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A Thought Provoking Picture Book About Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

It was, indeed, a way of life, which recognizes liberty, equality and fraternity as the principles of life and which cannot be divorced from each other: Liberty cannot be divorced from equality; equality cannot be divorced from liberty. Nor can liberty and equality be divorced from fraternity. Without equality, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Equality without liberty would kill individual initiative. Without fraternity, liberty and equality could not become a natural course of things.

Dr.Bhimrao Ambedkar

The picture book Bhimrao Ambedkar The Boy Who Asked Why is definitely a difficult and compelling picture book. It will make you sit and think about the deep injustices Dr.Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution had to face as a child and then as a young man. I call the book difficult because you should be prepared to answer many questions from your children or students about why Dr.Ambedkar during his time and other citizens of India today still continue to face discrimination.

Satvik Gade’s watercolor illustrations are full of impact and make the reader stop and think. They capture the various moods in the story with great skill. The ‘Why’ that appears only through illustrations, linger.

Not allowed to touch the water at school

The book traces Dr.Ambedkar’s story from when he was a child and his exposure to injustice in the form of untouchability.

They did not drink water from the same well as them, or bathe in the same pond. They did not pray in the same temples.

They said people like Bhim could not even be touched.

Slowly it dawned on Bhim, as the young Ambedkar was called that people were divided into groups that were high caste and low castes and that he belonged to a lower caste. Bhim also loved studying and his father Ramji being an officer in the army could send his son to school.

School proved to be no less unjust. He was made to sit separately along with other children of lower castes on gunny bags and not allowed to touch the school water pot. The other children accepted the status quo, but not young Ambedkar. He continued to question the differences.

The book traces Ambedkar’s journey as a young student from Goregaon to Bombay, where only one thing stayed constant -the discrimination. Only as a student in America, he was free and no one treated him differently.

Coming back to India Dr.Ambedkar continued to fight for the depressed classes and for the abolition of the caste system. As free India’s first law minister Dr.Ambedkar drafted India’s Constitution with the highest of ideals and hope for each of her citizens. It has become the foundation on which our nation was built and in times of confusion and confoundment, it has provided clear answers. This important picture book raises as many questions as the ones it answers.

Drinking water from a public tank in Mahad, where ‘untouchables’ were not allowed.

Little Kulture reached out to speak with the author of Bhimrao Ambedkar The Boy Who Asked Why – Sowmya Rajendran (SR in the interview) who kindly agreed to speak with us.

LK: The book opens with Ambedkar or Bhim as he was known as a child following the cricketing triumphs of Babaji Palwankar Baloo. Why did you choose to introduce it this way?
SR: The reason why I started with the Baloo story was because most children who read this book are very young (6+). Parents are unlikely to have addressed issues like caste with them, so for them to understand what this really means, I felt it made sense to start with something relatable like cricket, which is really popular in India. They would have seen how cricketers behave on screen, the camaraderie that exists, how they hug each other and so on. It was an entry point to talk about a time when this was actually not as common as it is now. It was considered unusual and comment-worthy that a Dalit man like Baloo was hugged by his teammates.

LK: The ladder metaphor is very interesting. Why did you choose the ladder metaphor? 
SR: Caste is extremely complex. It would be a pity to reduce it to something simplistic but it had to be a metaphor that children would understand. In a picture book, it is going to be quite difficult for you to make a very complex analysis of caste. My publishers and I were looking at it as a beginner’s introduction to Ambedkar as well as caste…it shouldn’t stop with this. Hopefully, the child who is introduced to this book should think about these issues more and more as they grow up and read more texts and come up with a better understanding.

LK: Straightaway from the beginning of the book there is such a deep sense of injustice that is going on. As a writer, you could have easily kind of twisted the words but throughout the book, you have maintained an equanimity. Was this done consciously?
SR: I’m not a Dalit woman myself. I’m not Brahmin but I belong to a Savarna caste. This means that I haven’t faced the kind of oppression that Ambedkar would have faced or people from the Dalit community face to this day. I’m quite conscious of my location as a writer. Ambedkar spoke about his childhood and growing up years with a lot of pain but he also never stopped analyzing the world around him and questioning it. His first-hand experiences didn’t lead him to accept the status quo but rather challenge it. He didn’t assume that this is how the world should be. That’s what we wanted to capture in the book – not just say that this happened or is happening but to encourage children to engage with these events and systems beyond that. Even when it comes to gender…when children are very small and somebody tells them don’t do this because you are a boy or don’t do this because you are a girl, they do ask why. But as they grow up and become slightly older, they stop questioning and they accept that this is what you should do. If you are a girl you should play with a Barbie and if you are a boy you should play with a car. Caste is similar. Because it’s all around you and everyone accepts it as ‘normal’, you grow up thinking this is how it is. The point of the book, beyond giving children a glimpse of Ambedkar’s life, is also to encourage them to question.

LK: What prompted you to write this book? 
SR: Tulika wanted to do a book about Ambedkar. They have done books about Gandhi previously. We don’t study enough about Ambedkar even in school textbooks. There is very little – all we know is that he is the father of the Constitution. But we don’t read about his life or his struggles. Ambedkar had a lot of disagreements with Gandhi politically and ideologically and that is not something we read about at all. When it comes to the independence struggle, we are given a picture that everybody was united and there were no disagreements. Gandhi is inevitably quoted as the hero of the struggle. Like my publishers, I too felt that there are already lots of children’s books about Gandhi and Nehru but none about someone like Ambedkar – which is a pity.

Dalits and people engaging with caste oppression have always considered Ambedkar as a hero. But outside of these circles, not many read about him or his stupendous work.

LK: Of course, it is Ambedkar. Did the weight of his achievements hang upon you?
SR: I don’t believe in self-censorship because of the current political environment or anything like that. I have always written what I believed in and what I consider to be important. If you are going to stop yourself from writing what you believe in because of the feedback that you receive, then you have defeated yourself as a writer. And when it came to Ambedkar, the challenge really was that he had such an eventful life and it was difficult to decide what to pick and write.

LK: And finally, are there any more books in the pipeline, particularly with
women leaders?
SR: (laughs)We don’t hear about them too much either. That is true. But I’m taking a break now because my job takes most of my time.

Thank you for speaking with LK.

A picture book can help open a hundred thoughts, make us revisit some of our deeply held beliefs, rethink the way we look at the world. Bhimrao Ambedkar The Boy Who Asked Why is as much about a child who in the face of deep social inequalities and discrimination, turned to education for answers. Dr. Ambedkar believed deeply in humanity and that each of its members rightly deserved a life of equality, liberty, and fraternity.

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