The warm midmorning breeze ruffled my silvery hair. I halted irresolutely in front of the steps leading to the veranda. It had been more than two decades since I had met him. I considered myself lucky. Well, not everyone who wished to visit him were given an appointment.
“Ajinkya bhau*?” a soft voice broke my reverie. A petite, yet assertive framed woman stood before me with folded hands.
“Savita Vahini*, namaskar,” I greeted her.
“Please come in, Saheb is sleeping.”
I was warmly ushered to the hall of their two-storied, L-shaped building. This house at 26, Alipur road majestically stood amidst a serene neighbourhood. The capacious room housed the most magnanimous soul I had ever known. Large photo frames hung on the wall. His portrait of the Buddha stunned me. His recent conversion to Buddhism was the talk of the town. I walked along the side of the hall where his numerous certificates were framed. My chest swelled with pride seeing the accolades won by my dear multi-talented friend- who was a jurist, economist, painter, social reformer, and a honest politician.
“Bhau, please have some tea,” Savita vahini said. “When did you arrive here in Delhi?”
“This morning. How’s Saheb’s health?”
“I’m glad you came. As you know he’s not in the best of his health these days. His sugar levels and blood pressure have peaked. He hardly gets out of his room. He keeps speaking of his childhood days that weren’t rosy, and his friends who were dear to him. That’s how I learned about you- his school friend who was an ardent supporter in his youth activities too. But where did you vanish? He never talks about it even though I’ve prodded him.”
I choked on the biscuit and began coughing. I sipped water slowly to dodge the question.
I looked at the frames hanging on the cream-coloured wall. One particular portrait grabbed my attention. As against my racing heartbeat, my feet ambled towards it. My friend, Bhimrao, our country’s first Satyagrahi who led ‘The Mahad Satyagraha’ stood on the steps of the Chawdar lake, followed by thousands of supporters. A flier written in Marathi was fixed below. It called for the local residents to join the peaceful protest led by Dr. Ambedkar against the atrocities upon the dalits by the upper castes. So much had happened that day. Would I ever be able to forgive myself?
I recollected the day like it had happened yesterday. I knew Dr. Ambedkar, who I fondly called Bhima, from our childhood days. We not only belonged to the same village, but also the same wretched caste- the Mahar caste, considered untouchables. I cringe as I remember the discrimination we faced by the upper castes. They’d stay away from our shadows too! As if we were deadly microbes. At school, we were made to sit outside the classroom. Once, Bhima was enraged when he was denied drinking water from the tap as it would make the water ‘impure’. He complained to the principal.
“Getting you admitted in our school itself is a privilege. Stop complaining else you can clean sewage and toilets like people of your caste do.”
Bhima was heartbroken. He planned to elope to the city. But he realized that we untouchables had no hope anywhere in the country. So, he decided to pursue education as he knew that’s the only weapon needed to fight against this discrimination. While I stayed back in our village, he went to Bombay to complete his degree, and later to the U.S and U.K for post graduation and PhD. After returning to India, he published a fortnightly Marathi newspaper called ‘Mukanayak’ or the leader of the voiceless.
The Chawdar tank in Mahad, a town in Maharashtra was the only public tank from which an outsider could get water. But the untouchables were not allowed to take water from this tank.
Bhima had a detailed discussion with his team. I was a core member too.
“These upper castes are getting on our nerves,” I protested. “Let’s give them a fitting reply and burn their houses.”
“No, Ajinkya,” Bhima said stoically. “I detest violence.”
“So? Are we going to stay quiet?” I hated the way he went against my idea.
“No, we won’t. We will have a peaceful protest,” he replied. “Let’s all march to the Chawdar tank and drink the water. Let’s put a strong message that we all have equal rights over public drinking water. I appoint Tipnis to take the lead.”
I grunted loud enough to be heard by all. How could he ignore me and assign the duty to someone else?
After the meeting, Bhima took me to a side.
“Aju, you are like my brother,” he put his arm over my shoulder. “But lately, I’m hearing a lot about your drinking habit. Please don’t get addicted. It’ll finish you off.”
“Is that why you assigned Tipnis to lead?” I growled.
