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Babasaheb and Savita Ambedkar: A portrait of an uncommon marriage

Dr Savita Ambedkar's autobiography 'Babasaheb' is written as an ode to the Father of the Indian Constitution. But his wife the writer manages to hold her own space – in their marriage, their public life, and in the intimate events that dot this book.

Dr Savita Ambedkar’s autobiography could be read as a peek into the private life of one of India’s most revered public figures. It could be read as medical dairy of a doctor wife’s ailing older husband. It could be read under the feminist lens of a woman who chose domestic service over career, and who faced the brunt of socio-political infamy after widowhood. Indeed, it is all these.

But the most striking aspect of Babasaheb: My Life with Dr Ambedkar (Vintage / Penguin Random House, Rs 599) by Dr Savita Ambedkar is that despite this being written as an ode to the Father of the Indian Constitution and one of the most respected global intellectuals that India has birthed, his wife the writer manages to hold her own space – in their marriage, their public life, and in the intimate events that dot this book.

The marriage was certainly an uncommon one. A widower, Babasaheb Ambedkar was 57 years old when he married Savita, whose maiden name was Sharada Kabir. Born in 1909, she was an exceptional woman for her time – a medical doctor and single in her late 30s. Raised in a progressive Brahmin household where daughters were encouraged to study and work just as sons, and where six out of eight siblings had intercaste marriages, Sharada’s decision to choose her own husband, a Dalit icon 18 years her senior, faced little resistance at home. If anything, her brothers teased her jovially about her promotion to the status of a law minister’s wife.

But whether Sharada really had the privilege of choice remains debatable when seen from a 21st-century feminist context. A marriage proposal from one of the most prominent political leaders of the time, a man with an illustrious reputation and mammoth achievements, could not have been easy to refuse. Sharada wilfully ignored his first hint at a proposal but had to accept him the second time he asked.

Dr Sharada Kabir earned her MBBS degree from Grant Medical College Bombay in 1937 (Photo: Penguin Random House)

Her hesitance is understandable; he was a generation older and had a son from a previous marriage who was almost her own age. More importantly, he had several serious health issues – in fact, she was one of his doctors at the time. She was also intimidated by the huge weight of expectations and duties that would befall her as the wife of a great public figure.

She explains her doubts candidly in the book: “Despite the fact that I was completely blown away by him, despite holding him in extreme respect, I certainly hadn’t carried the desire to become his wife. All through the day I pondered over Dr Ambedkar’s letter and his marriage proposal. There was a storm of confusion raging inside me. All through the night I wondered what my decision should be. How was one to turn down such an important personage? How to say yes either?”

Eventually, however, she rationalises her own consent and paints it in patriotic colours: “The reason behind my acceptance was only one: Doctor Saheb’s health must be improved, whatever the circumstances. Only then would he be able to perform the historic act of writing down the Constitution of the country in the best possible manner.”

Dr Ambedkar and Savita Ambedkar on the day of their wedding, 15 April 1948 (Photo: Penguin Random House)

Women down the centuries the world over are routinely forced into life decisions not of their choice. Some suffer in silence, simmering in sadness, anger or bitterness for most of their lives. Some fight back and, often, pay a price. And some, like Sharada, co-opt into the destiny written for them, and use it as an opportunity to adapt, move ahead and perhaps grow: “I made a firm resolve that I would become one with Doctor Saheb’s life and dissolve myself in him,” she writes.

Was Bhimrao in love with Sharada? On one hand, he is doting in his regard for her, sending her gifts and loving letters calling her ‘Sharu’ and himself ‘Sharu’s Raja’, praising her intellect and virtue. She reasons that he had been starved of love for most of his life since his parents, siblings, first wife and four of his children passed away, and so the “dam burst for him” and he inundated his second wife with a “torrent of love and extreme affection”.

On the other hand, some of the statements he makes about her in letters to others give the impression that she was perhaps the most ‘suitable’ woman he could find, not necessarily the ‘love interest’ in his life. “She is just the person equipped both by intellect as well as virtue to suit my needs,” he writes in one letter.

