SP Shukla

Dear Darapuriji,

Thank you for forwarding to me the charming piece of Dr. Bhagwan Das about his initial encounters with Dr. Ambedkar. The account has such endearing aura about both the persons.

As I read it, memories welled up and I recalled the first opportunity I had of seeing Dr. Ambedkar at close quarters and even putting a question or two to him.

It was in 1952. The locale was Kolhapur. I was a young lad of 18 years of age, coming from a family of modest means. Like many of my generation, we were politically precocious for our age.

Dr. Ambedkar was the chief guest at the annual social event of that year of our college: the Rajaram College, a reputed government college of vintage in the Bombay province.

The principal of the college invited the chief guest to an informal, private, small dinner at his house. Possibly, he had ascertained the chief guest’s preference for a quiet dinner with a few selected young invitees.

The invitees happened to be all young Rajaramians: Khashaba Jadhav, who had won a bronze medal for freestyle bantamweight wrestling at the Olympics Games in Helsinki that very year. Then there was a young girl, Miss Sabnis who was a promising stage actress in the local amateur Marathi theatre. The third was myself, chosen probably because I had topped the Pune University Intermediate Arts examination results in that year.

I would not dilate on the trepidation and expectation that I experienced before the event. Not only because of the impending event of meeting a living legend at close quarters. But equally, worrying about not possessing a decent dress for the occasion. Nor did we have ready cash at home to buy new clothes. It is a different story how my brother thought out a stratagem of visiting a ready- made garments shop confidently and borrowing a smart bush shirt for trial on returnable basis, if it did not fit or meet our fancy! There were no trial rooms then in the garment shops in our place.

The shop-owner fell to our ruse and I had a smart bush shirt to wear for the dinner! Mind you, a bush shirt was a trendy impressive wear for a young man those days in mofussil Maharashtra.

That done, I bicycled to the Principal ‘s bungalow, a few kilometers away in a posh residential area in the outskirts of the town. Fortunately, bicycles were available on hire @ four annas overnight!

Dr Ambedkar’s car drove into the porch and we all stood behind the Principal and his daughter who was the hostess. I still remember vividly the big, imposing frame of Dr Ambedkar slowly alighting from the car with a thick walking stick in hand and Maisaheb accompanying him quietly.

We three were almost tongue tied to say anything. The Principal introduced his daughter and then the three of us, the young guests, one by one. And as we took seat after him in a quiet awe, the Chief Guest turned to Khashaba Jadhav and asked him, ” So, you won the Olympic medal for wrestling. Tell me what is your daily diet? What is special about it? What do you take for protein and vitamin supplement? ” Khashaba was a genius in wrestling. But conversation and that too, in chiseled English, with that imposing giant of a man: that was not his cup of tea. Embarrassed at his discomfiture, Khashaba shifted in his chair. I was sitting next to him. I took courage and whispered in Khashaba’s hearing in Marathi what the question was about. Khashaba felt relieved. He responded in simple, unadorned, matter-of- fact style what he ate, which went something like: ” This, eh, Jwari roti, Bhaat, Sabji, Chicken, Rassa …” Dr. Ambedkar put him at ease saying”Oh, that is nice. You have indeed done very well! ”

Then the talk turned to the hostess- daughter. He asked her what did she do. She told she was a qualified librarian. He asked her about new arrivals in her library. I forget the conversation but remember that a number of publishers’ names came up of which I had no idea.

After dinner, we were all more at ease. And he turned to the young girl invitee and asked her about her roles and interest. And as she mustered courage and words giving him a response, he suddenly said: “The problem with our people is that they have no culture to speak of.”  When, on the spur of the moment, I tried to register a hesitant, polite question mark:  ” But, Sir …? he burst out:  “Go and look at our villages. Do you see any work of art? Do the people who are well -off and can afford, care for art? They are philistine in their mental makeup. Go and see the local moneylender’s or a shopkeeper’s or a lawyer’s place: all you will find is a crudely drawn Swastika and the greedy prayer:” Shubh Laabh “!

Not even a scenery photo frame there.  Or you will see those garishly coloured temples and crude pictures on walls Those who could encourage works of art are totally uncultured. …” He went on. He mentioned about the Japanese villages and some countries of Europe and hanging flowerpots in every balcony. And the colourful Buddhist monasteries…And we listened spellbound.

