This is the most personal post I’ve ever done that I actually hope people will read. And I wrote it without an ounce of hesitation at all. Just thought that was notable for me.
My mother’s father was born an Untouchable, told by everyone — except his progressive father — to resign himself to a life of humiliation, dehumanization and disgust from everyone around him. His birth was never recorded; no literate person thought that the beginning of his life was worth the attention. To them, he was not even a human life. But what he did with that life was beyond amazing. In his fight for an education, he walked miles every morning to the hot, dusty schoolhouse where he was not even allowed inside because the rules of caste said that he would contaminate the building. Instead, he stood outside on the verandah and listened to the lessons through the window, still outperforming everyone in the class. Somehow, the laws of contamination did not apply with regard to physical abuse; he was beaten mercilessly by upper-caste classmates and teachers, urinated on, threatened. But still he persisted, gaining a Ph.D and rearranging his entire life to ensure that his wife could finish her college degree. I am here, on the Internet, in the amazing educational institution I attend now in this country, because he was determined to make sure that neither his children nor his grandchildren would understand first-hand the horrors of caste. And they didn’t. His daughter married a Tamil Brahmin in a Buddhist ceremony, producing children — me — who some in our homeland still firmly believe should not exist. Yet because of his work, I live safely across the world, barely aware of this disgust at my existence that he suffered day in and day out. He has recorded his story in multiple languages to ensure that the message never dies. Every time I think my life sucks, that my academics are too much, that I should just quit and go flip burgers, I remember my grandfather and wonder how I could ever dare to call myself this man’s legacy while having such thoughts.
His entry into this world was never recorded, but he passed on early in the morning on November 22, 2011. If death in this realm is a rebirth of sorts in another, I hope all who thought his life insignificant when it began can feel the way I have indelibly marked his newest beginning in my mind.
My words are completely inadequate for describing him, but my mother wrote a beautiful piece honoring him for a ceremony taking place in Delhi on December 3.
A message from Rekha Nimgade Doraiswamy, daughter of Dr. Namdeo M. Nimgade,
Prepared for the December 3, 2011 commemoration of his life by the Samaj Nirmaan Sangha, in New Delhi
We are gathered today to honor and celebrate the life and work of my father, Dr. Namdeo Marotrao Nimgade, a man born into desperate poverty in rural India, who battled the injustice and cruelties of the caste system to earn a PhD from a world renowned university and contribute his scientific talents to a newly independent India.
My brothers, Bhim, Ashok, and I embarked on the English translation of my father’s autobiography from its Hindi version in 2004; it was ultimately published by the literary pioneer Mr. S. Anand of Navayana Publishing in 2010 under the title In the Tiger’s Shadow: Autobiography of an Ambedkarite. While we knew our father was an accomplished, generous, kind, bold, and visionary person and social reformer, as we read and translated his words we were alternately moved to tears of sorrow and moments of spontaneous laughter as we learned in deepest detail of how he was tested and humiliated physically and mentally almost to breaking point and how he rescued himself again and again with his amazing courage, tenacity, and disarming personality.
Because my father was an educator first and foremost, I will illustrate important aspects of his life, work, and character by starting simply with the As, Bs, and Cs.
In my father’s life,
A stands for Action. My father was a brilliant orator and inspiring speaker, but he knew that words were not enough, if they were not backed by action. He took brave and decisive action throughout his life – to earn rights to clean drinking water for lower caste members in his village, to diffuse anger and prevent atrocities in tense communal situations, to fight on behalf of himself and others for scholarships, jobs, and dignity.
B stands for Bhagwan Buddha and Babasaheb Ambedkar, his two greatest teachers whose lessons he followed faithfully to build knowledge, character, compassion, wisdom, and other tools to face a difficult life with strength, dignity, and integrity.
C stands for Character; my father was honest, respectful, dignified, soft-spoken, sincere, humble, optimistic, and full of humor and he used these qualities to inspire trust and confidence, diffuse tension, and lead others to action.
D stands for Determination; my father never gave up hope when he defined a goal for himself individually or for his community collectively; he knocked persistently on many doors until the right one opened.
E stands for Education, the key to progress. For my father just obtaining degree after degree was not enough – it was the joy and wonder of gaining knowledge that gave him satisfaction. He was famous for carrying his notebook and pen with him everywhere he went and jotting down facts he learned from young and old; he wasn’t just a teacher, but also a constant student of the world around him. By meticulously noting down dates, events, and facts, my father was ultimately able to sit down with my mother and document his life, thoughts, experiences, and decisions in such a vivid and illuminating detail that his autobiography serves as a moving and inspiring story of not just his life, but as the story of his people, community, and country.
F stands for Family, which my father understood so correctly to be the institution that provides shelter and support while young and then demands responsibility and care for others in adulthood and mature years. He knew family also extended beyond the walls of his parents’ dwelling to reach the village, city, and world. He also understood that family members arrive in one’s life by both birth and by choice. He chose wisely. In 1953, he and his family chose my mother, Hira Nimgade, as his wife. Though 14 years younger than him, she grew to become his ideal life partner and equal companion in many respects. He promised her a college education, and though it was interrupted through the arrival of children and then my father’s PhD work in the USA, as soon as we returned to Delhi, our whole family rearranged our lives until my mother finished her college degree. Another example of enriching our family circle was through the arrival of Mr. Rambhaj Boudh as a 21 year old lab assistant in my father’s lab in 1972. His brightness and dedication impressed my father so much that he mentored him professionally until he rose to the rank of Senior Research Office. Rambhaj also educated his family and children and has worked tirelessly to spread the teachings of Lord Buddha and Dr. Ambedkar. He has become a third son to my parents, and a source of joy, pride, and support for us all.
I will now skip the rest of the alphabet and end with S for Sangha, Society, and Social Reform. Actually, Sangha represents each of you here today, as members of the Samaj Nirmaan Sangha! My father, were he here today, would applaud and support your good work and intentions. He understood the power and significance of belonging to society. He was proud of his rustic, humble origins and spoke glowingly of the world and the people in it who gave him a helping hand, whether in Sathgaon Village, or Umrer, or Nagpur, or Delhi, or Madison, Wisconsin, or back in India again. He knew individuals had to respect each other and help each other sincerely. He knew the value of women in society – without opportunities for women to contribute their work and wisdom, there would be no strength or stability in society. He made sure boys and girls had equal educational and work opportunities. He served as an ambassador and peacemaker between castes, communities, villages, cities, and countries in his unique life. He set up enduring organizations such as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Welfare Association at I.A.R.I., the Siddhartha Welfare Center, and countless schools and initiatives to help the disadvantaged. Please let me end my message by asking each of you to use the life story of Dr. Namdeo M. Nimgade to inspire your good work and progress in social reform.
I would like to give thanks to Mr. Veer Singh Boudh, Mr. Jagdish Prashad, Advocate Ramesh Kumar Bough, Malkit Singh Behl, D.D. Kalyani, and the countless other workers from your organization whose goal is social reform. May Peace be with you always.
Jai Bhim. Forever.