In a message to a close colleague, he explains his reasons for choosing Sharada, “A woman to be my wife must be educated, must be a medical practitioner and must be good at cooking.” In another letter, he writes, “I have decided to marry Dr Kabir, she is the best match I can find.”

The couple holidaying in Mussoorie in June 1949 (Photo: Penguin Random House)

No doubt, Dr Ambedkar was a wise, mature man. If Sharada was bound by her gender, then he too was bound by his position, age and ill-health to make a practical life decision. Like her, perhaps he too adapted to his limited options, and once the choice was made, showered his chosen partner with all the love and romance he could muster. After all, “love after marriage” is a universally accepted dictum in the Subcontinent.

Even so, it is surreal to read love letters written by Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, the towering Indian leader and scholar, to his much younger fiancée, mollifying her after a lovers’ spat or apologising for accidental slights or explaining the significance – and sharing even the price – of gifts he has sent her. But the book, like their relationship, is eventually much more than these initial correspondences.

After their wedding in April 1948, Sharada, now Savita Ambedkar, proceeds to serve Babasaheb selflessly with utter devotion, almost around the clock. Not only does she take complete charge of his household, health and medication needs, which are substantial, but also becomes a sort of gatekeeper, keeping out excessive guests – dozens on any given day – at times he needs to rest and recover from his frequent bouts of bad health. It is not surprising she becomes unpopular with some of his associates and colleagues.

Though his days are full to the brim with his work at the Parliament, or else writing, reading, attending events and meeting people, it is touching to read about his personal quirk in selecting saris and ornaments for Dr Savita – thin, delicate sari borders and not wide ones suit her best, he opines. He throws tantrums if she doesn’t wear a sari he wants, and gives her a special look from the podium during a speech if she turns up in a sari he chose for her.

Dr BR Ambedkar and Dr Savita at a felicitation programme in Mumbai on 18 November 1951. Dr Ambedkar invited 85-year-old Rao Bahadur Bole, a senior colleague, to sit on his lap since there were only two chairs (Photo: Penguin Random House)

Brilliant as he was, nuggets from their domestic life also present another side of the polymath, someone who savoured lovingly home-cooked food and enjoyed cooking himself, entertaining his friends with witticisms and stories, and having deep discussions on Buddhism with his wife over tea. A man who was reduced to tears whenever he saw the plight of his Dalit followers, and who thought nothing of distributing his household’s entire food stock to his impoverished guests even if it meant he and his wife had to go to bed hungry.

However, the more forceful impact of these private stories is the revelation of how much Dr BR Ambedkar’s crusade for Dalit and women’s rights, his dedication to crafting a just Constitution for the newly independent India, his constant battles in and out of Parliament in trying to pass the Hindu Code Bill, and other stresses of political life, took a toll on his mental and physical health. Yet the man pushed on, driven by a divine purpose and a steel will.

From her medical perspective, Dr Savita explains how the persistent casteism and struggles that he confronted from the early years of his life took a cumulative toll, impacting Babasaheb’s physical health for the worse as the years wore on. Despite his intellectual greatness, his numerous degrees, books and scholarly papers, the phoenix-like monster of caste discrimination refused to leave him.

In later years, after becoming a minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s government, he continued to face opposition in his quest to make India a more equitable country for Dalits and women. He lost two elections to the Lok Sabha – which Dr Savita ascribes to being the result of political tricks played by the Congress party against him – events that left him disillusioned and bitter. Having chosen activism over a comfortable career, financial woes dogged him until the end.

His public animosity towards Mahatma Gandhi for neglecting social equality and Dalit rights also led to Dr Ambedkar facing public wrath and criticism from various quarters. (And yet, he told his wife, “I alone understand Gandhi well,” and even wanted to write Gandhi’s biography.)

