In one of his rare moments of public introspection, B.R. Ambedkar wrote to the readers of his periodical Janata about how far he had come in his life, and how unbelievable it all seemed.
When I left Hindustan in 1913 to go to America, I was an unknown Untouchable student going for higher studies. Obviously, apart from my family-members, there was no one in Mumbai’s wharf to bid me farewell. I completed my education, and returned in 1917. Then too I was not a publicly known person …. I stayed on for around three and a half years. In that period, I had some contacts with people [outside the family]. Because of my education, I got some recognition. But it was of a very ordinary kind. Therefore, when I again left Hindustan in 1920, and returned with additional knowledge and degrees, no one paid any attention. But the last three–four times, my departure and arrival has acquired such great public importance! I do not at all think I am worthy of the immense love given to me by my people. I am beginning to think that this is a play of what is said to be fate or God, and my otherwise individual, unimportant and unpoetic life has taken a turn, and acquired importance by predestination. (Janata, 14 September 1931)
—from A Part Apart, p. 412
Baba arrives once again to much fanfare. But none would be baffled by the pomp. The influence of his work on each citizen’s life is unambiguous. This Dalit History Month has seen a slew of books on Ambedkar. The crowning glory of this flurry is Ashok Gopal’s mammoth A Part Apart: The Life and Thought of B.R. Ambedkar. On 14 April 2023, Bhim Jayanti, we gathered at New Delhi’s India International Centre for the launch of this book. Author Ashok Gopal was in conversation with Prof Ratan Lal of Delhi University, parliamentarian and writer Jairam Ramesh, and teacher and writer Vijeta Kumar.
The session began with an invocation to Begumpura, sung by Navayana’s Anand. Vijeta, who moderated the session, then spoke of the significance of biographies, especially for young Dalit Bahujan students, who contend with their identities in new and hostile environments as they set off on their intellectual journeys. The parallels they can draw from Ambedkar’s life in the struggles one faces as a student out of joint in schools and college campuses are bracing. His strength becomes ours. Vijeta commended Ashok for drawing out the humanity of a man who is often shrouded in iconography—the thought of Ambedkar spending time skating or playing the violin or loafing about as a child draws us closer to him.
Ashok Gopal, who lived in Pune all his life, talked of the city’s Brahmin dominance. He studied history at Savitribai Phule Pune University, and worked as a journalist for decades, and yet Ambedkar never figured as consequential in all this time. Not in the university, not in civil circles. It was only around 2003, when Ashok began reading Dalit Marathi writers that he was forced to contend with the oppressiveness and ubiquity of caste. He was overwhelmed by their stories, and had to reckon with Ambedkar’s life and thoughts. There was no other choice.
Jairam Ramesh then observed how India had produced so few biographies: most of such writing tended to be hagiographic. He lauded Ashok’s rigour, and commended him for bringing out the complexities of Ambedkar’s character. Ramesh lauded A Part Apart for being the first book to tell the story of the Poona Pact in its totality. The book was also, he said, one of the best discussions of the gravity and weight of Ambedkar’s Buddhism.
Ratan Lal was impressed by Ashok’s ease at combining simple prose and scrupulous history-writing. A Part Apart achieves something extraordinary: bringing out the multidimensional and oft-misunderstood character of Ambedkar without diminishing the wide sweep of his politics, he said. While talking about how he came to write the book, Ashok lamented the gaps and inadequacies in existing books on Ambedkar, especially the complete absence of primary and secondary sources in Marathi. He credited much of the book to the tireless work of unsung, unknown, and unfunded Dalit archivists. Since the media of the time did not consider Ambedkar as a subject to photograph, Ashok has Vijay Surwade among others to thank for the various photographs in the book.
Vijeta Kumar then spoke of how several people go their entire lives without thinking at all—an idea she picked up from the writer Julio Cortázar. Reading Ambedkar was a way of disavowing such an existence.
The evening ended with us pondering these words:
घन घन बरसे प्रेम का चुआ
छायी है अब बेग़म्पुरा
बूँद बूँद में भीम है भरा
बूँद बूँद में जय भीम है भरा
ghan ghan barse prem ka chua
chaayi hai ab Begumpura
boond boond mein Bhim hai bhara
boond boond mein Jai Bhim hai bhara
The sweet song of the rain of love
The City of Begumpura, here and now
The City of No Sorrow is no dream
In each drop, the ocean Bhim
Say Bhim, say Jai Bhim, just Bhim
Watch the entire session on the Ambedkarnama YouTube Channel: