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Ambedkar beyond headlines: Occasional cooking, horticulture, and letters to fiancee

Up close and personal with Babasaheb

The first Law Minister of India, intellectual par excellence, Dr Ambedkar, is a revolutionary whose guidance continues to influence the principles of democracy in India. He has been the pioneer of the rights of the oppressed sections and female agency. Dr Ambedkar's works have received extensive study and academic commentary academically and have been followed politically. His public and political achievements do manifest in his personality, ameliorated by the fact that his personal continually had a confluence with his public, be it intentional or as a casteist society's consequence. However, one finds a more endearing connection being built with him after reading about his multi-dimensional aura amalgamated in the writings of those close to him.

From how when even while going on his journey to free himself of his morning ablutions with "a jug of water in his hands... one end of the dhoti onto his shoulder", Dr Ambedkar would stop to engage in a grave political discussion to how occasionally, on holiday, he liked to cook. And, whenever he cooked, he invited others to share the meal; multiple intriguing examples illustrated by those intimately linked with Dr Ambedkar convey his all-encompassing aura.

Dr Ambedkar, in his letters to his fiancée Dr Sharda Kabir, had expressed, "If love was such an exclusive thing, then the conclusion will be that to love one must hate all others" and had also nudged her cheekily, "You have not cared to inquire into my past". He had then lamented over how the gender-progressive Hindu Law of Marriage Bill was being stalled in the Indian Parliament and how the impediment caused him agony because, as the Law Minister, he vociferously wanted the bill to be passed to secure the rights of women across the country, and as the groom-to-be, he yearned to be married under its provisions. The latter example illustrates how the wave and particle nature of Dr Ambedkar converged seamlessly; as an upright parliamentarian and a just lawyer; who practised what he preached and as a partner who wanted to be married equally.


Dr Ambedkar with wife Dr Savita Ambedkar, 1948

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As documentation that runs in parallel hues and yet beyond the hyphened dates of history and headlines, these chronicles weave together Dr Ambedkar's own fragments of bliss. They include his inextinguishable proclivity for oversized fountain pens and magnificent crockery sets, gifting a chain and a pendant and letter pads with their initials to his fiancée Dr Savita — then Dr Sharda Kabir. Further, intricate details such as his affection for suits, elasticated underpants, and attires, including kurta, sherwani, lungi, and dhoti, elaborate upon his personal choices. That Dr Ambedkar was a colourful personality is exhibited by his habits such as taking notes during his violin lessons, having tea and coffee, delighting in different kinds of jams, and relishing different types of chicken, mutton, egg and fish dishes. He also loved radish and mustard leaves, cooked in bountiful amounts of ghee.

The effervescent culmination of his personality gets accentuated by the fact that he was an honest critic who also veritably asked around for criticism. When Dr Ambedkar had heard that an individual had assessed him negatively, he had called them up and invited them to tea in the evening at their home and had whole-heartedly remarked, "So you have found fault with me, but I am prepared to accept your criticism."

Given this emancipated canvas, these literary pieces portray a hitherto hazy imagination of the reader of how these days would have occurred. They extend us a glimpse into his sharp sense of humour, where once when he had an altercation with an Indian 'nationalist' over clothes, the 'nationalist' had acerbically remarked that Dr Ambedkar should shun the Western dress and adorn the 'national' dress, and Dr Ambedkar had innocuously questioned back on the definition of the Indian dress. The 'nationalist' had then remarked that it is the dress which "our ancestors used to wear", to which Dr Ambedkar had riposted, "You cannot give preference to some ancestors over the others, and if you go to the very first, i.e. Adam and Eve, well, they did not wear any clothes. Would you follow them?"

People who worked with Dr Ambedkar in publishing write that with his constant enthusiasm and perfectionist approach, he would relentlessly improve his work, and the concerned compositor and the perturbed printer would stand next to him in a despondent manner. Yet, when he gave them his radiant smile and referred to them endearingly — they would complete the task, chuckling eagerly. And while Dr Ambedkar was a proficient author, the man rarely took any cash from his printers for the huge royalties on his books. He exchanged the royalties with his printer to buy other books for his own collection. However, at one point, his purchases did outrun his amassed royalties!

