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The other Dr Ambedkar

Translated from Marathi to English for the first time, Savita Ambedkar’s memoir documents her life with Bhimrao Ambedkar and dives into the controversies that surrounded her after his death

B.R. Ambedkar and Savita during the Dhamma Diksha ceremony in Nagpur on 14 October 1956 (Wikimedia)

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“This autobiography is the baring of my heart,” writes Savita Ambedkar in Babasaheb: My Life With Dr Ambedkar, a memoir translated from the Marathi original, Dr Ambedkaraanchya Sahavaasaat, by Nadeem Khan and published by Penguin Random House India this month. Ambedkar’s life and work have been studied by scholars in India and abroad quite thoroughly, yet it is strange that this important book, a primary resource on the life of one of the most influential Indians of the last century, remained largely inaccessible to those who did not read Marathi. Even within the Dalit community and among Marathi readers, the book, published in 1990, has remained somewhat obscure.

“I am not an Ambedkar scholar,” says Khan, who retired as director (western region) of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), Amravati, Maharashtra, a few years ago and has translated several Marathi works, including the stirring Panipat by Vishwas Patil, into English. “But I was astounded to know that the book remained untranslated for so many years since its publication.” The 72-year-old, who lives in Amravati, says he learnt about the book from a friend.

His interest piqued, he met Vijay Surwade, 64, a well-known collector of letters, books, notes and photographs related to Ambedkar’s life, and the co-author of Savita’s book. “My sense is that Surwade, who met Savita Ambedkar when he was a young student and supported her through a difficult time when she was trying to reclaim her standing among the Dalit leadership, interviewed her over many sessions, documented her thoughts and then organised the material along with letters and references from other books,” says Khan. “As such, I would not say that the book has great literary merit, but it gains importance when you consider the subject of the book and the relationship between him and the person narrating it,” says Khan.

“Maisaheb”, as Savita Ambedkar is often referred to by Ambedkarites, came into the leader’s life in 1947, at a time when he was in a period of intellectual ferment as the chairman of the drafting committee of newly independent India’s Constitution, and was being drawn towards Buddhism. It was also a time when he was increasingly unwell. “When I entered Dr Ambedkar’s life, he was suffering from diabetes, neuritis, rheumatism, high blood pressure and several other ailments,” writes Savita in her memoir.

They first met at the house of a mutual acquaintance, referred to as Dr Rao, an economist and a scholar who was also Savita’s neighbour in Mumbai’s Parle neighbourhood. Savita was a practising doctor at the time, working with her medical mentor, Dr Malvankar, at his clinic on Hughes Road. Soon, Ambedkar started consulting the latter professionally; he would meet Savita regularly and started enjoying talking to her as an intellectual equal.

It is, however, a bit jarring to modern sensibilities to observe, at this point in Savita’s narrative, that she first offered herself to Ambedkar, who had been a single and lonely man since his wife Ramabai’s death in 1935, as a glorified nurse. “Doctor Saheb, I am pained to hear of your domestic situation. Your health is in a delicate state, and it is absolutely necessary to treat it. Along with the treatment, it is equally important to observe dietary discipline. If it helps, I am quite willing to live with you for two or three months and take care of you. That is to say, once you get into the routine and get habituated to it, there won’t be any obstacles to your continuing further with your treatment,” Savitarecords herself as saying at that point.

Although Ambedkar rejected the idea outright as an inappropriate one, it evidently took hold—a few months down the line, he proposed to her in a letter, writing: “‘I am beginning my search for a wife with you, that is, of course, if you are agreeable to it. Think about it and let me know. Considering the difference in age between you and me, and also considering the state of my health, if you turn down my proposal, I shall not be offended at all.” He was 56, she was 38.

They were married in 1948 and Savita was his companion—an intellectual one and not just a measurer of medicine—till his death in 1956.

That the book is an attempt by Savita to reclaim her narrative, given the kind of vilification she faced following his death, is obvious and undeniable. After Ambedkar’s death, the former Maisaheb becamea reviled figure in some quarters of Dalit leadership. Even the fact that she came from a Saraswat Brahmin community— though her father was a known progressive who had adopted the surname of “Kabir” for his entire family and supported the intercaste marriages of four of his children— went against her.

She speculates that this could have been born out of a sense of resentment when she started managing Ambedkar’s schedule after their marriage. “The handling of his daily schedule sometimes made it inevitable that some leaders and workers were denied the opportunity of meeting him. It was quite possible that some of them got upset, but I really had no choice except to suffer their resentment,” she writes.

Coupled with the internalised misogyny of Indian society, with its deeply ingrained suspicion of capable, intelligent women, it is not difficult to imagine that this could indeed have been the case—that a drawing of necessary boundaries, which often falls to women because men, even great men, will not do it, is seen as a personal attack.

The aura of suspicion around Savita reached such a fever pitch that there were whispers of her having somehow physically harmed Ambedkar and hastened his death—in fact, the idea gained such currency that the government set up an inquiry into his death, and even after then Union home minister Govind Ballabh Pant declared in Parliament that it was due to natural causes, a miasma of negativity continued to surround Savita.

Babasaheb—My Life With Dr Ambedkar: By Savita Ambedkar, translated from the Marathi by Nadeem Khan, 368 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599.
Babasaheb—My Life With Dr Ambedkar: By Savita Ambedkar, translated from the Marathi by Nadeem Khan, 368 pages, 599.

It was with the aim of telling her story, then, that she started work on this book; there is no attempt to hide this. “The accusation raised against me began from the point of claiming that I was not even a doctor. By wilfully creating doubts about Dr Ambedkar’s death, objections and despicable accusations were raised against me…. This autobiography is the baring of my heart,” she writes. She adds, however, that “the purpose hasn’t merely been to present my side, but it has also been to capture in words the Dr Ambedkar that I got to experience through living with him…”. It is in these chapters, in the letters between “Sharu” (an affectionate contraction of Savita’s given name, Sharada, by Ambedkar) and “Raja” (what she started calling him), that they become more than characters who played a huge role in shaping our country— they can be seen as ordinary mortals with their own desires, petty quarrels, misunderstandings and reconciliations.

In the nine years of their relationship, Savita internalised the emotional sense of “Atta Hi Attano Naatho” (one’s refuge is within oneself)—words from the Dhammapada, apparently said by Gautama Buddha to his wife Yashodhara. “Isn’t, then, my role in Dr Ambedkar’s life like that of Yashodhara?” she asks.

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