He sighed. “I can’t be biased, Aju. Tipnis has the ability, we all know that. You get rid of liquor and I promise you to give more responsibilities in future.”
I felt like some consolation prize. Dunking myself in country liquor that night, I staggered towards Sharad Pendse’s house.
“Saheb is awake,” Savita vahini broke my trance. “He asked for you.”
With heavy steps, I walked to Bhima’s room. I couldn’t believe the sight I saw. The sturdy, hefty Bhima was reduced to a frail and dull man.
“Aju, my brother. Please come in,” his smile was as radiant as ever.
His firm, yet warm hug melted me. I broke into tears.
“Aju, is everything fine?
The concern in his tone was evident. I managed to smile.
“Bhima, how are you my friend?”
“I’m good now that you’re here. How’s your family?”
“They are fine. I’m sorry I left without informing you, Bhima. I can’t tell you how terrible I’ve felt all these years. Not a single night I was able to sleep undisturbed.” I hung my head low.
“Aju, let’s forget about the past. I’ve never held any bitter feelings towards you. You’re still dear to me as you were in school. Come, let’s have lunch. Then we can chat leisurely.”
After a scrumptious lunch, Bhima and I made ourselves comfortable in the veranda that overlooked a beautiful garden. The colourful flowers took me back to that pleasant day of 1927, when for the first time in history, led by a great leader of their own, we had marched to vindicate our rights. We all displayed discipline, energy and enthusiasm. The march wended its way through the streets of Mahad and terminated at the Chawdar Tank. Dr Ambedkar himself was now standing on the verge of the Tank. He then drank water from it amidst loud cheer. With great earnestness he then delivered a message to his people which echoed throughout the hills, dales and villages of Maharashtra, defying the arrogance of the tyrants, exposing the baseness of people who boasted that their religion treated even animals with forbearance, but who treated their co-religionists worse than cats and dogs.
The processionists then returned peacefully to the pandal. The next hour, everyone were startled to see the upper caste Hindus approach towards us enraged like mad bulls. With bamboo sticks, they hit the crowd. Hundreds bled and fell unconscious.
“These are Sharad’s goons. How did he get to know?” a supporter cried.
The whole town became a mass of surging goons. Still, non-violence was followed by Bhima’s men. Hence, a more serious riot was averted.
“Aju, run to a safe place. I will take care of the situation here,” Bhima advised. “God forbid something happens to you, I shall never forgive myself.”
Words failed to tumble from my mouth. He pushed me into a van that was filled with people, some bleeding, some weeping. As the van left, I saw a blurry image of my friend. Tears didn’t stop. That was the last I saw him.
“Aju, you seem so lost. My childhood buddy used to be such an effervescent and happy-go-lucky man.” Bhima snapped his fingers, halting my train of thoughts.
“I… I’ve something to confess, Bhima,” I stuttered.
Bhima sat erect.
“You remember the Mahad Satyagraha…”
“The nation does,” he smiled.
“How well the procession had begun. But the goons…”
“Hmm… it was unfortunate.”
“Bhima, it was I who tipped off Sharad Pendse. He sent the goons to disrupt the peaceful protest. I’m that wretched mole, Bhima,” I cried.
But Bhima was strangely silent.
“I know, Aju.”
“I know the day before procession you had met Sharad in an inebriated state.”
“Still… still you kept quiet…”
“Everyone does mistake, Aju. You’re like my brother.”
I cried even more. The guilt piled up all these years was now unbearable.
“What are you made up of? How easily you forgave me, a sinner? After that day, I left the town for good. I couldn’t meet your eye. But I proudly read about you in newspapers. When I read about your ill-health, I couldn’t remain quiet. I had to confess.”
“Now you can sleep peacefully, Aju,” his eyes twinkled. His aura made me feel better. I left for home feeling lighter.
Two days later, I heard the news of his sad demise. I shut my eyes and saw his radiant smile as he called me ‘Aju, my brother…’
Bhau: brother in Marathi
Vahini: sister-in-law in Marathi
Author’s note: The Mahad Satyagraha took place in 1927. However, the character Ajinkya is fictitious, created just to emphasize on the social reformation led by Dr. Ambedkar.
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