Recently, Amma and Appa started watching this show on TV dedicated to the life of Ambedkar. Right now, they’re showing the events of his childhood. It completely slipped my mind that the show was on and when I came downstairs, I found that my parents sat and watched this as eagerly as they would with any other Tamil serial. What shook me the most is when Amma looked at me and said, “You know you’re just like him.”
What do I make of that statement? In my head I was screaming “Mother, do you have any idea who you’re comparing me to?” and yet at the same time it made me wonder, aren’t we the same? As different as we are, we’re all the same. I began to notice why Amma compared me to him. For one, he always had smart answers to questions his family and others around him posed, he always surprised them with how simple his answers were to what seemed like complex questions.
Since they just started the show, what they’re now broadcasting is his childhood. There are moments when I look at him and giggle because these are things I did as a child. Whether it was always having a smart answer to the questions people asked me, always making Amma say that she can never compete with my words. I would have my sister cut my hair because going to a parlour was an expense that my parents thought was unnecessary and getting my hair cut by Amma only meant having hair that was cut by the teeth of a rat and not a pair of scissors or simply being the student in class who had the answers to questions that were out of syllabus, so to say.
Somehow your life becomes the responsibility of other people if you’re young. Since they assume that you cannot make decisions on your own, you have others–, a room full of them to make it for you.I was sitting in a room full of adults who were having a heated conversation about my cousin brother’s future career in medicine. I sat in the back listening quietly and rolling my eyes every time my uncle said that even if my brother didn’t like it now, he will eventually grow to like it. The argument went on for quite a while and my uncle happened to casually ask me what I thought about it since he was listening to everyone except his son whose opinion mattered most. The thirteen year old in me looked straight into my uncle’s eyes and said, “If you make him do something he doesn’t like, he will hate it and you for the rest of his life.” My brother looked at me mournfully, knowing that in that entire conversation what I said was the most sensible thing. Amma who sat next to me had her eyes open so wide that I thought it would fall out at any moment. She asked me to stop talking and I looked at her and simply said, “He asked me what I thought and this is what I think.” No, this isn’t one of those happy ending stories where what I said changed my uncle completely. He got his way.
Now there was this fear that existed in the minds of the people in my family, they knew that I would say things straight to their face unapologetically. What made them uncomfortable was simply that they couldn’t answer my questions which were in fact extremely simple. When little Bhim in the show was told not to attend school, he simply asked them why. When they told him it was because he was from a certain caste, he asked the teacher if they were teaching everyone about the mathematics on the board or if they were teaching them about what he called this so called caste system. The teacher had no answer because the question was ever so simple.
In a recent episode on the show about Ambedkar, his father was to take him out before they left for another city and asked his wife to dress little Bhim in the best outfit. When he came out he was wearing a khadi blazer and shorts and held a book in his hand. His mother laughed and recollected the instance of him getting that book from the market. He gave away his grandmother’s ring around his neck for the book. When his mother asked him which one was more valuable, he said that the book gave him knowledge, would his grandmother’s ring give him that same knowledge? This made Amma smile wide, she looked at me and said that this is something similar to what I used to say when I was younger. My aunt when gifting me something for my birthday asked me if I would like a story book or a barbie doll.Unlike all the others who wanted toys to play with, I always chose the storybook. Amma says that when asked why, I’d simply say that instead of staring at one doll, I’d have many pictures telling me many stories.
Every time I read Ambedkar, I find him to be someone who takes every point that was made against him and uses that to justify why he did certain things. It seemed like he had an answer to every question. When there were issues that the Mandal had with his speech and asked him to change it, he simply said that he was not writing to please the committee, he was not going to let go of the liberty and duty of the president. Among the many things that he has taught me, what stands out for me is to simply question. Question everything around you. At home, there are certain things that my family does that no one questions. And it is when I ask these simple questions that people at home realise that they blindly follow the things that they are told. I was told at home never to question what my elders did, but being the person I am, I would always ask why we did things a certain way. Why were the women at home always standing and serving the men who ate at the dining table; why we can switch on the lights in other rooms before 6pm but in the hall it has to be switched on only at or after 6pm; why we never cooked beef or were allowed to eat beef at home; why we had separate tumblers for everyone who visited; why we were never allowed to cut our nails on tuesdays or fridays; why us women are never allowed to wear black to any function but men can wear their black pants, shoes and suits.
Amma never had the answers to these questions, Appa would get irritated if I asked more questions simply because it is the authority that they did not question while growing up that I question and they don’t like not having the upper hand that their parents had over them simply because my parents didn’t question.
