Arundhati Roy's The Doctor and the Saint: Strongest when scrutinising Gandhi, but falters on Ambedkar

In 2014, Navayana published an annotated edition of BR Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, which included a new, book-length introduction to the text: Arundhati Roy’s essay The Doctor and the Saint. While the annotations, written by S Anand (also the publisher of the book) were, barring a few exceptions, generally praised, there were several detailed criticisms of Roy’s essay, most of which led with the fact that Roy chose to devote — by my estimate — almost two-thirds of her 120-odd pages to Gandhi rather than Ambedkar. Recently, Penguin Random House India published a new, standalone edition of The Doctor and the Saint, where Roy admits as much in a new, two-page introduction.

“I have been faulted for paying an inordinate amount of attention to Gandhi in an introduction to what is essentially Ambedkar’s work. I am guilty as charged. However, given the exalted, almost divine status that Gandhi occupies in the imagination of the modern world, in particular the Western world, I felt that unless his hugely influential and, to my mind, inexcusable position on caste and race was looked at carefully, Ambedkar’s rage would not be fully understood. And the Project of Unseeing, the erasure of cruel, institutionalised social injustice at the heart of the country that likes to be known as the world’s greatest democracy, will continue smoothly and without a hitch.”

This is a revelatory passage if there ever was one, for several reasons.

1. It’s refreshing to see authors engaging with critical writing in modes other than the time-honoured “they know nothing” or “they’re eunuchs in a harem”. A few brownie points are in order here (not too many).

2. Roy is candid enough to admit that she was more interested in Gandhi’s “inexcusable position on caste” rather than Ambedkar’s delineation of the same. As an author, she’s looking “in particular at the Western world”, which is far more likely to be conversant with Gandhi’s words than Ambedkar’s. This, then, is as much a marketing decision as a literary one — make of that what you will.

 Arundhati Roys The Doctor and the Saint: Strongest when scrutinising Gandhi, but falters on Ambedkar

Cover for Arundhati Roy’s The Doctor and the Saint

3. One can only infer that her publishers are similarly looking Westward (or the English-speaking elite, which amounts to the same thing as far as publishers and their un-subtle calculations are concerned). Why else would you publish the book-length introduction to a text…without also publishing the text itself (in this case, Annihilation of Caste)? Because for a travelling salesperson “in the modern world”, Gandhi and Roy herself are bigger draws than Ambedkar. And also because Roy had said, at the time of the Navayana edition’s release, that one of the reasons behind clubbing The Doctor and the Saint with Annihilation of Caste was she feared her book will be banned if published as a standalone text. Why or how that fear has subsided is tough to say, given that her would-be-tormentors are still very much in power, and have been more aggressive than usual of late.

Gandhi in the dock

The Doctor and the Saint is strongest when it sets about its primary task: to scrutinise the historiography of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and to remind readers of some inconvenient truths about the man, facts that make the Mahatma’s mythologists very uncomfortable indeed.

Roy lays the groundwork by quoting Gandhi’s homilies about caste “being a kind of control”; he was talking about the Brahminical ‘hygiene’ about inter-caste dining. Before he back-pedaled on this in his later years, Gandhi was opposed to inter-caste dining and inter-caste marriage. And, as Roy points out, he was not above peddling “alternative facts” as we call them today — once the Congress was on the back foot re: the caste system, he revised his opinion and said that he “believed in the varna system” that “a person’s varna ought to be decided by their worth and not their birth (which was also the Arya Samaj position)”. The Jat-Pat-Todak-Mandal of Lahore, the organisation that had invited Ambedkar to address them (they later rescinded and the undelivered address was later published as Annihilation of Caste), was an Arya Samaj group, after all.

Roy is similarly effective when she draws a straight-ish line between Gandhi’s disturbing views on the “inferiority” of the African man (he once wrote to the British government during his time in South Africa, declaring his horror at Indian prisoners sharing cells with them), and the upper-caste messiah position he held onto regarding caste. She’s right; if you believe you’re inherently ‘superior’, you really do not need to pronounce anybody else inferior. It’s implicit (not that Gandhi kept this sentiment implicit; he in fact wrote pamphlets to that effect).

Gandhi’s tactics leading up to the Poona Pact of September 1932, when he started a fast unto death simply to kill the prospect of separate electorates for Untouchables, are also collared — Roy rightly calls this “barefaced blackmail”, which isn’t something you’ll hear Gandhi historians saying out loud, certainly not the ones who’ve made a career out of Gandhi-chronicling (Roy lampoons the most prominent among these historians, making fun of their assessment of Ambedkar as “someone Hindus can be proud of”).