Later, I made bold to ask him which country was the best in his eyes. He did not respond for a moment. The hostess tried to elicit a response:” Do you think America is the best country in the world?” He shot back:” America? They do not have a history. They are just growing up.” She persisted:” Then, is it Britain?”  “No.” He said categorically:  “Look what they have done to us.” Russia, was a categorical and firm “No”. And thus, it seemed there was no country he could really recommend. But he was clear about the wretched present of our existence and the enormous challenge it presented.

The hostess noticed that the chief guest was showing signs of tiredness. And soon the evening ended with usual pleasantries. And our dinner party with the giant among men was over.

What I could never forget was his vigour and verve and forthrightness and his taking us youngsters seriously.

Two years later, I moved to Bombay for my MA. I had to support myself. I did tuitions. Which stood me in good stead.  Although my results in MA were good, I could not land a lecturer’s job straightaway. A vacancy was available in a tutor’s post in the Siddharth College in the Fort area near Flora Fountain.

I applied and was appointed straightaway. That gave me my sustenance in that big city. But I considered myself lucky that it was a job in a prestigious college associated with Dr. Ambedkar who had possibly continued his stewardship of the Peoples Education Society which was running the Siddharth College.

I had heard from senior colleagues in the staff room that it did happen once in a while that Dr. Ambedkar visited the College. I was hoping and praying that it may happen, just once, while I was still working in that College.

And it did not take more than a few weeks before my prayer was answered. I was taking my tutorial of the first-year students and a lightening news spread that Dr. Ambedkar had indeed paid a visit and was there in person in the staff room. I was just one among many staff members who had literally dropped their task midway and rushed across the corridors to see the great man from close quarters in the staff room.

This time I was not so lucky as in Kolhapur. I could just secure a standing place in a row of young staff members lining up in the open space between the walls and the chairs around the huge round table. I could see Principal Karnik and some other senior professors occupying places near the central chair in which Dr. Ambedkar sat. By his side was Maisahib (Dr. Savita Ambedkar). His walking stick was popping up beside his chair.

Already some serious conversation was on. For Dr. Ambedkar, it was nothing new that when he was amongst teachers and scholars, questions would be asked and the gathering would be all ears to listen to him. When I had entered, I heard him talking about PurushSukta. His words were like flying sparks. I do not recollect the sentences. But I remember the spellbinding power of his indictment.

A little while later, maybe, after tea intervening, the atmosphere felt lighter. I think it was Principal Karnik who diverted the discussion to new books and the library of the Society. Many of the books in the library, I was told by colleagues, had been donated by Dr. Ambedkar.

The talk soon turned to new arrivals. And Dr. Ambedkar said: ” He had not found time to visit his favourite bookshop, Taraporewalla. Some senior member ventured to pay a respectful compliment to Dr. Ambedkar’s own library. Dr. Ambedkar responded with a mock seriousness: “Oh. It was not very difficult. You know, I used to visit Taraporewala once in a while, journey through the bookshelves, pick-up the books I fancied and get them deposited in my car. And then the books entered my library. It was pretty simple. ” And he added with a smile, ” You know, Taraporewalla is a gentleman. He never reminded me about payment.” And as the impact of his quip sank in, he added wryly:” You know, then I fought a case or two in the Bombay High Court which earned me a good sum. And my account with Taraporewala was settled! “.

A couple of months later, the luck smiled on me and I got a full lectureship in DE Society ‘ s Bombay College. The pay had almost doubled. I was happy at that. But leaving Siddharth College meant forgoing the rare and invaluable chance of seeing Dr. Ambedkar from nearby.

It was only months later that the news of his passing away struck us in the staff room of the Bombay College. We organised a condolence meeting. Many spoke. I could not muster equanimity to speak. His imposing figure, his profound scholarship , his spitfire exclamations, his palpable greatness  — all gathered before my misty eyes. And all I could do was to treasure my personal memories close to my heart.

And the treasure is everlasting!

Warmly,

S.P. SHUKLA

(Sh. S.P. Shukla I.A.S.(Retd) former Govt. of India Commerce Secretary, Finance Secretary and Ambassador to GATT in Geneva)


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