Suraj Yengde: ‘Inspired by Ambedkar, he gave his all to make the world a better place’

Suraj Yengde

A tribute to a man who ‘collected the bricks of life’s obstacles to build a castle of new world and hope’.

Nanded, a small town in the hinterland of Maharashtra, affixes its coordinates in between the cultures of the past and the travelling traditions of elsewhere. A Marathi-speaking district, Nanded borders Telugu- and Kannada-speaking states.

In many ways, Nanded was and is a meeting point of diversities: it is shared by Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Lingayats, and Sikhs in particular. It was here that Gobind Singh declared that the Granth Sahib, the sacred text of Sikhs, was the final guru and ordered his followers to embrace the path of purity and piety.

Nanded has always been a land of enduring conflicts, natural calamities, caste and religious riots. It is a hotbed of extreme left-wing operations and right-wing populism. Once, after a Muslim man, a classmate of mine from law school, married a Hindu woman, the city was under curfew for two weeks.

It is also a place of progressive activism and the nursery of the Dalit movement, especially the land rights movement, Ambedkar-led movement, Republican movement, and the Dalit Panthers. Harihar Rao Sonul, one of the first Dalit Parliamentarians in independent India, came from Nanded’s Maharwada. Sonule was a member of the Scheduled Caste Federation formed by BR Ambedkar.

The town also contained a mill established by the monarch of the region, the Nizam, the richest ruler in the world. He was so rich, Time magazine put a photo of him on their cover. However, his subjects were poor, desperate and depressed.

Around 1930s, a young man named Hiraman from a village in the region called Bhogaon Dhanora decided to escape his life of poverty. Like many untouchables of the time, he looked towards the cities as escape ground from the attacks of the landowning castes who wanted the untouchables to work on their soil and toil to their last breath. Compensation was never part of the conversation.

The leader of the untouchables, BR Ambedkar, a charismatic intellectual with two doctorates from Columbia University in the US and another from London School of Economics, advised his people to leave the cesspool of their village and go to cities. Migration was proposed as a possibility of liberation.

Thus, Hiraman came with his wife trying to find opportunities in Nanded. He had a son, Vishwanath, and a daughter. Vishwanath was literate: he could read and write. He was also a skilled lady’s tailor.

But his full-time job was as a worker in the Nanded mill. There he organised workers under the banner of a labour union and became a leader of the unit. He was famously known as Comrade. They addressed each other as comrades. Almost all the mill workers who worked in the mill were migrant Dalits and in a similar condition as Hiraman.

Following his calling

In the house of this mill worker was born Milind in 1960. Two more brothers, Mohan and Deepak, came later. Owing to family responsibilities and poverty, Milind, like other children of the workers, was unable to continue his education. He attended school until the ninth standard but then had to drop out. But that didn’t stop Milind from following his calling.

He refused to let life’s limitations act as a barrier. Being born an outcaste, dirt poverty and in a small city did not deter the boy. He collected the bricks of life’s obstacles to build a castle of new world and hope. He worked as a janitor in a lodge cleaning floors, after which he would sell milk and deliver newspapers. Whatever work he did, his vision was vast and his eyes focused.

Amidst his teenage work life and youth social activism Milind became attracted to the power of literature and cultural movements. In many ways, he became the founder of the theatre movement in Nanded. The business of the caste system and its attributes were presented naked on the stage by the theatre group he formed. There was no other way to present caste than piercing into its brutality. Theatre provided that stage.

In addition, the power of words and their ability to produce thoughts that were beyond the horizon became the magical force of his willpower. Humour was his favourite way of handling things. He laughed easily. He put on a smile at the conditions of misery and encouraged others to laugh at simple things without searching for reasons to be joyous.

The most influential movement of the 1970s was the Dalit Panthers. Milind was attracted to the original Panthers. The movement’s co-founders Raja Dhale and JV Pawar were his close friends. Whenever Dhale or Pawar visited Nanded, they would meet with Milind and whenever Milind went to Mumbai, he would spend time with them.

Milind’s literary treasury was huge. In a near-broken, leaky one-room house the size of a storage box, he chose to buy an almirah for his beloved books. That created some tension in the house, especially since there was hardly any place for another cupboard.

