Early Life and First School
Two years later, Ramji retired from the army, and the family moved to Dapoli in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra, from where they came originally. Bhim was enrolled at school when he was five years old. The whole family had to struggle to live on the small army pension Ramji received.
When some friends found Ramji a job at Satara, things seemed to be looking up for the family, and they moved again. Soon after, however, tragedy struck. Bhimabhai, who had been ill, died. Bhim’s aunt Mira, though she herself was not in good health, took over the care of the children. Ramji read stories from the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana to his children, and sang devotional songs to them. In this way, home life was still happy for Bhim, his brothers and sisters. He never forgot the influence of his father. It taught him about the rich cultural tradition shared by all Indians.
The Shock of Prejudice – Casteism
Bhim began to notice that he and his family were treated differently. At high school he had to sit in the corner of the room on a rough mat, away from the desks of the other pupils. At break-time, he was not allowed to drink water using the cups his fellow school children used. He had to hold his cupped hands out to have water poured into them by the school caretaker. Bhim did not know why he should be treated differently – what was wrong with him?
Once, he and his elder brother had to travel to Goregaon, where their father worked as a cashier, to spend their summer holidays. They got off the train and waited for a long time at the station, but Ramji did not arrive to meet them. The station master seemed kind, and asked them who they were and where they were going. The boys were very well-dressed, clean, and polite. Bhim, without thinking, told him they were Mahars (a group classed as ‘untouchables’). The station master was stunned – his face changed its kindly expression and he went away.
Bhim decided to hire a bullock-cart to take them to their father – this was before motor cars were used as taxis – but the cart-men had heard that the boys were ‘untouchables’, and wanted nothing to do with them. Finally, they had to agree to pay double the usual cost of the journey, plus they had to drive the cart themselves, while the driver walked beside it. He was afraid of being polluted by the boys, because they were ‘untouchables’. However, the extra money persuaded him that he could have his cart ‘purified’ later! Throughout the journey, Bhim thought constantly about what had happened – yet he could not understand the reason for it. He and his brother were clean and neatly dressed. Yet they were supposed to pollute and make unclean everything they touched and all that touched them. How could that be possible?
Bhim never forgot this incident. As he grew up, such senseless insults made him realise that what Hindu society called ‘untouchability’ was stupid, cruel, and unreasonable. His sister had to cut his hair at home because the village barbers were afraid of being polluted by an ‘untouchable’. If he asked her why they were ‘untouchables’, she could only answer -that is the way it has always been.” Bhim could not be satisfied with this answer. He knew that -it has always been that way” does not mean that there is a just reason for it – or that it had to stay that way forever. It could be changed.
An Outstanding Scholar
At this time in his young life, with his mother dead, and father working away from the village where Bhim went to school, he had some good fortune. His teacher, though from a ‘high’ caste, liked him a lot. He praised Bhim’s good work and encouraged him, seeing what a bright pupil he was. He even invited Bhim to eat lunch with him – something that would have horrified most high caste Hindus. The teacher also changed Bhim’s last name to Ambedkar – his own name.
When his father decided to remarry, Bhim was very upset – he still missed his mother so much. Wanting to run away to Bombay, he tried to steal his aunt’s purse. When at last he managed to get hold of it, he found only one very small coin. Bhim felt so ashamed. He put the coin back and made a vow to himself to study very hard and to become independent.
Soon he was winning the highest praise and admiration from all his teachers. They urged Ramji to get the best education fro his son Bhim. So Ramji moved with his family to Bombay. They all had to live in just one room, in an area where the poorest of the poor lived, but Bhim was able to go to Elphinstone High School – one of the best schools in all of India.
In their one room everyone and everything was crowed together and the streets outside were very noisy. Bhim went to sleep when he got home from school. Then his father would wake him up at two o’clock in the morning! Everything was quiet then – so he could do his homework and study in peace.
In the big city, where life was more modern than in the villages, Bhim found that he was still called an ‘untouchable’ and treated as if something made him different and bad – even at his famous school.
One day, the teacher called him up to the blackboard to do a sum. All the other boys jumped up and made a big fuss. Their lunch boxes were stacked behind the blackboard – they believed that Bhim would pollute the food! When he wanted to learn Sanskrit, the language of the Hindu holy scriptures, he was told that it was forbidden for ‘untouchables’ to do so. He had to study Persian instead – but he taught himself Sanskrit later in life.