In one of India’s archetypal autobiographical fragments – Waiting for a Visa (1935-6) – BR Ambedkar, the principal mind behind the Indian Constitution, writes of his experience being a member of a government committee charged with investigating grievances against untouchables. As he goes to one of the villages, Chalisgaon, where he has to investigate allegations of prejudice, he has a peculiar experience in a tonga (horse-carriage) – for at the end of the ride, he finds himself fallen into a river. Ambedkar writes:

So heavy was the fall that I lay down [there] senseless. The Maharwada [untouchable colony] is just on the other bank of the river. The men who had come to greet me at the station had reached there ahead of me. I was lifted and taken to the Maharwada amidst the cries and lamentations of the men, women and children. As a result of this I received several injuries. My leg was fractured, and I was disabled for several days. I could not understand how all this had happened.

He realises that the reason for all this was that none of the regular tongawallas (drivers of the one-horse carriage) wanted to drive with an untouchable on board, and hence one of the untouchables in the village, someone who had no experience with a tonga, had volunteered.

Ambedkar continues his account, not without humour and sadness:

The man took the reins in his hand and started, thinking there was nothing in it. But as he got on, he felt his responsibility and became so nervous that he gave up all attempt to control. To save my dignity, the Mahars of Chalisgaon had put my very life in jeopardy. It is then I learnt that a Hindu tongawalla, no better than a menial, has a dignity by which he can look upon himself as a person who is superior to any untouchable, even though he may be a Barrister-at-law.

Being inexperienced as a tonga driver, the amateur driver ended up having himself, Ambedkar and the tonga fall into the river.

Ambedkar does not tell us of how his investigations proceeded in that village, for the incident of his (and his driver’s) humiliation in the river encapsulates how insidious the problem of social inequity was – the wide gap between lived experience, and the lofty, platonic world of law and committee work that he had come to the village for. There is the well-outfitted bureaucrat with his briefcase, and then there is the muddy river of reality.

The autobiography glides on to a later incident, choosing not to dwell further on this syndrome of humiliation. This tone of distance and detachment, even when talking of something personal and complex (Ambedkar’s title for the section is Pride, Awkwardness and a Dangerous Accident at Chalisgaon), is something that will haunt many later Dalit memoirs. In these memoirs, it often seems that personhood is melted – on the one hand, this melting of individuation might result in a detached, chosen subjugation of personal identity to a larger caste-solidarity, but on the other hand, there is a sense of the awkward, even ridiculous body in a river looking up at his community’s equally helpless lamentation.

Neither language nor law nor institutions could quite capture that quintessence of chagrin and absurdity that Ambedkar must have felt. Experience, not least in its bathetic dimension, captures in an irreducible manner the wound of injustice that cuts one open, making one lose one’s moorings and sense of a coherent, regular world in which moral action and thought matter and are effective. This book concerns itself with these densities of subjectivity as it navigates the world – the emotional and cognitive content that is often born from the ludicrous and tragic inadequacy of abstract even if well-meant solutions.

Ambedkar, in Chalisgaon, is already addressing the issue of untouchability from a high level – he is a senior governmental official. It is accepted in powerful circles that the problem needs to be rooted out. Yet, on the ground, there is an obduracy (and perhaps incomprehension and indifference) to governmental efforts at social justice. There is a wide gap between intent (however powerful and conscientious), and everyday mulish reality. Perhaps the higher castes directly intended that particular humiliation, but it may also be that their actions only played out an inner, spontaneous, everyday script of humiliation that was not particularly directed at Ambedkar or the norms of justice.

In the previous section of his memoir-fragment, Ambedkar had described a similar humiliation where

a dozen Parsis armed with sticks lined [up] before me in a menacing mood, and myself standing before them with a terrified look imploring for mercy, is a scene which so long a period as eighteen years has not succeeded in fading away. I can even now vividly recall it – and [I] never recall it without tears in my eyes. It was then for the first time that I learnt that a person who is an untouchable to a Hindu is also an untouchable to a Parsi.”

Untouchability thereby traverses all axes: region, caste, religion and social status.

This book is interested in these breaches: as one inhabits a world, one is conscious of pain and oppressiveness, even as one might be conscious of the moral efforts underway to combat that oppression. But the undoing of injustice is never quite fully achieved. There is a doubleness to Ambedkar’s voice – an optimistic belief in the power of official ethical action (he is a committee-member), but also a sense of the overwhelming nature of social evil and injustice in the world.

One would not want to move too quickly from the “tears in my eyes”, to the bromides of faith in a polity’s future, the mandates of a Constitution the promise of which keeps receding into the future with every step one takes toward it. Yet, Ambedkar would not want to dwell forever in those tears either – sometimes, it is the tears that seem fleeting, and sometimes, it is the belief in an egalitarian future that seems tentative. It is by paying attention to these complexities in the memoir that a commentator today may note how voice, emotion and norm enhance each other, and gives a fuller picture of the situation.

This is what gives the autobiography its evocativeness, meaning and robustness. However much abstraction spirals, it must not lose its home in the felt pain of a psyche at a given personal and historical moment.

Humiliation, as described above, is one of the foremost enunciations of that pain of injustice. Recent scholarship has rightfully picked this trait for special attention – the many essays in the book Humiliation: Claims and Context, edited by the distinguished political scientist, Gopal Guru, are examples of this engagement. For in that village of Chalisgaon, as in many later times of his life, Ambedkar felt isolated, alone, helpless, wondering if his many years of service and persuasion would ever amount to anything concrete.

There had been a long prior life of living on the margins of a larger, dominant society. It is no surprise that he insisted that the critical idiom through which democracy should play out in the Constitution was this notion of unjust, unconscionable suffering. The first-person experience of Ambedkar is linked to the more abstracted rights-, representation-, and protection-based discourse of disadvantaged groups preserving themselves again a self- perpetuating elite that seeks to stamp out individuated diversity. One cannot thus avoid the question of how these experiences of first-person selfhood relate to the third-person regulatory abstraction of the minority and human rights that are foundational to Ambedkar’s vision of the Constitution.

Human rights of disadvantaged minorities is hardly a transparent concept, and it had a long and vexed history through the Indian twentieth century before it came to complicate the Constitution itself.

Are all minorities alike in their minority-ness and difference – is there such a thing as a single, universal suffering, of which all forms of suffering and injustice are only sub-types? The debate on minorities is an opening into a broader ethics of self-presentation in the world, when a dominant majoritarian tilt would rather have the speaker silenced, or speak in a familiar, co-optable idiom of simple victimhood. But a thoughtful enunciation of suffering, irreducible to mute victimhood, brings in its trail many of the questions of this book: of how suffering or injustice can be shared, listened and responded to, and recognised in its fullness, individuality, power and vulnerability.

Excerpted with permission from Inlays of Subjectivity: Affect and Action in Modern Indian Literature, Nikhil Govind. Oxford University Press.