Ambedkar, my hero
Controversial IFS officer Devyani Khobragade writes a children's book that revisits the life of the revolutionary leader to acquaint her daughters with their legacy
The struggles of Dr BR Ambedkar precede his revolutionary work. It's what inspired everything he did later in his life, including building the framework of the Indian Constitution. For Indian Foreign Service officer Devyani Khobragade, the experience was even more personal. "My grandfather was part of Dr Ambedkar's movement. He converted along with Baba Saheb to Buddhism. So, we grew up as Ambedkarite Buddhists. The pride and consciousness to fight for equality and justice that he instilled in the Dalit community was part of conversations in the family," says Delhi-based Khobragade, who made headlines in 2013 for committing visa fraud, and allegedly underpaying her domestic help, while serving as the Deputy Consul General of the Consulate General of India in New York.
Currently serving as joint secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, in Delhi, Khobragade wanted to reacquaint her daughters, Amaya and Shaira, who have spent time in the US and India, with their legacy. "I wanted to instill [in them] pride in the great social justice movement, led by the tallest national leader that our community produced," she says, in an email interview.
Her debut children's book, The Adventures of Young Ambedkar (Juggernaut), illustrated by Ishan Trivedi, reimagines the childhood of Bhimrao, who was born to an army man, Ramji Sakpal, and Bhimabai, and belonged to the Mahar caste. The slim 40-pager takes us through Bhim's early schooling years, when he was forced to sit on a gunny bag in the corner of the classroom so as not to "pollute" upper caste kids. He later took on the surname of his teacher, Ambedkar, on the latter's advice, to evade this bigotry. "Despite the change in name, things did not improve for Bhim. The higher-caste kids went to each other's homes during festivals and weddings. But Bhim could not visit their houses nor would they come to his," writes Khobragade in the book.
She relied mostly on the only autobiographical piece on Dr Ambedkar, Waiting for a Visa, to write this title, taking "very little" creative liberty. "The book sticks to real incidences and aspects of Baba Saheb's childhood and early life. I have amplified some aspects and adopted a writing style that children can relate to. For example, we know that Dr Ambedkar's father would wake his children up early morning to sing devotional songs or Abhangs. So, I imagined how a young and smart kid [like Bhim], who wanted to sleep longer, would respond when his father told him that even the rooster wakes up early morning to crow," she says.
There is a moving incident in the book, where Bhim and his brothers, take the train to Koregaon to visit their father, who has moved in with his second wife. Bhim was five years old when his mother passed away. The brothers are forced to remain hungry and thirsty for an entire day, because nobody would give "untouchables" water.
Khobragade completed her schooling in Mumbai, where she says she didn't face discrimination. It wasn't, however, the same in the smaller towns that she frequented. "And of course, the nature of negative stereotypes I faced were far fewer than those my parents experienced," she says, adding, "That is the reason why he is all the more an inspiration to me and millions of others who wish to strive for the ideals of social, political and economic justice and equality enshrined in our Constitution."
Writing this book, she says, reminded her of the larger realities and purpose of life. "There is not enough material to bring to our children the stories of our national heroes and heroines—neither in the book stores, nor in the digital space."
If there is any discussion she doesn't want to engage in, it's the controversy that saw her being repatriated. Last year, Preet Bharara, the Indian-American former Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who prosecuted Khobragade, had acknowledged in his book that her strip-search "should have been avoided". Seven years on, Khobragade says that she'd like to maintain her silence on the issue. "Except, that I would like to quote [Friedrich] Nietzsche, 'What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger'."
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