A Childhood Journey Becomes a Nightmare

This classic piece by BR Ambedkar was written in the mid-1930s, and relates a childhood experience that made him acutely aware of his caste.

Our family came originally from Dapoli Taluka of the Ratnagiri District of the Bombay Presidency. From the very commencement of the rule of the East India Company, my forefathers had left their hereditary occupation for service in the Army of the Company. My father also followed the family tradition and sought service in the Army. He rose to the rank of an officer, and was a Subhedar when he retired. On his retirement my father took the family to Dapoli with a view to settling down there. But for some reason my father changed his mind. The family left Dapoli for Satara, where we lived till 1904.

The first incident, which I am recording as well as I can remember, occurred in about 1901, when we were at Satara. My mother was then dead. My father was away on service as a cashier at a place called Koregaon in Khatav Taluka in the Satara District, where the Government of Bombay had started the work of excavating a Tank so as to give employment to famine-stricken people, who were dying by thousands.

When my father went to Koregaon he left me, my brother who was older than myself, and two sons of my eldest sister (who was dead), in charge of my aunt and some kind neighbours. My aunt was the kindest soul I know, but she was of no help to us. She was somewhat of a dwarf and had some trouble with her legs, which made it very difficult for her to move about without somebody’s aid. Oftentimes she had to be lifted. I had sisters. They were married and were away living with their families.

Cooking our food became a problem with us, especially since our aunty could not, on account of her helplessness, manage the job. We four children went to school, and we also cooked our food. We could not prepare bread. So we lived on Pulav–which we found to be the easiest dish to prepare, requiring nothing more than mixing rice and mutton.

Being a cashier, my father could not leave his station to come to Satara to see us; therefore he wrote to us to come to Koregaon and spend our summer vacation with him. We children were thoroughly excited over the prospect, especially as none of us had up to that time seen a railway train.

Great preparations were made. New shirts of English make, bright bejewelled caps, new shoes, new silk-bordered dhoties, were ordered for the journey. My father had given us all the particulars regarding our journey, and had told us to inform him on which day we were starting, so that he would send his peon to the Railway Station to meet us and to take us to Koregaon. According to this arrangement myself, my brother, and one of my sister’s sons left Satara, our aunt remaining in the charge of our neighbours, who promised to look after her.

The Railway Station was ten miles distant from our place, and a tonga was engaged to take us to the Station. We were dressed in the new clothing specially made for the occasion, and we left our home full of joy–but amidst the cries of my aunt, who was almost prostrate with grief at our parting.

When we reached the station my brother bought tickets, and gave me and my sister’s son two annas each as pocket money, to be spent at our pleasure. We at once began our career of riotous living, and each ordered a bottle of lemonade at the start. After a short while the train whistled in and we boarded it as quickly as we could, for fear of being left behind. We were told to detrain at Masur, the nearest railway station for Koregaon.

The train arrived at Masur at about five in the evening, and we got down with our luggage. In a few minutes all the passengers who had got down from the train had gone away to their destinations. We four children remained on the platform, looking out for my father or his servant whom he had promised to send. Long did we wait–but no one turned up. An hour elapsed, and the station-master came to enquire. He asked us for our tickets. We showed them to him. He asked us why we tarried.

We told him that we were bound for Koregaon, and that we were waiting for father or his servant to come, but that neither had turned up, and that we did not know how to reach Koregaon. We were well-dressed children. From our dress or talk no one could make out that we were children of the untouchables. Indeed the station-master was quite sure we were Brahmin children, and was extremely touched at the plight in which he found us.

As is usual among the Hindus, the station-master asked us who we were. Without a moment’s thought I blurted out that we were Mahars. He was stunned. His face underwent a sudden change. We could see that he was overpowered by a strange feeling of repulsion. As soon as he heard my reply he went away to his room, and we stood where we were. Fifteen to twenty minutes elapsed; the sun was almost setting. Our father had not turned up, nor had he sent his servant; and now the station-master had also left us. We were quite bewildered, and the joy and happiness which we had felt at the beginning of the journey gave way to a feeling of extreme sadness.