Unlike the narratives focussing on leisurely pursuits, the erudition of Dr Ambedkar has not been sidelined, and detailed deliberations have been made around his scholarly endeavours. With a study table overflowing with reading and writing material and stationery — so much so that he would be barely visible, and his ambidexterity to write with both hands, Dr Ambedkar remained a scholar throughout. He had astounding memory power and used diligent reading and marking methods with red pencils. He personally dusted the books of his library, comprising more than forty-five thousand books spread across multitudinous topics ranging from physics to poultry. The books provide innate descriptions of someone who loved his English breakfast, who "was not interested in intoxicants of any sort and did not smoke", who "did not like the bitter taste" of paan and "spat it out" and had meals consisting of "one chapatti of bajra, a small quantity of rice, curd and three pieces of fish." There are retellings of how he would get too engrossed in work, and he would not come out of his room for days, with all his meals served to him in his room itself.


Dr Ambedkar at his home in Delhi, 1946 | Photo by Margaret Bourke-White

In their insightful explorations, these writings detail how Dr Ambedkar would maintain a lawn with carved experimental plots for his umpteen horticultural experiments in his bungalow. He would enthusiastically recite the Latin botanical names of his crops and plants. From Fine Arts to sculpting to tabla and singing, he was eager to learn them all.

However, there are excruciating reminders that leave a lump in our throats and an agitation in our hearts. In 1945, while visiting Puri as the Labour Member of the Viceroy's Council, Dr Ambedkar was denied entry to the Jagannath temple, and, in the same year, he was shunned by the workers of a home that he had been invited into in Calcutta. One wonders if a scholar as erudite and a leader as radical as Dr Ambedkar had completely compartmentalised personal and public lives. Nonetheless, while he did mix social work and socialisation, Dr Ambedkar had his own moments and sometimes hours to himself. Once he had gone to watch 'A Tale of Two Cities, and while watching it, an imperative idea struck him, and he left the movie in between, returned home, and commenced writing. However, he did attend the first screening of 'Mahatma Phule' directed by Acharya Atre.

These retellings help us co-exist with him vicariously. They inform us about Dr Ambedkar taking the permission of Meenambal Sivaraj before sending her husband abroad, of his college days where he wrote and staged a skit called 'A Wise Girl' based on Shakespeare's King Lear and played cricket in the evening. During his courtship with Dr Sharda Kabir, he had recommended her the book Life of Tolstoy to depict a despondent marriage and the life of Benjamin Disraeli as that of a contented one. Dr Ambedkar had himself cried while reading Life of Tolstoy, Les Miserables by Hugo, and Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd. He had also wept inconsolably when his dog had died in an accident.

He encouraged students from his community to go to foreign countries for higher education and not settle down with small jobs. His discontent was exacerbated when people from his community wanted to marry early, and he illustrated how numerous individuals are unmarried in the west and are living fulfilling lives. He lambasted individuals from the community for bearing kids early, and when they tried to placate him by saying that they have named their child after him, he would respond by saying, "You can name your child whatever you want." 

Like the proverbial breath of fresh air, these annals transport the reader through both the journey of reading Dr Ambedkar and following Dr Ambedkar, and also living with Dr Ambedkar, relishing with Dr Ambedkar, cooking with Dr Ambedkar and laughing with Dr Ambedkar — for "above all their merriment was the Doctor's own stentorian laughter." In the process of humanising the revolutionary figure, they bring us closer to him, so close that at one point, we can visualise him through the intricate descriptions.

While the honouring of a revolutionary as charismatic as him is sacrosanct, it is imperative to learn about the hitherto hidden human, not with lamenting nostalgia but with an ever-inspiring celebration of the man. This becomes all the more paramount given in the pantheon of pre and post-independent India's embellished documentation, Dr Ambedkar was not photographed and captured in as extensive detail as his oppressor caste privileged contemporaries by a media primarily owned and controlled by the privileged.

Unlike other heroes whose personal lives upend the glorious bubble public image of theirs, Dr Ambedkar's personal life only makes us complete humans. It emancipates us further and sets us liberated, free enough to read to the heart's desire and write till the minds get liberated, and yet free enough to have a favourite meal, to exchange cheeky letters during courtship referring to each other with nicknames, to read in the toilet, and to always crack a joke; for Dr Ambedkar lived the human in him.

South Asian Today is an independent media company committed to amplifying South Asian writers and artists. If you like our work, please become a member or buy us a coffee here. Your support enables us to keep our journalism open for all and publish South Asian writers. Please support us by becoming a member and helping us remain free of a paywall. It starts at just $5/month.

About the author

 I was born with a pen and a sickle. Find me on Instagram @ankita_apurva