Waiting for a Visa : by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar
In 1916 I returned to India. I had been sent to America by His Highness the Maharaja of Baroda for higher education. I studied at Columbia University in New York from 1913 to 1917. In 1917 I came to London and joined the post-graduate department of the School of Economics of the University of London.
ln l918 I was obliged to return to India without completing my studies. Since I had been educated by the Baroda State, I was bound to serve the State. [Note: the dates here appear to be a bit confused.]
Accordingly, on my arrival I straightway went to Baroda. The reasons why I left Baroda service are quite irrelevant to my present purpose. I do not therefore wish to enter into them. I am only concerned with my social experiences in Baroda, and I will confine myself to describing them.
My five years of staying in Europe and America had completely wiped out of my mind any consciousness that I was an untouchable, and that an untouchable wherever he went in India was a problem to himself and to others. But when I came out of the station, my mind was considerably disturbed by a question, “Where to go? Who will take me?” I felt deeply agitated. Hindu hotels, called Vishis, I knew there were. They would not take me. The only way of seeking accommodation therein was by impersonation. But I was not prepared for it, because I could well anticipate the dire consequences which were sure to follow if my identity was discovered–as it was sure to be.
I had friends in Baroda who had come to America for study. “Would they welcome me if I went?” I could not assure myself. They may [=might] feel embarrassed at admitting an untouchable into their household. I stood under the roof of the station for some time, thinking where to go, what to do. It then struck me to enquire if there was any place in the camp. All [the other] passengers had by this time gone; I alone was left. Some hackney [=carriage] drivers who had failed to pick up any passengers were watching and waiting for me.
I called one of them, and asked him if he knew if there was a hotel in the camp. He said that there was a Parsi inn, and that they took paying guests. Hearing that it was an inn maintained by the Parsis, my heart was gladdened. The Parsis are followers of the Zoroastrian religion. There was no fear of my being treated by them as an untouchable, because their religion does not recognise untouchability. With a heart glad with hope and a mind free from fear, I put my luggage in a hackney carriage and asked the driver to drive me to [the] Parsi inn in the camp.
The inn was a two-storied building, on the ground floor of which lived an old Parsi with his family. He was a caretaker, and supplied food to tourists who came there to stay. The carriage arrived, and the Parsi caretaker showed me upstairs. I went up while the carriage driver brought up my luggage. I paid him and he went away. I felt happy that after all I had solved my problem of finding a place to stay. I was undressing, as I wanted to be at ease. In the meantime the caretaker came with a book in his hand. Seeing as he could well see from my half-undressed state that I had no Sadra and Kasti, the two things which prove that one is a Parsi, in a sharp tone he asked me who I was.
Not knowing that this inn was maintained by the Parsi community for the use of Parsis only, I told him that I was a Hindu. He was shocked, and told me that I could not stay in the inn. I was thoroughly shocked by his answer and was cold all over. The question returned again, where to go? Composing myself, I told him that though a Hindu, I had no objection to staying there if he had no objection. He replied, “How can you? I have to maintain a register of all those who stay here in the inn.” I saw his difficulty. I said I could assume a Parsi name for the purpose of entering it in the register. “Why do you object, if I do not object? You will not lose, you will earn something if I stay here.”
I could see that he was inclined favourably. Evidently he had had no tourist for a long time and he did not like to forego the opportunity of making a little money. He agreed, on condition that I pay him a rupee and a half per day for board and lodging, and enter myself as a Parsi in his register. He went downstairs, and I heaved a sigh of relief. The problem was solved, and I felt very happy. But alas! I did not then know how short was to be this happiness. But before I describe the tragic end of my stay in this inn, I must describe how I passed my time during the short period I lived therein.
The inn on the first [=second] floor had a small bed-room, and adjoining it was one small bath room with a water tap in it. The rest was one big hall. At the time of my stay the big hall was filled up with all sorts of rubbish–planks, benches, broken chairs, etc. In the midst of these surroundings I lived, a single solitary individual. The caretaker came up in the morning with a cup of tea. He came again at about 9:30 a.m. with my breakfast or morning meal. A third time he came up at about 8:30 in the evening with my dinner. The caretaker came up only when he could not avoid it, and on these occasions he never stayed to talk to me. The day was spent somehow.
I was appointed as a probationer in the Accountant General’s Office by the Maharaja of Baroda. I used to leave the inn at about ten a.m. for the office, and return late at about eight in the evening, contriving to while away outside the inn as much time in [the] company of friends as I could. The idea of returning to the inn to spend the night therein was most terrifying to me, and I used to return to the inn only because I had no other place under the sky to go for rest. In this big hall on the first [=second] floor of the inn there were no fellow human beings to talk to. I was quite alone. The whole hall was enveloped in complete darkness. There were no electric lights, nor even oil lamps to relieve the darkness. The caretaker used to bring up for my use a small hurricane lamp. Its light could not extend beyond a few inches.
I felt that I was in a dungeon, and I longed for the company of some human being to talk to. But there was no one. In the absence of the company of human beings I sought the company of books, and read and read. Absorbed in reading, I forgot my lonely condition. But the chirping and flying about of the bats, which had made the hall their home, often distracted my mind and sent cold shivers through me–reminding me of what I was endeavouring to forget, that I was in a strange place under strange conditions.
