What happens when Shashi Tharoor, MP and author, and Suhel Seth, entrepreneur, actor, author and columnist, come together to discuss Ambedkar? An epic discussion on politics and history ensues, drawing in hundreds of invested listeners. On December 26, such was the scene at the parlour of ITC Sonar where Tharoor and Seth launched the former’s latest book, Ambedkar: A Life, published by Aleph. The event was organised by Prabha Khaitan Foundation (PKF) under their initiative Kitaab, along with FICCI FLO and Ehsaas.
Tharoor, flanked by guests, poses with the newly launched book
Tharoor’s work is a thoroughly researched and detailed biography that sheds light on Ambedkar’s personal decisions, obstinate personality and political biases like never before. At the launch, the conversation between Tharoor and Seth meandered through the life of Ambedkar as a man and how his social alienation, political decisions, academic records and personality came to shape him.
Why ‘Ambedkar: A Life’ is worth a read
Seth set the mood for the evening by giving reasons to read the book before diving straight into a more in-depth conversation about Ambedkar. “It is unarguably one of the finest books [on Ambedkar]. You should buy this book for three reasons. First, it contextualizes the person who we have credited with the making of the Indian Constitution. Second, it paraphrases, its profiles, it puts into context the enormous intellectual struggle that Dr Ambedkar had to wage with people who were his contemporaries. Third, it also tells you that while a lot has changed, nothing has.”
‘Ambedkar: A Life’ on display at the event
Why Ambedkar and why now?
As Seth listed the reasons, Tharoor chimed in with a quip. “I’ll give you a fourth reason. The book is mercifully brief. It's just 200 pages long. Especially in today’s Tik Tok generation or Whatsapp generation, nobody would read any of those substantial biographies. So I thought it would be good to write something short and accessible to today’s young people.”
Tharoor went on to elaborate on the subject of his book. “Why Ambedkar? You realize that there is probably no other Indian who has more statues of him around the country. Perhaps Gandhi might have slightly more. But there is no village in India without a bust or a statue of Ambedkar. In these circumstances, he probably is the most revered Indian. He is also somebody whose stature has grown after his death, which is not true for so many other great figures of the times.”
Ambedkar the man: Politics and personality
Tharoor painted quite the picture of Ambedkar’s strong political stances and decisions that carved the trajectory of his career. “The portfolio he was given by Nehru in the Cabinet was law but he resigned. He resigned over a particular issue and that was the Hindu Code Bill. When he tried to introduce it, he was massively opposed by the Congress Party, and I believe slightly unfairly, as he believed that Nehru had not fought hard enough for him. Nehru did fight. But the traditional parties still had an upper hand and they were reluctant to proceed with reforms as far-reaching and ambitious as Ambedkar thought. After two or three setbacks, he resigned in protest. The manner in which he was treated after his resignation was truly shocking. It’s a constitutional right for a party minister to explain his resignation but he wasn’t allowed to speak on the grounds that he hadn’t submitted the text of his resignation speech in advance,” said Tharoor.
Following Tharoor’s conversation with Suhel, the question and answer session was opened to the audience. Tharoor’s interaction with the attendees touched upon a variety of related subjects, from Ambedkar’s obstinate personality, his refusal of monetary aid from Dilip Kumar, and his unfair attitude towards the tribal community to the contemporary result of his fight for Dalit rights. What kept getting reiterated was how he went on to inspire millions despite having a flawed personality.
My Kolkata caught up with some of the audience members.
Arindam Sil at the event
Notable filmmaker Arindam Sil commented, “The best thing about Shashi is that he knows his subject. So, this was about Ambedkar and he really stuck to the mood and was extremely informative. The whole discourse between Suhel and Shashi is wonderful and extremely informative.”
Anindita Chatterjee, executive trustee, Prabha Khaitan Foundation, mentioned, “As a foundation, we are constantly promoting literature, culture and social work. It's not just one particular book. It is a book which has substance, a book which everybody should know about. We thought it is our responsibility [to launch] this book and the fact that it has been written by such an eminent personality gave us all the more reason to do so.”
Oindrilla Dutt, arts and events curator and conversationalist, said, “It was a wonderful session. One of the main things is that there are so many little nuggets. He [Ambedkar] is the Father of our Constitution but the fact that he was unfair to the tribal community is something I didn't know. I think it's fascinating to have a book about someone who was the Father of the Constitution, but who people don’t really know that much about. Having Suhel moderate made a big difference. They are both very articulate, they know what they are saying and they are both very interesting to listen to.’’
Joie Bose, poet, writer and former Mrs India – East shared her thoughts on the programme. “Sir [ Tharoor] is fabulous as a speaker. What was more intriguing about the event was that two of India’s most wonderful intellectual men were discussing Ambedkar. In this day and age, when people are actually obsessed with Markle and so on and so forth, some people are still interested [in Ambedkar]. Currently, I'm doing my research on leadership and change and what is most interesting about any leader is that they are human and they have their flaws. Some of the most intriguing things about Ambedkar, and this is something I have to read more about, is that he criticized Gandhi. I wasn’t aware of that. These flaws make him human.’’
Shrestha Paul, a third-year student of Loreto College, Kolkata, was in attendance with her friends, proving that Tharoor’s work interests readers of all ages. The young student said, “Since childhood, I have loved reading books. Also, the love I have for the history of my country has made me come to the event. When it comes to Shashi Tharoor, the highlights include political facts, his vocabulary which is straight out of a thesaurus and much more.”