The enduring and lifelong friendship of Babasaheb Ambedkar with a little-known Parsi man Naval Bhathena was forged in the United States and remained unshaken even when the life trajectories of both the men took different courses.
Ambedkar grew up with harsh experiences of caste discrimination. He was not allowed to sit alongside ‘high-caste’ students. With his brilliance and insatiable hunger for knowledge, he availed a scholarship offered by Sayajirao Gaekwad III, the ruler of the Baroda princely state, to study at New York City’s Columbia University. That is where he met Naval Bhathena, a friend-cum-benefactor, free from caste biases that were typical of an Indian.
The two meet
Ambedkar reached the US in July 1913. After a brief stay in the dormitory of the University, he shifted to the Cosmopolitan Club first and then to Livingston Hall Dormitory (rechristened Wallach Hall) where he chanced upon Naval Bhathena, a Parsi student. (Dr. Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Dhananjay Keer, Popular Prakashan, Bombay, 1954. Page 26).
It is not widely known what Bhathena was studying in the US and how his relationship with Ambedkar blossomed. There aren’t too many details because the only known source on Bhathena is Ambedkar’s biography written by Dhananjay Keer and published in May 1954, when the Dalit social reformer was active.
From Columbia University, Ambedkar proceeded for London where he wanted to study further. But his ambitious trip was cut short by officials of Baroda who insisted that the term for the scholarship had ended.
It took another three years for Ambedkar to return to London with financial help from Naval Bhathena. Though Ambedkar was a professor at Bombay’s Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics, his savings were not enough. Bhathena then extended him a loan of Rs 5,000 and Ambedkar sailed for London in 1920. (Page 44)
The Parsi inn story no history textbook will carry
But before this second journey, Ambedkar had a traumatic tryst with members of the Parsi community in Baroda – a seminal incident in Ambedkar’s life that shaped his thinking deeply.
After returning from Columbia, Ambedkar came to live in Baroda where he had to work to fulfil his scholarship contract. As this Columbia-educated scholar did not find a place to stay in Baroda because of caste bias, he ended up at a Parsi inn. The inn, however, was open only for the Parsis. When asked about his caste, he declared himself a Hindu. Ambedkar somehow managed, by bribing the receptionist, to get his name entered in the register as a Parsi.
This arrangement was, however, short-lived. Others in the community found out Ambedkar’s caste. An agitated crowd of Parsis with sticks in hand stormed the inn. Ambedkar has described the tragic scene in front of his room: “(they) fired a volley of questions. Who are you? Why did you come here? How dare you take a Parsi name? You scoundrel! You have polluted the Parsi inn…” They issued an ultimatum. They must not find me in the inn in the evening. I must pack off. They held out dire consequences, and left.” (Waiting For A Visa, Chapter Two, Dr. B.R Ambedkar_CompleteWorks_Created by Dr. Anand Teltumbde).
That night, Ambedkar spent in a park nearby. He couldn’t sleep. He sat under a tree, with his suitcase, bedding and all his certificates and books strewn around on the ground. He left Baroda soon after.
Today, that spot in the park is a site of remembrance and homage for many Dalits. There is a small plaque and a memorial shrine that was erected just over a decade ago.
Just like not many Indians know about Bhathena’s benevolence, the Parsi inn incident isn’t part of any school textbooks in India or collective memory.
A rock-solid friendship
Leaving India to study in London did not end Ambedkar’s miseries. The shortage of money kept bothering him. He had to skip his meals. In this circumstance, “now and then Ambedkar turned to his friend Mr. Naval Bhathena for help…He pressed Bhathena for a sum of Rs 2,000 as he desired to buy German exchange in advance which was then very low but was likely to look up after some days.” (Keer. Page 46). Feeling thankful and concerned at the same time, Ambedkar wrote to Bhathena “Believe me, I extremely regret to see you bothered on my account. I fully realise that the worries which I have thrown on you are more than even the thickest of friend can bear. I only hope that my constant asking for something or other does not break your back, and alienate you from me the only and dear friend of mine.” (Page 46)
After completing his law studies, Barrister Ambedkar decided to practice law, but had no money to obtain a sanad — a prerequisite for a practising lawyer. Once again, Bhathena helped him and “with that money, the Doctor got his sanad and started life as a Barrister in June1925.” (Page 51)
In the 1940s, Ambedkar was worried about the financial future of his son and nephew, and he turned to his rock-solid support: Naval Bhathena. He wrote to Bhathena asking him “to draw a plan of any industry he would like to suggest for his son and nephew, so that the boys might have an honest calling as a means of living and he might die peacefully.” He also requested Bhathena to teach them some stable business. (Page 404)
The last meeting
Their last meeting was in October, 1956. Bhathena recalled it in his tribute “Our longest meeting was at his house two months before he died. We were together from three o’clock in the afternoon till six in the evening and no other person was allowed in the room. That day Ambedkar spoke from his heart. He criticized his son and also his nephew and I left the house, saddened (that) my friend was at journey’s end. Even now, I can hardly believe that he (just) lived a couple of months more.” (Ambedkarachya Sahavasat, Dr. Savita Bhimrao Ambadekar, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Foundation, Mumbai, 2013. Page 354).
The author is a senior columnist and writer based in Ahmedabad. Views are personal.
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