The Other Dr Ambedkar
Dr Savita Ambedkar (née Sharada Krishnarao Kabir) was a trailblazer in her own right. Born in 1909, the third child of her saraswat brahmin parents, she was one of eight siblings eventually, six of whom went on to have inter-caste marriages. In another sign of the family’s progressive values, both she and her elder sister gained MBBS degrees in the 1930s. Sharada Kabir already had much in common with Dr B.R. Ambedkar when they first met in early 1947. Both came from families that traced themselves back to Ratnagiri. Both had made an extraordinary commitment to higher studies, wearing out their health to pursue lives and careers that were traditionally closed to people of their identity and background. At 38, she was a single woman and medical professional with an interest in Buddhism that had been growing for six years. Bhimrao Ambedkar, 56 at the time, had been widowed 12 years previously. He had known the deaths of four of his children, and, after a quarter-century in public life, now faced the prospect of new struggles to safeguard the rights of dalits as India’s independence approached.
Sharada Kabir became Savita Ambedkar on 15 April 1948. In the nine years of married life that remained to them, she was not just his spouse and doctor but his companion in the journey towards Buddhism. With the publication of My Life with Dr Ambedkar in Marathi in 1990 – the year B.R. Ambedkar was posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna – Savita Ambedkar not only memorialised their life together but also, for the first time, publicly addressed the decades of calumny and suspicion she had endured as his wife and widow. That her valuable memoir remained untranslated for so long betrays the way she has been sidelined from the records of her husband’s life.
Nineteen years after Savita Ambedkar’s death in 2003, Nadeem Khan’s translation brings her account to readers in English. A living link to the original work is Vijayrao Surwade, who has done more than any other individual to preserve original documents from both B.R. Ambedkar’s life and the Ambedkarite movement. Surwade, who assisted and prompted Savita (Maisaheb) Ambedkar in the writing of her memoir, has also guided Khan’s translation.
The following is an excerpt from the book.
As I began to know Dr Ambedkar better, I got to know more and more about him. I began seeing from close quarters his attainments and his historic work, and I was stunned. That day he told me, ‘Look, doctor, my people and my colleagues have been insisting that I should get married, but it is very difficult for me to find someone to my liking, of adequate qualities and suitable to my state. But for the sake of millions of my people, I have to live on; and for living on, it is only right that I should consider the request of my people with seriousness.’
I stayed silent for a moment and then replied, ‘You certainly must have someone who can take care of you.’
Doctor Saheb then went on, ‘I begin my search for the right person with you.’
I was flustered at hearing this and just didn’t know what to say, so I stayed silent.
As per his schedule, Dr Ambedkar left for Delhi, and I once again got busy with my work. I even forgot all that he had said to me, but he obviously didn’t. I realized that on 25 January when I received a thick envelope, which, going by the stamp that it carried, had come from Delhi. I guessed that it was from Dr Ambedkar, and on opening the envelope I found that my guess was right. Obviously, I had no reason to be surprised by it because I assumed that with his treatment in progress, he was seeking advice on some health and treatment issues. But what can one really know about things? After some courtesy talk, he came to the point: ‘I am beginning my search for a wife with you, that is, of course, if you are agreeable to it. Think about it and let me know.’ He wrote further, ‘Considering the difference in age between you and me, and also considering the state of my health, if you turn down my proposal, I shall not be offended at all.’
I became very serious on reading the letter. I just didn’t know what to do. I had never even dreamt that Dr Ambedkar could be nursing these kinds of feelings for me. 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? Whose opinion should I take? Many such questions were cropping up in my mind. After thinking over it all night, I decided that since Dr Malvankar and Dr Ambedkar enjoyed such excellent relations, and since he was my senior and a widely experienced person, I should seek his advice. The next day I went to Dr Malvankar’s and started work, but I could neither concentrate on work nor could I collect the pluck to go and talk to him. Finally, gathering all my courage in my hands and steeling my heart, I went over to Dr Malvankar and gave him the letter. He read the letter, thought for a moment and then said, ‘Dr Ambedkar has made this proposal. He has not imposed himself upon you. Therefore, think on all aspects with a cool head and take your own decision.’
I returned home in an extremely confused state of mind. I was just not able to decide. I took my elder brother into confidence and asked him what decision I should take. He said, ‘Ah! That means you are going to become the law ministerin of India! Don’t think of turning it down! Move forward!’ Another of my brothers began teasing me. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘Dr Ambedkar’s followers love Dr Ambedkar more than they love their own lives. If they ever get to know that this “doctorin bai” is turning down their Babasaheb’s proposal, you will be at risk. If you say no, they are very likely to kill you! So, get back to him with an instant yes. Do that, otherwise there is no saving you.’