This graphic biography offers incidents in the life of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. The story is by Srividya Natarajan and S.Anand, and the art by Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam. I pounced on it, attracted as much by the beautiful cover as its theme.
The incidents described in this book are ones specific to Ambedkar’s experiences of rejection and humiliation because he was 'Untouchable', and his subsequent work in developing awareness among others of the community. The historic march on Chavadar tank in 1927 in Mahad, for instance, was a peaceful move in which Ambedkar led three thousand Dalits from nearby villages to drink water from the village tank, a full four years after the Bombay Legislative Council decreed that Untouchables should be allowed to use all public water bodies, wells, roads, and schools built and run with public funds. Why is this event not taught as part of history in schools; why is it not a part of public memory? I only knew of it from Narendra Jadhav’s poignant memoir about his parents, Outcaste. But I had no idea that Ambedkar had faced terrible discrimination not just from upper-caste Hindus but from other communities too – even Parsis! It didn’t matter that he had studied and practiced law in England, and had returned to India after earning a doctorate after four years in Columbia University. He was from an Untouchable family, so was prevented from drinking water (else it would be polluted for other castes), and could not find a place to live in because no one wanted him anywhere near.
This book also uses newspaper clippings from recent times to show that though urban middle-class Indians might imagine caste discrimination to be a thing of ancient history – it is still very much a part of life in India.
With such an emotional subject, it’s not easy to present facts in an objective way and I admire the way this book does so. However, though I loved the quality of its art I found it a bit too lavish. This made it difficult for me to just look at a page and admire its beauty; instead I found myself making an effort to look closely at the details.