The Boy who asked Why is the extraordinary story of an exceptionally, extraordinary man: Bhimrao Ambedkar or Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. His was a childhood marred by untouchability. With it, it brought questions no child must have to think or internalize: “Why do I have to sit separately in a classroom?” “Why can’t I drink water from the tap like other children?” Why do the teachers never touch my books or my slate? Simply, and brilliantly re-told by Sowmya Rajendran, and beautifully illustrated by Satwik Gade, this book touched me to the core.
As I read the book to my nine and four-and-a-half-year old, the mother in me was saddened and simultaneously re-inspired. Rajendran took the three of us into Bhim’s little life. With his parents. His siblings. His icons. And the blight that shaped him. Untouchability. We stood with him at the bottom of the caste ladder. All the other castes looking down their noses at us. They wouldn’t eat with us. With Bhim and us. Or drink water from the same well. Or bathe, or pray with us. In school, there was a separate corner for us, with a gunny sack for a chair. Untouchable. Not meant to be touched. Not deemed worthy to be touched. What a horrible, horrible concept for a little child to accept. Internalize. Live with. And be so deeply marred with.
But, Bhim’s story is also that of grit and sheer determination. To come from such insurmountable circumstances where no one will touch you, to be able to rise to be the FIRST from your community to receive a doctorate abroad. To become the father of the Indian Constitution. To lead an emancipatory movement for a group who’d been silenced for centuries by their own people. What an extraordinary man of courage, grit and strength!
At the end of the story, my nine-year-old was pensive. As she’d been when she saw how “Kachra” (literally meaning garbage) was treated in the Hindi film Lagaan. She hasn’t said much to me since this morning when we read the book. But, I know the book has sowed a seed somewhere in her mind. Today, she learnt a little bit more about another emancipatory movement that took place in India, that granted ordinary people the right to drink water from the same tank as other people. She learnt some hard, ugly truths about a culture and a religion that her parents practice. Most importantly though, she learnt that even when the world grants you just a corner of its vastness with a gunny-sack for a chair, a willing mind and a pen is all that you need to change the lives of a million, silenced lives.
I’d recommend this book for 3rd – 4th graders and above. My almost-five year old was enamored by the beautiful illustrations but could not grasp the concepts, which drives the point even more: Ambedkar was introduced to a concept that cannot be understood by an impressionable child, who has only started to grasp the world around him. The only negative aspect about the book, was the why’s that were peppered in. In my opinion, readers would reach that conclusion by themselves, without being prodded. But, it’s a very, very minor gripe for an otherwise beautiful endeavor. I would highly recommend it to students learning about emancipatory movements around the world, there are so many parallels to be drawn here.
– Reviewed by Sheetal Kiran