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The Psychobiography of Babasaheb?

The Police’s So Lonely – from their debut studio album Outlandos d’Amour (1978) – was their first test of the fusion of punk rock and reggae that would become their signature sound.

Well, someone told me yesterday/

That when you throw your love away/

You act as if you just don’t care/

…But I just can’t convince myself…/

So lonely/ So lonely/ So lonely…

The loneliness of historically significant men has been a staple in the subgenre of biography known as psychobiography. Psychobiography is a way of constructing the narrative of a life writing in accordance with theories of psychology. Excellent examples include two of my favourite books: Sigmund Freud’s Leonardo da Vinci (1910) and Erik Erikson’s Gandhi’s Truth (1969) – where both authors psychoanalyse their subjects.

Freud, predictably, links Leonardo’s prodigious artistic creativity to an unrequitable homoeroticism. Erikson seeks to show how the Oedipal Complex in Gandhi was reconfigured due to Gandhi’s nursing of his ageing father, such that Gandhi unconsciously learned to defeat his adversary through non-violent care. Both Leonardo and Gandhi are thus presented by their psychobiographers as having productively sublimated aspects of childhood sexuality.

Dr Savita Ambedkar (née Sharda Kabir), in her biography of her late husband Babasaheb Ambedkar, Babasaheb: My Life with Dr Ambedkar, writes more of a pathography (that is, a biography fixated on illness) rather than a psychobiography. Savita Ambedkar adduces letters from the 1920s onwards in evidence of Ambedkar’s frequent illnesses and their progression, recounting in the most graphic of detail every episode of ill-health that Ambedkar had ever suffered, and the ways that these restricted his work. In this respect, her pathography stands in contrast to Freud’s and Erikson’s psychobiographies. But the decisive motif from psychobiography also looms large in her narrative: Ambedkar’s loneliness.

Now no one’s knocked upon my door/

For a thousand years or more/

All made up and nowhere to go/

Welcome to this one-man show/

So lonely /So lonely /So lonely…

It was Babasaheb’s heart-rending complaints of loneliness that first compelled Dr Savita to offer to move from Mumbai to Delhi to serve as his live-in nurse – a gracious offer both because Savita was a physician, not a nurse, and would be giving up on a more profitable and socially-respected career, as well as because she would be risking her reputation, being an unmarried woman living in an unmarried man’s bungalow.

A marriage proposal from Babasaheb would serve to surmount the latter hindrances. But as Savita noted about their wedding day, there were no females from Babasaheb’s family to assist her as the bride. Babasaheb’s daughter from his first marriage had died in her infancy, and his sisters were also already dead: “When I think of Dr Ambedkar’s loneliness, I realise the amount of distress and loneliness he really endured…Ramabai passed away in 1935, and within a few days his sister-in-law died too…There was no lady member left at home and there were no close relatives either. In 1942, he had to move to Delhi as a minister in the Viceroy’s Executive Council, where he lived a solitary life in a grand bungalow.”

So lonely (I feel low)/

So lonely (I feel so lonely)/

So lonely (I feel low)/

(I feel so lonely).

Babasaheb’s mother died when he was just a young child, and Savita opines that Babasaheb had been denied feminine love the entirety of his life: his mother died and he had received no maternal love; his sisters died young and he had received no sororal love; his wife Ramabai died, so he did not receive spousal love; and his daughter had died, so he did not receive her filial love. Though exaggerated, Savita’s claims contextualise her granular descriptions of his morning routine:

“Doctor Saheb would then go to brush his teeth…and go for his bath…I would give him his bath, too. He would love it when I soaped him, scrubbed him, and rinsed him. He would sit like an innocent and obedient child…I would help him dry himself. I would then dust talcum powder all over his body. He loved it all. He would then come to the dining table for his breakfast…You could call it an obsession, but it was his intense desire that I should prepare the breakfast myself and serve him…” All this does seem to convey a longing for maternal care.

We’re fortunate to have Savita’s unique perspective on the life of Babasaheb. What we dearly miss is what more penetrating minds, like Freud or Erikson, could have made of it.

(Published 28 October 2023, 19:18 IST)

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