When I reached puberty, I was told to sit in a corner and try my best not to enter the kitchen as much as I possibly could, when I asked them why, they had no answer and they knew that only when I get an answer do I do the things they tell me to do. Amma often gets irritated when I keep asking her why we do certain things even now, what I have thrown my way are the following statements, “You should do as your elders tell you not simply ask questions. When I was your age I did whatever my parents told me to do.” My simple Why questions shook the very basis of what people in my family thought was the right way of doing things. The very foundations of one’s beliefs are questioned, it isn’t with the most complex statements, it is with the simplest. There’s this phrase that everyone in my family uses when there is a conversation about me, it is “unkitte vai kudhuthu pesa mudiyuma?” which can be translated as can anyone even say something to you, that is simply because I retaliate. There’s a very simple phrase Appa uses every time I end up winning these so called arguments, which is “vai kuduthu vai vangurthu”, simply meaning you get what you asked for. Inviting me to say something is equivalent to inviting trouble, trouble because sometimes the simplest questions cannot be answered that puts their position in the family as an authoritative elderly figure at risk.
Amma always says that I was never born to listen to people and that I had my own way of doing things. At some point someone does have to stand up and break the chain and that is who I see myself as in my family. I come from a long line of doctors and engineers, my father and mother the two so called exceptions have degrees that were in the field of science. Breaking away from that chain does have its set of scorns and shrugs that come your way because you can never live up to the standards that these two so called excellent fields have set. What Ambedkar teaches me is unlike every other standard that people have already set, to be someone outside of that standard means you have to tolerate the things people say about you and what you do. What he teaches me is letting my work speak for itself, that to break one standard I need to make a conscious effort to set my own. The result of me choosing something that I wanted to do gave my nephew the chance to get into culinary school. I won’t say it is because of me that he got to do what he wanted to, but it is my story that helped him find a place that he could use as an example to show that when you do what you want to, you will be happy.
I first encountered Babasaheb Ambedkar as a picture printed on a sheet with other figures such as Gandhi and Nehru as some of the most important freedom fighters in our country. I liked his glasses because it reminded me of Amma’s reading glasses. When I saw his name being mentioned again in my civics textbook, I remembered her glasses and the roundness it shared with his. I wish I knew his stories then, maybe things would have been easier to deal with. Maybe life itself would have been an easier battle to fight. When I saw him again as a picture framed in our department I smiled. I began learning more about his life when my lecturers spoke about him and that is when I realised that his stories and his words have saved me in ways I did not know I needed saving.
Arul sir was talking to us about the day he discovered Ambedkar in a children’s book and how the idea of him spending hours in the library drove Arul sir to do the same. I began to notice that the library as a space was an escape for so many of us. We had the smallest library in school, with a few books scattered here and there. Whenever I happened to have a free period, I was never seen on the field playing with my classmates as much as I was seen buried in a Nancy Drew novel or a Famous Five novel. The library was a space where the boundaries of accessing knowledge were almost infinite. There was no restriction, except this thing called time.
Ambedkar would spend so much time in the library that he would have to be asked to leave because it was closing time. Going back day in and day out immersing yourself in a sea of books sounds like a dream but it does take a certain kind of discipline for it to be consistent. Spending time in a quiet space with nothing but your thoughts and training your thoughts, engaging your mind with the things and ideas of the world became something I ran to every time I was anxious about the crumbling cruel world around me. I find myself running to Ambedkar like a little child would into the arms of her mother everytime I see something terrible happen around me. There is this sense of comfort I find in his writing that I can only describe as the way a mother pacifies her weeping child. Every time I had a multitude of questions surging through my mind, sitting in that corner at the library with a book written by Ambedkar in my hands, I would find the answers I was looking for. I find that my relationship with this man who I’m now rediscovering in so many ways, is something I wish I found earlier.
What I have always wondered is how Ambedkar writes about caste with such ease. I have come to realise that writing about caste is always going to be an exhaustive process for me, simply because these experiences are the stories that we live on a daily basis. It isn’t a made up story that you tell people. It’s being put in front of a crowd of a thousand people and being asked to tell your story. There is this immense weight I feel every time I write about caste. Will what I write ever be good enough? Will I ever be good enough? And yet, there is this part of me that is now beginning to question this very idea of good enough. What is this good enough that I am supposed to achieve to feel content with myself, to feel like I can breathe easier. Why is it that a part of me always wants to be good enough, neither excel nor fail, just good enough. For someone who finds it hard to settle for anything in life and always dives head first into the things unknown, I have this part of me that questions if I will ever be good enough. Why is it that we set these impossible standards for ourselves, either by looking at other people or just having these impossible standards of your own. I’ve always wondered if I will ever be good enough for my parents who don’t see me or the work that I do as anything that is equivalent to what my sister might do. When tradition tells you that one thing is superior to the other and you believe it, it’s hard for them to be convinced otherwise.
Raghu anna was our first driver and it is with him that I share some of the fondest memories. He called me kutti madam because I was the youngest. He was my first friend outside school. I never knew that people my age could actually be treated with respect and kindness until I met him. We would sit and talk for hours on end about everything under the sun, somehow my questions never seemed to bother him as much as it bothered my parents, he would always come back the next day with an answer if he didn’t have one that very moment. I became so much more comfortable speaking in Tamil because of my conversations with him.
