Dear Reader, He is dressed in a full sleeved blue T-shirt. A thick black belt latches his blue denims firmly to his thin frame. A shy smile plays on his lips even as his dark brown eyes reflect conviction and determination. He is Satyvrat Ambedkar, a 13-year-old resident of Gwal Toli, Kanpur.
“To me he is more than god. He has done more for us than god ever did.” The “he” little Satyvrat is talking about is none other than the man after whom he has been named – Babasaheb Ambedkar.
Satyvrat’s given name, I learn, is Vishal. He is the youngest of five siblings. His father used to be a cleaner at a hotel. He also pulled rickshaws. Much of the money however went into his drinking He passed away earlier in the year. The family barely manages to get by. His mother, Shakuntala, and sisters work as cleaners in homes and offices. His brothers do manual work. None of them have been to school.
But Satyvrat has decided he will not follow in his family’s footsteps. He will not take up the profession that has been forced onto his community for generations – sweeping and scavenging.
Satyvrat belongs to the Bhangi or Mehtar community that has traditionally been treated as untouchables not just by the upper castes, but by Dalits themselves. This community has through centuries been relegated to what are regarded as “impure” professions – sweeping, collection of night soil, and playing musical instruments, especially those made from animal skins.
“Do you know earlier people from our community had to tie a broom behind them as they walked? They said even our footsteps would sully the earth. But Babasaheb changed that,” he tells me, respect and anger warring in his eyes.
“No, many people worked to remove that practice. But Babasaheb made sure that all forms of discrimination against us were stopped, not just the tying of the broom,” a colleague ruffles his hair affectionately and corrects him.
I look on in awe. We are sitting in a small one-room office of the Apna Theatre company in Kanpur’s Gwal Toli mohalla that has over 150 Mehtar and Bhangi families. There are a few dusty chairs, a wooden table and a display case with a series of books that challenge the caste system, books that have been written by Apna Theatre’s founder, Deo Kumar.
On the wall behind Satyvrat’s chair is a huge 24 inch X 18 inch poster of Babasaheb, his hero. I had come to this office to speak to Deo, whom, dear reader, you have met in the Gallery of Portraits earlier. It was Deo who introduced me to this proud, albeit shy little boy sitting in his office and I knew that you would enjoy the conversation that followed, almost as much as I did.
“How do you know about the practice of tying brooms?” I ask. I had only learnt of this obnoxious practice a few months ago during my travels to different Dalit bastis. I was amazed that such a young boy would know of it.
“I listen to Deo bhaiyya and the others when they talk of Babasaheb. Did you know, I recently did a programme with other kids on Babasaheb? I spent Rs 50 from my own pocket to carry forward his message,” he says with pride.
“So how did you meet Deo Bhaiyya?”
“Oh, I used to saunter around the mohalla with other kids. Once I came to this office with some children. Deo bhaiyya normally organises meetings here every evening. I attended one and I liked what he told us. So I came the next day and the day after. Gradually, the others stopped coming. But I didn’t.”
“Because I understood what Deo bhaiyya and the others were saying and because I believe in Babasaheb.”
And it was this strong belief that convinced Deo and the Apna Theatre group to give Vishal a new name and to include him in their group.
“I sit and manage the office,” he beams with pride. He also sets up book stalls for the group and attends social meetings. Last year, Satyvrat participated in a rally that was held to inform the safai karamcharis (cleaners) and their children of pre-metric scholarships offered by the government.
“What about school?”
“I will join school next month.”
“Have you never been to school before?”
“No. I was enrolled twice but I never went.”
He simply shrugs his shoulders.
“What has changed now?”
“Now, I understand the importance of education. I want to be like Deo bhaiyya. I want to spread Babasaheb’s message. I want to read his works. My brothers and sisters laugh at me and say who is Ambedkar? I want to explain his ideas to them and to many others like them. I want the world to respect Babasaheb. I want to live up to my name.”
Postscript: Much has changed in the year since I wrote this first postcard from Kanpur. Satyvrat enrolled in the Thakkar Bappa primary school in Gwal Toli in Class 3. He performed so well that within a couple of months he was moved to Class 4. A small step towards realising his big dreams!
Excepted with permission from The Museum Of Broken Tea Cups: Postcards from India’s Margins, Gunjan Veda, Yoda-Sage Select.