Many a time I must have been angry. But I subdued my grief and my anger through the feeling that though it was a dungeon, it was a shelter, and that some shelter was better than no shelter. So heart-rending was my condition that when my sister’s son came from Bombay, bringing my remaining luggage which I had left behind, and when he saw my state, he began to cry so loudly that I had to send him back immediately. In this state I lived in the Parsi inn, impersonating a Parsi.
I knew that I could not long continue this impersonation, as I would be discovered some day. I was therefore trying to get a State bungalow to stay in. But the Prime Minister did not look upon my request with the same urgency [as I did]. My petition went from officer to officer–and before I got the final reply, the day of my doom arrived.
It was the eleventh day of my stay in the inn. I had taken my morning meal, and had dressed up, and was about to step out of my room to go to [the] office. As I was picking up some books which I had borrowed overnight, for returning them to the library, I heard [the] footsteps of a considerable number of people coming up the staircase. I thought they were tourists who had come to stay, and was therefore looking out to see who these friends were. Instantly I saw a dozen angry-looking, tall, sturdy Parsis, each armed with a stick, coming towards my room. I realised that they were not fellow tourists, and they gave proof of it immediately.
They lined up in front of my room and fired a volley of questions. “Who are you? Why did you come here? How dare you take a Parsi name? You scoundrel! You have polluted the Parsi inn!” I stood silent. I could give no answer. I could not persist in impersonation. It was in fact a fraud, and the fraud was discovered, and I am sure if I had persisted in the game I was playing, I would have been assaulted by the mob of angry and fanatic Parsis and probably doomed to death. My meekness and my silence averted this doom. One of them asked when I thought of vacating.
At that time my shelter I prized more than my life. The threat implied in this question was a grave one. I therefore broke my silence and implored them to let me stay for a week at least, thinking that my application to the Minister for a bungalow would be decided upon favourably in the meantime. But the Parsis were in no mood to listen. They issued an ultimatum. They must not find me in the inn in the evening. I must pack off. They held out dire consequences, and left. I was bewildered. My heart sank within me. I cursed all, and wept bitterly. After all, I was deprived of my precious possession–namely, my shelter. It was no better than a prisoner’s cell. But to me it was very precious.
After the Parsis were gone, I sat for some time engaged in thinking, [seeking] to find a way out. I had hopes that I would soon get a State bungalow, and my troubles would be over. My problem was therefore a temporary problem, and I thought that going to friends would be a good solution. I had no friends among the untouchables of Baroda State. But I had friends among other classes. One was a Hindu, the other was an Indian Christian. I first went to my Hindu friend and told him what had befallen me. He was a noble soul and a great personal friend of mine. He was sad and also indignant. He, however, let fall one observation. He said, “If you come to my home, my servants will go.” I took the hint, and did not press him to accommodate me.
I did not like to go to the Indian Christian friend. Once he had invited me to go and stay with him. But I had declined, preferring to stay in the Parsi inn. My reason was that his habits were not congenial to me. To go now would be to invite a rebuff. So I went to my office, but I could not really give up this chance of finding a shelter. On consulting a friend I decided to go to him [=to the Indian Christian friend] and ask him if he would accommodate me. When I put the question, his reply was that his wife was coming to Baroda the next day, and that he would have to consult her.
I learnt subsequently that it was a very diplomatic answer. He and his wife came originally from a family which was Brahmin by caste, and although on conversion to Christianity the husband had become liberal in thought, the wife had remained orthodox in her ways, and would not have consented to harbour an untouchable in her house.The last ray of hope thus flickered away. It was four p.m. when I left the house of my Indian Christian friend. Where to go was the one supreme question before me. I must quit the inn, and had no friend to go to!! The only alternative left was to return to Bombay.
The train to Bombay left Baroda at nine p.m. There were five hours to be spent. Where to spend them? Should I go to the inn? Should I go to my friend? I could not muster up sufficient courage to go back to the inn. I feared the Parsis might come and attack me. I did not like to go to my friend. Though my condition was pitiable, I did not like to be pitied. I decided to spend the five hours in the public garden which is called Kamathi Baug, on the border of the city and the camp. I sat there partly with a vacant mind, partly with sorrow at the thought of what had happened to me, and thought of my father and mother–as children do when they are in a forlorn condition.
At eight p.m. I came out of the garden, took a carriage to the inn, brought down my luggage. The caretaker came out, but neither he nor I could utter a word to each other. He felt that he was in some way responsible for bringing him [=me] into trouble. I paid him his bill. He received it in silence, and I took his leave in silence.
I had gone to Baroda with high hope[s]. I had given up many offers. It was wartime. Many places in the Indian Educational service were vacant. I knew very influential people in London. But I did not seek any of them. I felt that my duty was to offer my services first to the Maharaja of Baroda, who had financed my education. And here I was driven to leave Baroda and return to Bombay, after a stay of only eleven days.
This scene of a dozen Parsis armed with sticks lined [up] before me in a menacing mood, and myself standing before them with a terrified look imploring for mercy, is a scene which so long a period as eighteen years has not succeeded in fading [=causing to fade] away. I can even now vividly recall it–and [I] never recall it without tears in my eyes. It was then for the first time that I learnt that a person who is an untouchable to a Hindu is also an untouchable to a Parsi.