We should take inspiration from Dr Ambedkar, the reader, as a way to both understand the world and to transform it.
BURIED in Volume 12 of the collected works of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar is a fragment which, according to the editor, was in “the handwriting of Dr Ambedkar” simply titled ‘Frustration’. The unfinished note is a poignant reflection on the feeling of hopelessness about the situation of the ‘Untouchables.’
As Babasaheb puts it, “[t]he Untouchables are the weariest, most loathed and the most miserable people that history can witness. They are a spent and sacrificed people.” He says that the frustration experienced by the Untouchables is “frustration forever”, “unrelieved by space or time”.
According to Babasaheb, the situation of the Untouchables stands in “strange contrast” to that of the Jews in Biblical times. He begins to outline how the Jews overcame their captivity in Egypt at the hands of the Pharaoh and went to Canaan. He mentions how the Jews survived a second calamity, namely, the Babylonian captivity. However, as the editor notes, there are some pages missing and the argument is not fully fleshed out.
The point of the contrast, however, seems to be to indicate that the Jews were able to overcome the calamities which faced them. Babasaheb interprets the Jews’ “reliance on God” as what American essayist, lecturer, philosopher, abolitionist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson would have described as “a plus condition of mind and body”which gives them the power and courage to overcome their adversaries. “God, if nothing else, is at least a source of power” and in particular “mental power”, which is “necessary for success”.
Is Babasaheb pointing to a way out of frustration? Do we read the references to Shelley, Arnold, Emerson and the Old Testament as an invocation of literature’s ability to immeasurably broaden the horizon of possibility?
The Untouchables have no Emersonian ‘plus condition of body and mind’ and “they have nothing in their dull drab deadening past for a hope of a rise in the future to feed upon.” This he attributes to the “unpropitious social environment born out of the Hindu Social Order which is so deadly inimical to their progress.”
Babasaheb gives another valence to the meaning of frustration by invoking English poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold, who says that “life consists in the effort to affirm one’s own essence” and the “failure to affirm one’s own essence is simply another name for frustration”, as it results in the “withering of one’s faculties” and the “stunting of one’s personality”.
He also invokes the English romantic poet P.B. Shelley’s poem titled ‘To the Moon’ to describe the situation of the Untouchables. The Untouchables are:
“…[P]ale for weariness of climbing heaven,
and gazing on earth,
Among the stars that have a different birth…”
How does one read this poignant and allusive fragment? Is it a plain and simple expression of individual and collective frustration “unrelieved by space or time”? Or is Babasaheb pointing to a way out of frustration? Do we read the references to Shelley, Arnold, Emerson and the Old Testament as an invocation of literature’s ability to immeasurably broaden the horizon of possibility?
One reading of the fragment is that Babasaheb is indicating that a way to break through collective frustration is by broadening intellectual horizons beyond the immediate condition in which the Dalits find themselves. When your horizon is bound by the quotidian reality of your experience, then ‘frustration’ is the inevitable result. If the history of the Dalits seems to be nothing but a “dull, drab, deadening past”, then one should draw upon other subaltern histories as well as resources from philosophy and literature to enable one to look at that history differently. It is in this sense that Shelley, Emerson and Arnold spoke to Babasaheb.
For Emerson, creative reading is as important as creative writing: “When the mind is braced by labour and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion.” Thus, the Emersonian call is for a reader to read themself into a book and let the book speak to their circumstances.
When Babasaheb quotes Emerson, it leads us, the readers, to question as to how one can generate a ‘plus condition of body and mind’ from the Dalit perspective. Or to take up Arnold’s thinking, how does one ‘affirm one’s own essence’ in a caste society? How does one begin to value the integrity of the human person within a social order that devalues one’s very humanity?
It is the task of activism to cultivate an imagination which (like Babasaheb’s poignant invocation of Shelley) like the moon, climbs to the heavens and gazes on Earth, even if it has to wander“companionless, among the stars that have a different birth”? Is Babasaheb’s evocation of Shelley gesturing to the power of literature to imaginatively transform human life, thereby enabling us to truly grasp and comprehend it? The allusion to ‘stars that have a different birth’, reminds one of the tragic suicide (or what has been more aptly called institutionalised murder) of PhD scholar Rohith Vemula in 2016, which while speaking to the inordinate frustration of a young Dalit man simultaneously invokes a startling image of a world which may have been. As Vemula put in his suicide note, “Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.”
While Shelley is well known as one of the Romantics, what is less well known is that he was also the iconoclast who was expelled from University College, Oxford for authoring the rationalist pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism. Shelley was also a supporter of the working class and the author of the memorable poem, ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, written on the occasion of the massacre of protesting workers at Peterloo in Manchester, England in 1819, in which he called upon the working class to revolt:
“Rise like lions after slumber
In unavoidable number,
Shake your chains to Earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many— they are few.”
For Shelley, ideas and thoughts are inextricably linked to the task of changing the world. As he famously put it, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” To Dr Ambedkar, much like Shelley and to an extent Emerson, the world of reading and writing intersected with the world of activism. Reading helped cultivate the imagination, and writing was a tool to transform the world.
Dr Ambedkar the reader was very important to the formation of Dr Ambedkar the writer, Dr Ambedkar the constitutionalist and the Dr Ambedkar who called for the ‘annihilation of caste’. The importance that Ambedkar attaches to reading, we learn through editor and former schoolteacher Salim Yusufji’s marvellous collection of reminiscences by people who knew Babasaheb personally. What runs like a golden thread through all the reminiscences is Ambedkar’s love of reading.
To Dr Ambedkar, much like Shelley and to an extent Emerson, the world of reading and writing intersected with the world of activism. Reading helped cultivate the imagination, and writing was a tool to transform the world.
The anecdotes around Ambedkar the reader include him visiting the publisher Thacker’s and returning with three or four piles of books. Another contributor remembers that Babasaheb told him that the three books which made him weep were The Life of Tolstoy, Les Misérables and Far from the Madding Crowd. Another remembers how when he entered Babasaheb’s bedroom, Babasaheb was asleep. “A couple of books lay to his right and left. A few were placed on a stool. One lay open on the floor. Apparently he had dozed off while reading, and the one book resting open on his chest fell when he turned sides.” Someone else remembered Babasaheb’s viewpoint that “everyone should invest at least 10 percent of his income in purchasing books.” Another contributor simply notes that “he had become one with his books.”
On his 132ndbirth anniversary, we should take inspiration from Ambedkar the reader as a way to imaginatively grasp the world as well as to transform it.