Ramabai’s sacrifices turned Bhima into Dr Ambedkar

Dr Ambedkar affectionately addressed his wife Ramabai as Ramu. Siddharth writes how Ramabai’s struggles and sacrifices helped Bhima evolve into Dr Ambedkar

Ramabai Ambedkar (7 February 1898 – 27 May 1935)

Dr Ambedkar affectionately addressed his better half Ramabai as Ramu while she called him Saheb. They shared the highs and the lows of their life for 27 years – and there were more lows than highs. They married in 1908 when Ambedkar was 17 and Ramabai was 9. Ramabai’s maiden name was Ramibai. After marriage, she was renamed Ramabai. Ambedkar’s followers address her as “Ramayee”.

Ambedkar dedicated his book Pakistan or the Partition of India, published in 1935, to Ramabai, some six years after her passing. The dedication read:

“Inscribed to the memory of Ramu

As a token of my appreciation of her goodness of heart, her nobility of mind and her purity of character and also for the cool fortitude and readiness to suffer along with me which she showed in those friendless days of want and worries which fell to our lot” (Ambedkar, 2019)

The words used by Ambedkar in this dedication amply indicate her utmost regard for Ramabai and his recognition that she had played a key role in his life. He refers to the “goodness of heart” of Ramabai and recalls her readiness to suffer and her cool fortitude. He does not forget to underscore that there was a phase in their life when they were friendless. They had only each other for friends and that too in the days of wants and worries.

Dr Ambedkar with his family in 1934 at his Mumbai home Rajgriha. (From left) Yashwant (son), Dr Ambedkar, Ramabai (wife), Laxmibai (wife of elder brother Anand) and nephew Mukundrao. Dr Ambedkar’s pet dog Tobby is also seen in the picture

Ambedkar wrote to Ramabai from London that he was on the verge of starvation

Testing times frequently visited the Ambedkar couple. The first time they found themselves in trouble was when Ambedkar went to London for the second time in 1920 to complete his studies. Before leaving, he left some cash with Ramabai for the household expenses but that did not last long and she had to manage with the meagre earnings of her brother Shankarrao and younger sister Meerabai. They could barely bring home 8-10 annas (50-60 paise) a day by doing odd jobs. She used the money for buying provisions and tried to somehow fill the stomachs of the family members. Those were difficult times for her. There were days on which they had to sleep on empty stomachs (Vasant Moon, 1991, p 25).

While Ramabai was struggling to arrange two square meals a day for the family in India, Ambedkar was no better off in faraway London. Ramabai wrote to him, describing the pitiful economic condition of the family. Ambedkar replied to her in these words:

London, 25 November 1921
Dear Ramu,
Namaste

Received your letter. I was pained to know that Gangadhar [Ambedkar’s eldest son] is ill. Have faith in yourself. Worry would lead to nothing. I am happy to learn that your studies are continuing. I am trying to arrange some money. I am also on the verge of starvation here. I have nothing to send to you but I am trying to arrange something. If it takes time or if you are left with nothing, sell off your jewellery to run the household. I will get new ornaments made for you. How are the studies of Yashwant and Mukund going? You have not written anything about it.

My health is fine. Don’t worry. I am pursuing my studies. I know nothing about Sakhu and Manjula. When you get the money, buy one sari each for Manjula and Laxmi. How is Shankar doing? How is Gajra?

Best to everyone
Bhimarao (Shahare, Anil, 2014, p 57)

The privations Ramabai and Dr Ambedkar suffered for the sake of society also found mention in an editorial of Bahishkrit Bharat. Ambedkar wrote that Ramabai shouldered the responsibility of running the household for a long phase in his life when he was studying abroad. Even after he returned, he became so immersed in social work that he scarcely found half an hour a day for Ramabai. Even then Ramabai had to manage the family all alone. The only difference was that then Ambedkar was able to provide her with money to buy provisions.

Ambedkar remembered Ramabai in Bahishkrit Bharat editorial

How the two of them sacrificed their personal happiness and peace on the altar of social work was described by Ambedkar in Bahishkrit Bharat thus: “This writer [Ambedkar], who wrote 24 columns for Bahishkrit Bharat for a year for spreading social awareness without getting a penny in return and who, while doing this, did not care about his health, happiness and peace – she (Ramabai) made him the cynosure of her eyes. That is not all. When this writer was abroad, she carried the burden of the family on her shoulders and still does that. Even after this writer was back from overseas, she did not flinch in carrying basketfuls of cow dung on her head during periods of financial distress. And this writer could not find even half an hour in 24 hours for this extremely affectionate, amiable and venerable wife” (Prabhakar Gajbhiye, 2017, p 152).

A painting of Ramabai and Dr Ambedkar

This editorial, published in Bahishkrit Bharat on 3 February 1928 to mark the completion of one year of the publication of the newspaper, was titled “Is Bahishkrit Bharat’s debt not public debt?”

In this piece, Ambedkar described how Ramabai was affection incarnate and remembered her as a venerable spouse. He also expresses his distress and pain over not finding even a few hours to spend with his wife who faced extreme deprivations and made countless sacrifices.

