviously, no right and wrong article.
Sruthi Herbert, Editor, What Babasaheb Ambedkar Means to Me
She recently submitted her doctoral thesis at SOAS, University of London and teaches undergraduate students there. She is also a co-editor at SAVARI.
'They made her feel like she lacked merit'
Survee Nayak, in her essay, talks about how her school taught the students about the "ancient system of caste", that lead to a discussion among her friends about what caste they all hail from. While some proudly said they were Brahmin or Kshatriya, Nayak talks about how she feared hatred and ridicule from her friends if she revealed her caste. She also talks about how despite clearing exams with high scores, she was always made to feel she lacked 'merit'.
Similar to what was reported in Tamil Nadu in April about how police in Ramanathapuram denied people the right to celebrate Ambedkar Jayanthi, the book also narrates the stories of two villages, Washim and Hingoli in Maharashtra that was not allowed to observe the day. The stories are authored by Rahi Gaikwad, a journalist and speak about how repeated petitions for permission go unheard in the villages and even the slightest evidence of celebration gets the villagers beaten and stoned. Pradnya Jadhav in her article about Bhimgeete (songs about Ambedkar), writes lovingly about how Bhimgeete is sung during the birth of a child so they grow up to be just like him and at funerals too to bring the community together.
When clothes maketh a student, or not
In her story on how she went from believing that she had no caste and lived in a casteless world to becoming "painfully aware" of what role caste played in her own world, Gouri Patwardhan speaks about the wide difference in her upper caste world to the lower caste one. She makes a poignant point about how just travelling from the Western part of Pune to the Eastern part of Pune (geographical caste-lines dividing Savarna and Bahujan Pune) seemed to increase with time and make her aware of the gap between the two worlds.
In one of Jadhav's other stories, she recalls how as a little girl, a Brahmin school teacher would always taunt her for wearing the same sweater to school every day and refused to let her into class one day for the same. When a frustrated Jadhav demanded that her father buy her new sweater from the money she had collected, her father told her about their caste and Ambedkar's ideals, which was when she realised that when her teacher said she was "unhygienic", she meant untouchable.
In one of Jadhav's other stories, she recalls how as a little girl, a Brahmin school teacher would always taunt her for wearing the same sweater to school every day and refused to let her into class one day for the same
In Akhil Kang's account, he speaks of how he has always been made to feel guilty for getting what he has because of his caste and how all his achievements were always attributed to the fact that he had a reservation, irrespective of whether he availed it or not. He even talks about how it was easier to "come out" about his sexuality than it is for him to "come out" about his caste. Some of the essays also revolve around how others perceive the Dalits who apparently "don't look like Dalits" and how because they don't look like Dalits, they are "scamming" away government funds or misusing their reservation.
The fight isn't in here. It's out there
In all these stories, the writers reveal a part of themselves that not many want to see, they voice their thoughts about issues no one wants to hear and they talk about their love for Ambedkar, a man shunned by millions for having the courage to be one of the first few voices to speak up for the rights of the Dalits. But the book doesn't attempt to fight against these millions, it doesn't want to struggle its way into the lives of those who intend on remaining blind to caste. What it does is, remain in your subconsciousness for a long, long time and whether or not you know or have read Ambedkar, you end up feeling like you know him better. Even though these are accounts of what other people think about him, you still feel like these are probably the few accounts that will remain etched in one's understanding of Ambedkar. After all he continues to be the people's leader and like one of the writers in their stories said, "Babasaheb's people have held him in their hearts with high regards without expecting him to die and appear in any textbooks." And so, he lives on.
On why the book is free to download?
We were born on the internet, the only space which gave us a voice, a platform that could be created without many men, material or money and our writers and readers were also born on the internet. So it was a natural choice to aim to reach more people and do it faster, as we also have some more books in the offing. Print is long, laborious and not so friendly to new publishers, especially those with no access to conventional capital and distribution channels.We'll go for print eventually, but online publishing enables us to give back to the community we come from originally. So it is natural that we should do this more often. Yes, there's a hurry to bring out all the voices which are sprouting pretty much every day.
- Naren Bedide (Kuffir), Publisher of What Babasaheb Ambedkar Means to Me and one of the founders of Round Table India, a forum for marginalised communities to write and connect.