Since Milind could not get the education he wanted, he ensured his children got the best available. Despite his low salary, the peon Milind enrolled his children in a private Christian-run, English-medium school. He was inspired by Ambedkar who had urged his followers to give their children the best education. This was a revolutionary step.

Many were not in favour of this: “Why put children in such expensive schools? You won’t be able to afford it down the line.” But Milind was woven from a different yarn. “I will starve but will put my children through good school,” was his response.

For the happiness of many…

Between running his family, work and participating in social movements, Milind decided to start school for extremely poor, rural children in 1985. He followed the compassionate mantra of the Buddha, “Bahujan Hitay Bahujan Sukhay”, the happiness of the many, for the welfare of the many. The name of the school was “Vidya Vihaar”, a tribute to the original residential Buddhist form of education.

While doing this, Milind started a weekly publication titled Vastunishtha Vichaar (Objective Thoughts). The caste system not only has castes but subcastes too. To address this, he started the “Maitri Mission” (Friendship Mission). Its motto was “Potjaati Todo Samaaj Jodo” (Break Subcastes, Unite Society). Alongside this, he started the “Bahujan Books” publication house.

To demonstrate his commitment to the welfare of all, Milind changed his last name to “Metta”, or loving kindness, one of the four divine states of Buddhism.

During this period, Milind got rheumatoid arthritis. As if a hunter had shot a rising bird, Milind was confined to his bed. But for a lion to test his power, he needs to keep wandering in the vastness of the jungle. Similarly, having an elephant’s strength is inadequate but having the wisdom and love of an elephant is what matters. So, Milind continued his journey through the thorny bushes, even if it was painful.

But being bed-ridden, he was unable to continue his job. He was forced to take voluntary retirement. With no salary coming in, Milind started selling whatever he had to fund his children’s education. The institute he started for the poor and the marginalised was sold.

Fighting the odds, Milind continued his journey. He was inspired by the life of Subedhar Ramji Sakpal, Ambedkar’s father. Like that man who gave birth and shaped the most influential man to ever walk on Indian soil after Ashoka, perhaps Milind had similar hopes.

His life was a source of colossal confidence. He exemplified how self-motivation can move mountains just on willpower.

Milind suffered physically for much of his life. He couldn’t sleep for nights at a time. After a few hours, he would be up again, groaning with the pain in his knees. Because the family lived in a single room, his children would witness their father’s agony every night. He couldn’t even walk to the bathroom and had to use a urine pot.

Every time Milind wailed in the dark night hours, a crack appeared in the hearts of his children. They wanted to change the course of the stars just so their father remained protected. Every prayer to the gods, Buddha, Ambedkar had one please: to cure their father and free him from his suffering. After all, how much can children bear to witness the hardships of their parents – their hero and heroine?

Through this journey, the best companion Milind had was from his most able partner, Rohini, whom he fondly called Ranjana. Like a strong ridge, she braved the turbulent waters to protect her vulnerable children and husband.

In truth, Milind never wanted to marry. At an early age, he had kidney stones. This is partly due to his lack of access to clean water, nutritious food and adequate housing. He had a major operation that had left scars on his stomach. He wasn’t sure how long he would live. He wanted to live without familial responsibilities and devote himself to social movements.

A family man

But in the Dalit community in those days, getting a job meant taking the entire family out of poverty. The job did not be well-paying but the fact that someone from among the untouchables was found as worthy to be employed and capable was considered a major achievement. Because of social custom, Milind was pressured to get married. Before the wedding, he told Ranjana that he was uninterested in marriage and that she should air her opinion so they could figure this out. But the marriage was meant to happen and they were wed in 1985.

Though he wanted to stop after two children, his wife wanted another: she had prayed for a girl child. He devoted a lot of his time to bringing up his children. He carefully purchased nutritious food. Like any caring parent, he wanted the best of the world for his children and he gave it in abundance. Milind’s life was a lesson to the world on parenting. He became an inspiration. Many after him put their children in good schools, a trend unfamiliar to the working-class Dalits.

Amidst all this, Milind never let go of morality and the value of principles. Having no capital to run a small business, he chose to sell books and newspapers on the streets with his elder son. They took anywhere between Rs 8-Rs 12 at the end of the day to run the house. The family complained but Milind was steadfast to work in the business of ethics and respect. Who knew (or perhaps he did?) that years later, his children’s names would adorn books and newspapers.

