When I met Dr. Ambedkar at Columbia


Preshit Ambade

preshit ambadeWhen I was an undergraduate student, my friend and I often walked past Dr. Ambedkar's statue located near our college. We paid homage and giggled, asking "where was he pointing to?". He was pointing to the West! I would tell my friend that perhaps Dr. Ambedkar wants us to go to the West, maybe Mumbai, and do something big. My feeling was that it might have been an indirect message telling us to go to Mumbai to pursue graduate school, to obtain our master's degrees, and become public health professionals, in addition to being doctors. Though our individual lives took different paths in the years that followed, we always discussed what our idol may have wanted us to do next. Each time I was in Mumbai, I would visit Chaityabhumi, to be inspired.

Dr. Ambedkar's birth and death anniversaries kept me motivated to do something good for my community. Then, someone gave me a new dream! I wanted to go beyond Mumbai to the West. Although it took me a while to figure this out, I knew that I wanted to do this for sure. Meanwhile, even as my experience with the caste system became extremely uncomfortable, I continued working hard in my professional career. For all my efforts, I was accepted for admission to a doctoral program in the United States of America. After receiving my visa, I visited my idol's memorial before flying to the US. Upon arrival in the US, I felt awkward as I knew nothing about the education system and culture. Meanwhile back home, the atrocities continued, but, like with many others, what kept me going was the inspiration of Dr. Ambedkar.

In the US, I kept feeling incomplete. Something was still missing from my journey to the West. The state of New York was beckoning, particularly Columbia University, which is where a statue of my inspiration stands, and seeing him was the first thing on my to-do-list. When the moment finally came and I reached Columbia University, I was denied permission to visit the statue because it was the day of the Law school convocation. I could see him, garlanded and well-lit, through the glass walls of the Lehman Library. My assumption was that perhaps many people milling around the statue were not aware of who he was. The idea of returning to my university town after coming so far and being so close to meet him was very disheartening. And so, I decided to return to Columbia University to visit his statue. Despite the cold rain and accompanying wind that completely soaked me, I was determined more than ever to see Dr. Ambedkar.

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This time, I wanted to get it right, so I contacted the office assistant at the main library. He didn't know his name but told me that many people come to see him and that I would be able to see him without any issues. I did not have any gift for my idol, so I picked a few pretty white flowers from a garden close to the library. I saw flags from many countries' hanging from the ceiling of the first floor of the library proudly showcasing the focus of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. I searched for the Indian flag and found it hanging from the ceiling in one of the sections. I went to the restroom to freshen up and made sure I was looking good for this colossal moment. I was having an adrenaline rush as I walked down the stairs. After all, I was going to meet him at the university where he is a famous alumnus. I had no words or thoughts about what I was going to say to him. He was on the ground floor, near the entrance close to the bookshelves. I could see him through the glass walls, a few yards behind the front desk. It was around 4 pm when, after walking past the librarian, I finally stood in front of my inspiration.

He had a smile on his face and seemed to be gazing into the distance. I paid homage to the statue of my role model and placed the bouquet of flowers I had brought on a small table in front of him. I silently read the preamble of the Indian constitution, a newspaper cutting, an excerpt from a book by Prof. Eleanor Zelliot titled "The American experience of B.R. Ambedkar", and a quote from Babasaheb placed near the display. The moment was so surreal, and I took it all in. I took a couple of pictures of him and asked a passerby student to take a picture of me standing next to Dr. Ambedkar's statue.

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Finally, I calmed down, and sitting at a desk in front of him, started reading a few pages from a handbook of health economics by one of my favorite economists named Joseph Newhouse. I felt so inspired to be studying in front of him. This was a very special moment in my life. It was then that I realized that, over a 100 years ago, he wanted me to come to the United States. I realized that I wanted to do the same thing he had done; learn all that I could and then take it back with me, so I can apply it in India. One crucial phase of my journey ended when I met him but it was only to begin another one. I felt more committed and determined to do what I have set out to do. He will be there, maybe at the library, or at the square of the village or town, and he will remain in my heart and serve as a reminder of where I want to go from where I am.



Dr. Preshit Ambade, BAMS, MHA is a public health professional currently pursuing his doctoral studies at Mel and Enid Zukerman College of Public Health (MEZCOPH), University of Arizona, Tucson, USA. Twitter: @PreshitAmbade

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