All these day-to-day mental and psychological battles did not leave him unscathed. It was no wonder he suffered from “serious afflictions like neuritis, diabetes, rheumatism, breathing problems and heart ailments,” as Dr Savita lists.

He credits his wife for “adding eight or ten years to his life”, almost the number of years they were married. Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar passed away in 1956 shortly after the couple converted to Buddhism.

Dr Ambedkar and Savita Ambedkar taking the deeksha of Buddhism on 14 October 1956, at Deeksha Bhoomi,
Nagpur (Photo: Penguin Random House)

And yet, despite her service to Dr Ambedkar and thus her country, Dr Savita did not get her due from his family, colleagues and the public at large. Nasty rumours accusing her of poisoning him did the rounds soon after he passed away leading to a police inquiry, and she was embroiled in a property dispute with her stepson. She was betrayed time and again by those she trusted – including having her purse and cupboard keys stolen by conspirators even before Dr Ambedkar’s body was cremated.

Dalit leaders and others, such as their landlord and creditors, fell on the wrong side of history by showing petty disregard for the widow’s request to convert Dr Ambedkar’s last home into a museum dedicated to his memory. Instead, she was thrown out of the house, left scrambling for her personal items and her dignity, and discarded by his associates. Dr Ambedkar’s dedication to her in the preface to his book The Buddha and His Dhamma, completed days before his death, was erased by his colleagues in the printed edition, for no justifiable reason.

The last picture of Dr Ambedkar on his return from the World Buddhist Conference in Kathmandu, Nepal, on 26 November 1956 (Photo: Penguin Random House)

First published as Dr Ambedkaranchya Sahavaasaat in 1990 in Marathi, it took 31 years for Dr Savita’s autobiography to be translated to English, a fact pointed out with some surprise by the translator Nadeem Khan in his introduction.

In fact, it is a book of major historical, political and biographical interest to Ambedkar researchers and followers since it also offers the thought process and discussion that went behind the various initiatives, programmes and efforts he spearheaded for the uplift of Dalits.

That it was never considered important enough to even be translated to English for three decades points to a sad lack of acknowledgement of a woman’s side of the story.

The book, poignantly, reads like a plea – a continuous justification of Dr Savita’s role in Dr Ambedkar’s life. “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 and the ordeal of walking through fire after he passed away,” she writes in the preface.

Dr Savita Ambedkar receiving the Bharat Ratna on behalf of her husband from then President R. Venkataraman on 14 April 1990 (Photo: Penguin Random House)

Throughout the book, she presents his letters and correspondences as proof no woman, and certainly no wife, should have to present – proof of his love for her, proof of his acceptance of her role in his life, proof of their intellectual compatibility, proof of their joint decision to convert to Buddhism, proof that she always had his wellbeing at heart and could not have possibly caused his death, proof that he had thanked her in the preface to his last book.

Decades after Babasaheb’s death, the younger generation of Dalit activists finally brought her back to the fold and she was once again renamed, from Sharada to Savita to Maisaheb Ambedkar.

She passed away in 2003, having continued Dr BR Ambedkar’s life’s work until the day she died, making her own life a memorial of him. “I live as an Ambedkar and I shall die an Ambedkar,” she writes towards the end, an echo of the young Sharada’s vow to “dissolve” in her husband.

There are uncountable such women’s narratives deemed too unimportant for mainstream history, their services and sacrifices brushed aside in portraits of powerful men. And yet, for seekers of truth, books such as Dr Savita Ambedkar’s autobiography are treasure troves of the more complicated, nuanced and discomfiting perspectives that make up human history. To understand a great man fully, it is essential to read the autobiography of the woman behind him.

3 comments on “Babasaheb and Savita Ambedkar: A portrait of an uncommon marriage

  1. Pingback: A portrait of an uncommon marriage – eShe - Sarkari Yojana and job

  2. Thanks for this review. Picking up the book

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Gitanjali Kolanad

    I just held the book in my hand at a bookstore and put it back. Now I better go back and buy it. Thank you for this great review.

    Liked by 1 person

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