Finding the whole in each part: April at Navayana

Finding the whole
in each part

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April 2017
Dear Reader

Says Tuka
We are here
To reveal.
We do not waste
Words.

So, without lining up reasons and excuses for our silence, we’ll first tell you why we are back with a newsletter after four months. We have a rather special book which, we’d like to believe, has been worth the wait of six months (since our last one came out in October 2016). April being Dalit History Month, we are delighted to offer you Ambedkar: The Attendant Details, an attempt at intimacy with B.R. Ambedkar in his hours away from history and headlines. Twenty-one writers—dalit and nondalit, Marathi and Punjabi, American and Tamil, Bengali and Hindi—who had the fortune of seeing Ambedkar in the flesh, and found the words for the mark he left on them, have been gathered here with care and love. The formal biographies we have had so far of him have focused on his politics and public life. Here, we have his attendants, admirers and companions speak of Ambedkar’s love of the sherwani, kurta, lungi, and dhoti and even his sudden paean to elasticated underpants. We meet Ambedkar the lover of dogs and outsized fountain pens, proponent of sex education and contraception, anti-prohibitionist teetotaler and occasional cook.

There are many beautiful moments here. When Shantabai Kamble, all of ten in 1932, joins other young women to wave a lamp to welcome Babasaheb before he is to give a speech, she says:

I welcomed him with the lamps and filled my eyes with his image.
I gazed at him for a long time.
I never saw him again.

In an earlier time, Bhakti poets spoke in an almost similar vein of their beloved god:

Says Tuka
I am the pool
Of growing feeling
Pandurang above
Is reflected in me

We often run into Ambedkar goading his people to give up demeaning tasks such as stripping carcasses and eating the flesh of dead cattle, and to stop worshipping the gods revered by Bhakti poet-saints such as Namdeo, Jnaneshvar, Chokhamela, Tukaram—poets dear to them, in many ways to Ambedkar too. Babytai Kamble, in her account, records a speech she heard the slayer of gods give: ‘Generations after generations have been burnt out by the wilderness but not missed their visit to the deity. Today you too have borne these conditions and have come to meet Khandoba. Did he meet you?’

Shantabai, and Daya Pawar too, recall his exhortations: ‘Do not eat the flesh of dead animals… Do not drag the dead animals….’ Shantabai then notes how women pointed at Babasaheb, saying, ‘Why do you worship stone gods? See, he is our god incarnate.’

Take a sip:
Says Tuka—
Drink your fill
I have found
The spring.

We are indeed fortunate to have two pioneers of the genre of dalit autobiography, Urmila Pawar and Bama, respond with warmth and grace to Navayana’s invitation to reflect upon these narratives. Pawar writes in her Foreword: ‘One cannot express sufficient appreciation nor can one be grateful enough for this book.’ She cites the Jaina credo of anekanatavada to suggest that in this book we will find the whole in each part.


Bama in her Introduction says: ‘When I get to read the accounts of those who lived with him, assisted him, those who saw him in the flesh and got to know him, those who had the fortune of listening to him speak and saw him eat, I swell with pride…. we get to know about the rather ordinary pleasures this extraordinary dalit enjoyed.’

Urmila Pawar lauding Navayana for its role over the years in paying splendid tributes to Ambedkar is perhaps the most cherished compliment we have received—for it is from Ambedkar’s work and life that we take our founding inspiration. But the greater thanks for a book such as this is owed to the many men and women who have recorded the impress of this man of parts on not just their consciousness, but their very being and existence. The book is enriched by twenty-five photographs from the archive of Vijay Surwade of Mumbai.

For this delightful volume, we also owe thanks to Salim Yusufji, the new editor at Navayana. A former schoolteacher, Salim landed the job following our call last December that said beef-eaters would be shown a bias. His first assignment was putting together this reader, which he chose to loosely model on Episodes in the Life of Akbar edited by Shireen Moosvi for the National Book Trust.

Rest assured, from hereon we hope to reach your ears more regularly.

Ambedkar: The Attendant Details can be ordered right away and exclusively from our website, and will be despatched by 14 April (which, if you read this book to the last, you realise may not necessarily be Ambedkar’s date of birth). For the lamplight of Tuka’s words, we have Dilip Chitre (also translator of Namdeo Dhasal) to thank.

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In these dark times, we decided to say cheers to Hoshang Merchant, who was in town, to do a poetry reading at our office over some rum and chips on 17 March, a Friday evening. Among our living Sufis, this medieval modernist read beautifully from My Sunset Marriage, casting a spell on the audience of some thirty people. One of them, the writer Parvati Sharma, realised in retrospect that it had been ‘her last pre-Yogi evening’, and since she ‘couldn’t stop thinking of Hoshang reading his poems and of the way he read them’ she came up with this lovely poem for him overnight.

On meeting a poet

He had a kind of nervous laugh
and a long beard,
the kind you are supposed to have
when you’re a poet.

He made me, for no reason,
not ashamed to drink excessively,
not ashamed to have my happiness unpeel;
he made me let a poem whirl, a kiss
that might astound me with its very
thrill, its nervous novelty.

He had (of course)
that twinkle in his eye,
the kind you are supposed to have
when you’re a poet.

He made me, for no reason,
think, what do I know of twinkles,
what do I know (or you) of what
goes into wrinkled eyes?
What belly laughs, what tragedies?

I met a poet in a room
all quiet save the sound of him
reciting poetry.

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