Milind decided to use the money from his voluntary retirement scheme to start a daily newspaper: Sarvjan (All People) responded to the Bahujan Samaj Party’s call for “Sarvjan Hitaay Sarvjan Sukhaay”. the welfare of all people, the happiness of all people. It was an eight-page colour Marathi newspaper printed in Nanded.

Milind declared that he would not run advertisements from non-Bahujan social and political organisations. He wanted it to be a principally clean newspaper dedicated to the cause of the anti-caste, Buddhist movement. Due to the lack of capital in the community, the newspaper died after six months. Nevertheless, it left a rich archive of committed letters that resound with support for political revolution sparked by Ambedkar.

Milind’s kidney stone became unbearable. In 2014, after much convincing, Milind and Ranjana went to JJ Hospital in Mumbai. In the intimidating city, Milind and Ranjana felt lost. They somehow managed to reach JJ Hospital but did not know anyone who could assist them. They were afraid of getting cheated by taxi drivers and in the places they were eating.

Finally, the day of the operation arrived. Milind spoke to his children from his hospital bed. His daughter, whom he fondly called “Mai”, was on the phone with him. He advised her to read the letter Charlie Chaplin had written to his daughter. Just before entering the operation theatre, Milind received the news that his elder son, who was just making it through his studies at a university in South Africa, had just been selected to go to Harvard. Milind knew about the best educational institutions in the world. It was, after all, Barack Obama’s college.

Entering an Indian government hospital is to gamble with one’s life. The doctors gave no assurance that the operation would be successful. After the surgery, Milind was kept under intensive care. His wife waited patiently at the door but the doctors did not allow them to see each other. That night, Milind breathed his last. More than three decades of unbearable pain had come to an end. Milind had lived for his children and society.

A sudden darkness

I was away in an Italian town called Livorno. I was on my way to read a paper at an international conference in Copenhagen. At about 11 pm, my cousin Pavan called me with the news.

A sudden darkness blanketed me. I did not realise what was happening. It was an experience that was not truly comprehensible.

Dr Suraj Yengde is an incomplete name without the wisdom-bridge of Milind. On August 5, we observed the seventh death anniversary of our father. It is a day that I often try to forget.

Through his life, whenever his children lost things or left them somewhere, he would tell them that those articles were their gift to a needy, unknown person. He had a natural flow of compassion in his heart.

Milind was at home with literature, the arts, theatre. He was fully convinced of the power of words. He would write letters to the editors expressing his views. On the rare occasion on which they were published, he would cut them out and paste them in a book.

He encouraged me to read the opinion pages of the newspapers. He explained how important it was for the audience to know the stand of the editors and their ideas. Who knew then that his son would become one of the nation’s sought-after columnists, writing regularly and influencing opinion?

A few months after my father’s passing, I went to JJ Hospital. I wanted to ask the doctors what had gone wrong. There was a crowd of about 50 people in the ward trying to get information from the doctors. They were being mobbed. My hopes of sitting down and talking at length with the doctor were shattered. I will never get to speak with the person who saw my father last, I thought.

But I did manage to enter the ward and approached the doctor as he tried to make this way through the crowd. I spoke in English and told him that I was the son of a patient who had died. He immediately stopped his activities and looked at me. He said they had tried but Milind’s body had been worn out. It was weak to take the load of the operation.

I was not ready to accept his explanation. My father’s postmortem report was also unclear. I kept feeling that I should have spoken to the doctor longer and pressed him more. But eventually, my heart heard the truth. It was the law of nature. I got into a taxi and lost myself in Mumbai’s vast multitudes.

Today, as I write this tribute I am sitting in the same city where I received the news of my father’s death, I have been thinking about what has motivated the Dalit community. Like Milind, many parents have strived to give the best they can from very little they had. They kept on giving. This has resulted in their children creating a clean, honest world wherever they went.

“Live for next generation and remember those gone” is the Dhamma of the Dalit community.

As I walk the world, I do so with the values I inherited from Milind. Morality and truth were his companions.

Milind’s life reminds us that there are many more mountains to scale, waters to swim, relationships to make and skies in which to soar.


Leave a Reply