After half an hour, the station-master returned and asked us what we proposed to do. We said that if we could get a bullock-cart on hire, we would go to Koregaon; and if it was not very far, we would like to start straightway. There were many bullock-carts plying for hire. But my reply to the station-master that we were Mahars had gone round among the cartmen, and not one of them was prepared to suffer being polluted, and to demean himself carrying passengers of the untouchable classes. We were prepared to pay double the fare, but we found that money did not work.

The station-master who was negotiating on our behalf stood silent, not knowing what to do. Suddenly a thought seemed to have entered his head and he asked us, “Can you drive the cart?” Feeling that he was finding out a solution of our difficulty, we shouted, “Yes, we can.” With that answer he went and proposed on our behalf that we were to pay the cartman double the fare and drive the cart, and that he should walk on foot along with the cart on our journey. One cartman agreed, since it gave him an opportunity to earn his fare and also saved him from being polluted.

It was about 6.30 pm when we were ready to start. But we were anxious not to leave the station until we were assured that we would reach Koregaon before it was dark. We therefore questioned the cartman about the distance, and the time he would take to reach Koregaon. He assured us that it would be not more than three hours. Believing in his word, we put our luggage in the cart, thanked the station-master, and got into the cart. One of us took the reins and the cart started, with the man walking by our side.

Not very far from the station there flowed a river. It was quite dry, except at places where there were small pools of water. The owner of the cart proposed that we should halt there and have our meal, as we might not get water on our way. We agreed. He asked us to give a part of his fare to enable him to go to the village and have his meal. My brother gave him some money and he left, promising to return soon. We were very hungry, and were glad to have had an opportunity to have a bite. My aunty had pressed our neighbours’ womenfolk into service and had got some nice preparation for us to take on our way. We opened the tiffin basket and started eating.

We needed water to wash things down. One of us went to the pool of water in the river basin nearby. But the water really was no water. It was thick with mud and urine and excreta of the cows and buffaloes and other cattle who went to the pool for drinking. In fact that water was not intended for human use. At any rate the stink of the water was so strong we could not drink it. We had therefore to close our meal before we were satisfied, and wait for the arrival of the cartman. He did not come for a long time, and all that we could do was to look for him in all directions.

Ultimately he came, and we started on our journey. For some four or five miles we drove the cart and he walked on foot. Then he suddenly jumped into the cart and took the reins from our hand. We thought this to be rather strange conduct on the part of a man who had refused to let the cart on hire for fear of pollution–to have set aside all his religious scruples and to have consented to sit with us in the same cart; but we dared not ask him any questions on the point. We were anxious to reach Koregaon, our destination, as quickly as possible. And for some time we were interested in the movement of the cart only.

But soon there was darkness all around us. There were no street lights to relieve the darkness. There were no men or women or even cattle passing by, to make us feel that we were in their midst. We became fearful of the loneliness which surrounded us. Our anxiety was growing. We mustered all the courage we possessed. We had travelled far from Masur. It was more than three hours. But there was no sign of Koregaon.

There arose a strange thought within us. We suspected that the cartman intended treachery, and that he was taking us to some lonely spot to kill us. We had lot of gold ornaments on us, and that helped to strengthen our suspicion. We started asking him how far Koregaon was, and why we were so late in reaching it. He kept on saying, “It is not very far, we shall soon reach it.” It was about 10:00 at night when, finding that there was no trace of Koregaon, we children started crying and abusing the cartman. Our lamentations and wailings continued for a long time. The cartman made no reply.

Suddenly we saw a light burning at some distance. The cartman said, “Do you see that light? That is a light of the toll-collector. We will rest there for the night.” We felt some relief and stopped crying. The light was distant, and we could never seem to reach it. It took us two hours to reach the toll-collector’s hut. The interval increased our anxiety, and we kept on asking the cartman all sorts of questions, as to why there was delay in reaching the place, whether we were going on the right road, etc.

