A middle aged man in a black suit with well-ironed pants and polished shoes is perhaps the typical image that you see of Bhimrao Ambedkar, a Dalit icon and the first chairperson of India’s Constituent Assembly.
However, the cover of ‘Malayali Memorial’, a book by short-story writer Unni R published by Kerala’s popular publishing house DC Books, shows Ambedkar in upper caste Hindu attire.
In the image, Ambedkar is seen sitting on a chair wearing a white shirt and a Mundu with golden stripes — a popular image used to portray the upper caste Hindu patriarch. The cover image also has a photo frame of MK Gandhi hanging on the wall behind Ambedkar. Gandhi and Ambedkar had sharp political differences.
The poster has irked some Ambedkarites, who have criticised it saying it is an insult to Ambedkar.
Defense by the author
Unni R, the short-story writer who authored the book, spoke to South First.
Unni alleged that the criticism against the book cover comes from those who have not read the book, as there is a correlation between the story and the cover image.
“The situation in the book is that the protagonist of the story, Santhosh Nair, perceives Ambedkar as such a figure,” he said.
Apart from that, Unni said it is not mandatory for people to always wear a stereotyped attire.
“We have seen Ayyankali’s images with Hindu temple offerings like sandalwood paste marked on his forehead. That image is not Dalit attire according to popular imagination, but that doesn’t make Ayyankali a follower of Brahmanism. However, you can interpret it like that if you want,” Unni said, referring to Kerala’s popular social reformer and educator.
Noting that Ambedkar was someone who always spoke against intolerance, he said that there was no democracy in the language spoken by Ambedkarites and Dalit activists in Kerala.
“They are even demanding a ban on the book; I don’t understand why they are so intolerant,” he said.
The author refuted the allegation that the cover was designed to create a controversy and ensure sales, but added that people have every right to make any kind of allegation.
“I have been writing and publishing books for the last 15 years and I have my own readership, so I don’t need such kind of a marketing strategy to sell my books. Abid, the designer, came to me and said that, after reading the story, this is the image that came to his mind. I said, it is your freedom, please do it, I am not going to interfere in it.”
“Isn’t it similar to Talibanism that an artist is expected to behave in a way these activists want,” he asked.
He stated that the cover of ‘Malayali Memorial’ is not independent of the story, but agreed the image could be misinterpreted if placed out of context.
‘Won’t fall for the mouse trap’
South First spoke to social activist and philosopher Sunny M Kapicadu. He called the cover image “disgusting”, but clarified that creating a controversy about the book cover was unnecessary.
“Making this cover picture a controversy is not our aim. But, in my opinion, a publishing house like DC Books should not stoop so low and entertain such things. These authors, how much ever they try, their imagination would not go beyond a traditional Nair ‘Tharavadu’,” he said.
Kapicadu said he doesn’t believe all Savarna-born people have a Savarna mindset. But he said only those who have a Savarna mindset can put out a cover image like the one on the book.
Asked to respond to the allegation that criticism against the book has been made without reading it, he said there was no need to respond to those who think a book cover is not an important aspect of a book.
He said a book cover, its symbols, the painting and the text, are all as important as the book. He also said that a person has every right to not read the book and criticise the cover of the book.
“Against the distortion of Ambedkar’s image in this manner, what can Dalits do? Either march against the DC Books office or burn the book. This is what they want us to do. We are not going to do any of this and fall for their traps,” he said.
Citing a metaphor, Kapicadu said: “The mouse decides to not walk in the path that a cat desires, because the mouse needs to live; we will strive to be careful not to fall in this trap as we also need to live.”
According to Kapicadu, events like these are happening as there is a renewed interest in Ambedkar these days and people are buying books just by seeing Ambedkar’s image on the cover.
South First also spoke to Sunil P Ilayidom, a well-known writer, orator and Malayalam language professor at the Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit. He refrained from offering an opinion as he has not seen the cover or read the book.
“Let me first see the cover and read the book, without doing both of these things I am not ready to make a comment. I don’t want to give any instant responses like people on social media. In general, I don’t agree with remarks by people who have not read the story. Having said that, I will see the cover image and comment on it later,” Ilayidom said.
Malayalam writer NS Madhavan, however, said that he loved the cover of the book. “Ambedkar, who loved his 3-piece suit, would have loved this too,” he tweeted.
Height of sartorial arrogance of savarnas in old Kerala was headgear and earrings. Dalits could wear them at the risk of death. Mahatma Ayyankali, like Ambedkar later, challenged that. 2/2 pic.twitter.com/57jDZvr7RO
— N.S. Madhavan (@NSMlive) August 20, 2022