Ambedkar couple underwent the pain of losing four children 

Ramabai and Dr Ambedkar were dealt one cruel blow after another when they lost their three sons and a daughter. His son Gangadhar died when he was studying in America. Later, Yashwant was born, followed by Ramesh, Indu and Rajratna. The latter three also passed away. The loss of their four children left Ramabai and Ambedkar heartbroken. Their grief knew no bounds. Dr Ambedkar shared his pain in a letter to his friend Dattoba Pawar in heart-wrenching words: “We [Ramabai and Ambedkar] will not be able to get over the shock of the death of our last son soon. These hands have delivered three sons and one daughter to the cremation ground. Whenever I remember them, my heart aches. What we had thought about their future lies in ruins. Clouds of pain are hovering over our life. The death of the children has made our lives as tasteless as food without salt. The Bible says, “You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its flavour, with what will it be salted?” The vacuum in my life testifies to the truth of this statement. My last son was extraordinary. I am yet to see a child like that. His departure from this world has made my life like a garden full of thorns. I am so despaired and distressed that I cannot write any more. Accept salutations from your friend in deep agony” (Shahare, Anil, 2014, p 70).

Ambedkar and Ramabai married in Mumbai’s Machhli Bazar

Ambedkar married Ramabai in 1908, soon after he cleared the matriculation examination. He was a student of Elphinstone High School at the time. Ambedkar’s father Ramji Subedar had settled his son’s marriage with Ramabai, the daughter of Bhikku Valangkar. The wedding ceremony was held at the Byculla Bazar (Machhli Bazar) of Bombay (now Mumbai). The groom’s family assembled at one corner of the market and the bride’s at another. Filthy water was gushing down a drain near the platform on which the rituals were performed. Ramabai was the youngest daughter of her parents, who had died she was a child. Her father Bhikku Dhutre (Valangkar) had been from Vanand village near Dabhol and worked as a porter at the Dabhol port. She and her brothers and sisters were brought up by their relatives. Her brother’s name was Shankar Dhutre. (Dhananjay Keer, 2018, p 23).

Though Ambedkar and Ramabai married in 1908, they actually started living a married life only in 1917, after his return to Bombay from London. It was an occasion for celebration. Ramabai thought that her pain and miseries would soon end. Her Saheb would get a job, earn money and everyone would live happily. She hoped that they would have more children (the first child Gangadhar had died by then) and lead a happy, contented and prosperous life (Khairmode, 2016, p 112).

But Ambedkar had other ideas. His deep involvement in social and political struggles during the period meant he had little time to spare for Ramabai.

Ambedkar’s departure to London brought fresh trouble for Ramabai

Ambedkar was disappointed that he had to quit his studies midway and return to Bombay from London. His happiness over his reunion with the family was clouded by this disappointment (ibid). Hence, after around two and half years with Rambai in Bombay, Ambedkar left for London in 1920 to complete his studies.  Ambedkar’s departure to London brought fresh trouble for Ramabai. This is evident from Ambedkar’s reply to a letter of Ramabai, quoted above. He returned to India in 1923 and their life was back on the rails. But Ambedkar got sucked deeper and deeper into socio-political movements and could hardly spend time with Ramabai.

Ambedkar cried like a child on Ramabai’s death

After Ambedkar’s return to India, the economic condition of the family improved. But Ramabai’s health started deteriorating. Ambedkar’s biographer Dhananjay Keer writes, “Ramabai was ill. Ambedkar had not found time to look after his family for almost 10 years. He once took Ramabai to Dharwad for a change of air. But there was no improvement in her health … Babasaheb did all he could to bring about an improvement in her condition” (Dhananjay Keer, 2018, p 237). But medicines simply did not work and Ramabai’s health continued to deteriorate. She became exceedingly weak and was confined to the bed for six months before her death.

She often had to starve in the initial years of her marital life, and that had broken her body. The death of four children had broken her heart. On 27 May 1935, Saheb’s Ramu bid farewell. Ambedkar had returned home the night before her death. He was by her side when she died. A morose Ambedkar, with his heart heavy with sorrow, walked haltingly with the funeral procession. After returning from the funeral ground, he locked himself up in a room. He cried like a child for a week after Ramabai’s death (Dhananjay Keer, 2018, p 239).

A series of films and plays were made on the life of Ramabai. Several books were also written about her in Marathi. Some of them were:

  • Ramabai Bhimrao Ambedkar, a 2011 Marathi film directed by Prakash Jadhav
  • Ramabai, a 2016 Kannada film directed by M. Ranganath
  • Yugpurush Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, a 1993 Marathi film directed by Shashikant Nalavade
  • Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, a 2000 English film directed by Jabbar Patel
  • Bhim Garjana, a 1990 Marathi film directed by Vijay Pawar
  • Ramai, a 1992 play directed by Ashok Gawali

References:

Ambedkar, B.R. (2019). Pakistan or the Partition of India in Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Volume 8, Bombay: Government of Maharashtra

Moon, Vasant. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, National Book Trust, New Delhi, 1991

Shahare, M.L. and Anil, Nalini, Babasaheb Dr Ambedkar Ki Sangharsh Yatra Evam Sandesh, Samyak Prakashan, New Delhi, 2014

Bahishkrit Bharat mein Prakashit Babasaheb Dr Ambedkar ke Sampadakiye, translation Prabhakar Gajbhiye, Samyak Prakashan, New Delhi, 2017

Keer, Dhananjay, Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar Jeevan Charit, Popular Prakashan, Mumbai, 2018

Khairmode, Changdeo Bhawanrao, Babasaheb Ambedkar: Jeevan Aur Chintan, Bhaag-1, translation Dr Vimal Kirti, Samyak Prakashan, New Delhi, 2016

 (Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)

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