Ultimately by midnight the cart reached the toll-collector’s hut. It was situated at the foot of a hill, but on the other side of the hill. When we arrived we saw a large number of bullock-carts there, all resting for the night. We were extremely hungry, and wanted very much to eat. But again there was the question of water. So we asked our driver whether it was possible to get water. He warned us that the toll-collector was a Hindu, and that there was no possibility of our getting water if we spoke the truth and said that we were Mahars. He said, “Say you are Mohammedans and try your luck.”

On his advice I went to the toll-collector’s hut and asked him if he would give us some water. “Who are you?” he inquired. I replied that we were Musalmans. I conversed with him in Urdu (which I knew very well), so as to leave no doubt that I was a real Musalman. But the trick did not work and his reply was very curt. “Who has kept water for you? There is water on the hill, if you want to go and get it; I have none.” With this he dismissed me. I returned to the cart, and conveyed to my brother his reply.  I don’t know what my brother felt. All that he did was to tell us to lie down.

The bullocks had been unyoked, and the cart was placed sloping down on the ground. We spread our beds on the bottom planks inside the cart, and laid down our bodies to rest. Now that we had come to a place of safety we did not mind what happened. But our minds could not help turning to the latest event. There was plenty of food with us. There was hunger burning within us; with all this we were to sleep without food; that was because we could get no water, and we could get no water because we were untouchables. Such was the last thought that entered our mind. I said, we had come to a place of safety. Evidently my elder brother had his misgivings. He said it was not wise for all four of us to go to sleep. Anything might happen. He suggested that at one time two should sleep, and two should keep watch. So we spent the night at the foot of that hill.

Early at five in the morning our cartman came, and suggested that we should start for Koregaon. We flatly refused. We told him that we would not move until eight o’clock. We did not want to take any chance. He said nothing. So we left at eight and reached Koregaon at eleven. My father was surprised to see us, and said that he had received no intimation of our coming. We protested that we had given intimation. He denied the fact. Subsequently it was discovered that the fault was that of my father’s servant. He had received our letter, but had failed to give it to my father.

This incident has a very important place in my life. I was a boy of nine when it happened. But it has left an indelible impression on my mind. Before this incident occurred, I knew that I was an untouchable, and that untouchables were subjected to certain indignities and discriminations. For instance, I knew that in the school I could not sit in the midst of my classmates according to my rank, but that I was to sit in a corner by myself. I knew that in the school I was to have a separate piece of gunny cloth for me to squat on in the classroom, and the servant employed to clean the school would not touch the gunny cloth used by me. I was required to carry the gunny cloth home in the evening, and bring it back the next day.

While in the school I knew that children of the touchable classes, when they felt thirsty, could go out to the water tap, open it, and quench their thirst. All that was necessary was the permission of the teacher. But my position was separate. I could not touch the tap; and unless it was opened for it by a touchable person, it was not possible for me to quench my thirst. In my case the permission of the teacher was not enough. The presence of the school peon was necessary, for he was the only person whom the class teacher could use for such a purpose. If the peon was not available, I had to go without water. The situation can be summed up in the statement—no peon, no water.

At home I knew that the work of washing clothes was done by my sisters. Not that there were no washermen in Satara. Not that we could not afford to pay the washermen. Washing was done by my sisters because we were untouchables and no washerman would wash the clothes of an untouchable. The work of cutting our hair or shaving the boys, including myself, was done by our elder sister, who had become quite an expert barber by practising the art on us. Not that there were no barbers in Satara, and not that we could not afford to pay the barber. The work of shaving and hair-cutting was done by my sister because we were untouchables, and no barber would consent to shave an untouchable.

All this I knew. But this incident gave me a shock such as I had never received before, and it made me think about untouchability–which, before this incident happened, was with me a matter of course, as it is with many touchables as well as the untouchables.

Also check out: Episode 52 of The Seen and the Unseen, ‘How We Messed Up Our caste Problem’.

About the author

BR Ambedkar

BR Ambedkar was a legendary jurist, economist and social reformer. He was the chief architect of India's constitution.