The Boy Who Wrote the Constitution is essentially the text of a play that looks at landmark incidents in Babasaheb Ambedkar’s life, which paved the way for his fight against caste discrimination and inequality.
It starts with five school students, searching for a suitable personality from history for a play. The idea is to find someone who could be a great role model for children. They discuss various options and finally settle on Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, or Babasaheb Ambedkar as he came to be known. “The idea is to find things that the history class doesn't teach us,” says one of the kids.
Published by Ponytale Books, and written by UN legal affairs officer and author Rajesh Talwar, the book follows an interesting format. The dialogue between the school children, as they grapple with the extent of discrimination, makes for an insightful read. At no point in time does it feel like an adult’s point of view, and that is where the success of the book lies. The various chapters show how the children’s understanding of Ambedkar’s journey—from a school student to a champion of social freedoms for Dalits—grows.
And that is exactly what Talwar set out to do from the very beginning. “I am especially conscious that a playwright ought not to impose his personal views onto his audience,” he writes. “This is all the more important in the case of a historical play such as the present one. Although this is a children’s play, children too have their own minds, and I am sensitive to the fact that I should not try to influence their responses.”
In the play, the school students start by marvelling at how a sanyasi conferred a boon on Ambedkar’s father about how his son will go on to write a significant document. The scene changes to a classroom in a higher secondary school. It is 1900 and Ambedkar is nine years old. Talwar even mentions stage settings: in this particular chapter, it is divided into two. The first shows a teacher taking a class and in the second one, a cook is rustling up a meal for the students. In the classroom, while all the children are sitting in chairs, Ambedkar can be seen seated at the far end on a gunny sack on the floor. As students move from one end of the stage to the other part—the kitchen—one gets to know about the cook refusing food and water to Ambedkar.
This scene also introduces the reader to Masterji, the school teacher, who takes him to the classroom, gives him food and a seat. And after that, he gives Ambedkar his last name. “My last name, as you might know, is Ambedkar. Yours should have been Sakpal after your father’s last name, but he registered it in school as Ambadawekar, after the village you come from. I cannot change the rules of the school but I do have some influence in the office. I can ask them to change your last name to Ambedkar. Do you agree?” he says in the book. Together, the teacher and the student try to understand the roots of discrimination, and with that starts Ambedkar’s journey towards fighting caste inequality.
The subsequent chapters show Ambedkar, all grown up, fresh from his studies at the London School of Economics, where he was sponsored by the Maharaja of Baroda. When he comes back, he faces discrimination yet again, this time at a Parsi lodge where he goes to stay as his official accommodation is not ready. He asks two of his friends—Krishna and Edward—if he could stay at their homes in the meanwhile. Both express a prejudiced point of view, citing qualms of their cooks and family members in letting a Dalit stay in their house.
“In those five years that I stayed abroad I had forgotten that I am a Dalit. In the meanwhile, though, India has not changed at all. All the old prejudices still remain intact, just as they were before,” he says in the book. "It doesn’t matter to high caste people that I have studied overseas and have advanced qualifications. In their eyes I am still a Mahar, an untouchable.”
The five students, who are putting the script together, find these events disturbing. There is one poignant moment, when they discuss the Manusmriti, and wonder if things have changed at all after all these years. It is a question that as a society we continue to grapple with.
Most of the material used in the play is based on Ambedkar’s own revelations about the events in his life. Talwar has drawn heavily on Ambedkar’s memorable essay, Waiting for a Visa, and his authorised biography.
“I have tried to stay true to the events as they historically occurred but in the interests of creating a lively, engaging play, I have necessarily had to take a degree of artistic liberty in my portrayal of the incidents in his life,” elaborates Talwar.
He also writes about the choice of title—people might take umbrage to the fact that the Indian Constitution was not written by any one person alone. “But it is a matter of historical record that Ambedkar was the Chairman of the Drafting Committee. Babasaheb was the first to acknowledge that many other distinguished people also had a role in the drafting of the Indian Constitution. The choice of title is not intended to diminish the importance of others who played a significant role,” he writes.