Retro-fitting Ambedkar

Roy is, alas, on thin ground once she starts making her case for Ambedkar as “the Doctor”, a sleek, well-dressed man of pure intellect and cold reason, the natural adversary for Gandhi “the Saint”, a neo-ascetic defined by contradictions, enforced austerity and quasi-mystic speeches. To aid this too-neat, polar characterisation, she plays fast and loose with Ambedkar’s personal history, his written work as well as his political decision-making.

Though Ambedkar had a formidable intellect, he didn’t have the sense of timing, the duplicity, the craftiness and the ability to be unscrupulous — qualities that a good politician needs, Roy writes. Images via Wikimedia Commons

Though Ambedkar had a formidable intellect, he didn’t have the sense of timing, the duplicity, the craftiness and the ability to be unscrupulous — qualities that a good politician needs, Roy writes. Images via Wikimedia Commons

As Roy’s essay starts coming to a somewhat hasty end, she compensates for the lack-of-Ambedkar-pages by indulging in some amateur mythology — namely, the ridiculous notion that Ambedkar was politically naïve, and that his decisions, both personal and professional, scored high in idealism but were essentially unmoored from ground realities. Again and again, Roy’s language subtly reinforces the idea of Ambedkar as a naïve man of rationality but little political nous. Ambedkar’s attempts to call Gandhi’s bluff during the Poona Pact are referred to as “his usual arsenal of logic and reason”, for example. On other occasions, she is more direct with her withering analysis of Ambedkar’s supposed lack of political wisdom.

“Though Ambedkar had a formidable intellect, he didn’t have the sense of timing, the duplicity, the craftiness and the ability to be unscrupulous — qualities that a good politician needs.”

Finally, Roy makes a dubious claim at the very end. She writes, “Ambedkar did not have enough money to print his major work on Buddhism, The Buddha and his Dhamma, before he died. He wore suits, yes, but he died in debt.” The former sentence is backed up by a letter that Ambedkar wrote to Nehru — but that’s a routine request that authors often make to governments, requesting financial aid. Nowhere does that letter suggest that Ambedkar was as steeped in penury as Roy paints him to be. The latter sentence — claiming that Ambedkar died in debt — has not been backed up by any source whatsoever.

After the original Navayana edition had been published in 2014, Roundtable India published a series of articles criticising Roy and pointing out the problematic portions of her book. In one such article Dr Suresh Mane, a former comrade of Kanshi Ram and author of a book on Ambedkar, said (this was actually the transcript of a speech he delivered at the University of Mumbai, circa November 2014):

“Ambedkar never died as a debt-ridden man. He had huge property, lands, which he gave to different trusts and societies which were not in his name. Neither was his family debt-ridden. But any general reader who doesn't know about Ambedkar, what will he get from this introduction? He will get an impression that Ambedkar mismanaged the finances of his own household. This about the man who wrote on the mismanagement of the provincial finance in British India.”

Even if you set aside this questionable bit of fact-checking — or lack thereof — Roy’s real failure is in her retro-fitting of Ambedkar as “the Doctor”, a character she has made up, a too-perfect opposite number for Gandhi aka “the Saint”. The Doctor’s suits and the Saint’s naked torso, the Doctor’s lack-of-craftiness versus the Saint’s canny political moves — it gets old and moreover, it ignores even her own previous assessment of Ambedkar’s legacy.

Towards the beginning of the essay, when she just begins talking about Ambedkar, she says, “Using the Constitution as a subversive object is one thing. Being limited by it is quite another. Ambedkar’s circumstances forced him to be a revolutionary and to simultaneously put his foot in the door of the establishment whenever he got a chance to. His genius lay in his ability to use both these aspects of himself nimbly, and to great effect.” Which is it, then? Was Ambedkar, in fact, a master of straddling two very different styles of politics, as she says here, or was he a well-meaning but miscalculating ideologue (as almost every other paragraph about him seems to indicate)?

The Doctor and the Saint is a decent starting point for those who seek to revise their own uncritical points of view about Gandhi. But for those looking to introduce themselves to Ambedkar — the man as well as his politics — you’re much better off reading Annihilation of Caste itself, followed by everything else Ambedkar wrote.

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Updated Date: May 21, 2019 10:23:34 IST