I remember Amma being uncomfortable with him jumping into our tank to retrieve the car key which he accidentally dropped.The moment he told us that he dropped the key into the tank, Amma was slightly furious but she held it in, that is when I picked up the magnetic darts I had at home, dismantled the plastic bits, tied that to a long piece of thread and put it in the water. Amma only kept yelling that I shouldn’t go anywhere near the tank because I may fall in. Sadly, this magnet wasn’t strong enough so it failed half way, but the moment I told him he understood what I was trying to do and went to the store and came back with a magnet the size of a tennis ball with some rope and we retrieved the keys.
She never liked people crossing these so called boundary lines in front of her, everyone had their place according to her. This was something I never quite understood because for me everyone was the same. He would have a separate glass and plate to eat, his tea would always be darker and waterier, I’d always ask her why we gave him different things but Amma always said this is the way he likes it. I was again told to stop asking questions and do as I was told. From then on, I decided to go to the kitchen and start making tea for everyone. It is then that I realised that I can change things if I have to. He would always say I made the best tea and that always made me smile. My mum was happy that I was beginning to behave a lot like other girls but, little did she know that I started doing this so I could stop her from being a certain way.
When he came to us and said he was going away to his hometown near Salem, my heart broke in ways I never knew it could. I wonder if he still remembers me and the conversations we had, maybe one day, I will make him a cup of tea, sit with him and ask him questions that I now have in my head that not everyone wants to listen to.
Coming to terms with the fact that I am Dalit has been hard simply because the way I have viewed my experiences in the past have been with a lens of judgement that have become so embedded in me that when told to practice kindness, it fails to happen. This thing called kindness is always much simpler to give other people than to yourself. I’ve always wondered how easy it was to be kind to others but when it came to being that same way with myself, I’d always have this voice inside my head tell me that there was something missing, that I was never really going to be good enough.
He wrote an entire research article on the origin of caste and yet, it didn’t tire him out. It was just the beginning. Reading Ambedkar is like coming up for a breath of fresh air before you sink deeper into the chaos that this world is. As soon as I begin to question my worthiness of writing about my caste experiences or even exploring caste in my life, I always hear my lecturer’s voices in the back of my head telling me that I need to write. As difficult as it is to write about caste, as discomforting as it is, these things need to be said, they need to be addressed, they need to be felt. It is this unrest that continues to exist within me as I write.
When asked to talk about caste, the picture I have in my mind is simply that of a blank screen, a blinking cursor and this tingling sensation in my body. I have a lot to say, there is a rage that burns inside of me that wants to talk about everything that goes on in my head, everything I want to write about is all in front of me and yet, there is this repulsive force I feel everytime my fingertips try to reach the keys of my laptop. I find myself feeling full of rage waiting to unleash this wrath I have inside of me and yet, there is this emptiness that exists. How does one deal with fullness and emptiness at the same time? The answer that I receive every time is that I need to be kind to myself. How does one do that? How do you teach yourself to be kind to yourself when you’ve always been taught that there is this level of good enough you need to reach and until then you keep beating yourself up about it? It’s a long process is what I have come to realise.
This is why when Amma said I’m just like him I was taken aback because he did it irrespective of all the curveballs he was hit with. He chose to use the same weapons forged against him to his advantage. With every question laid out in front of him, unlike others who push the uncomfortable questions under the carpet, this man caught each arrow aimed right at his head and threw it back to them. I wonder how he did that, I wonder if I will ever be able to do what he did. I know that writing is something that I can never give up on, I don’t ever want to stop writing, but how do you write about the things that make you uncomfortable? How do you continue to practice kindness with yourself when the world around you continues to throw everything that is negative at you? He did it, with everything that was happening around him, he never chose to see it as a weakness, he used that to drive him to do better and be better. I wonder if this strength he possessed exists in all of us, to take every weapon they throw at you, sharpen it further and then use the same weapon in our defence.
What I have come to realise is that there are people I can share these experiences with:the ones who listen are one kind and the others are the ones who can relate to this on a level that is different from the ones who listen. These empty spaces between words I leave behind when I write, these silences and this emptiness is something we share. It is that hand which reaches out to me every time I feel like I am drowning. That keeps me afloat. It is this community that I have around me that gives me the courage to write what I do. What I was told in the middle of the night in a conversation where I whined about my inability to write is simply to read the stories of others like me, to read and find courage. This is what we do for each other, when we cannot find kindness within ourselves, we look for it in others, to see if their words can help us through this. Ambedkar continues to live in us like this, it is through others that we turn to him and it is through him that we turn to others.
Maybe that’s why Amma said I’m just like him, maybe we’re all a little like him in our own way, maybe it is because we are like him that we find kindness within each other, we realise we are the same even though we may look and sound different, we’re the same people.
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