BhimBaba: A Refreshing Paradigm Shift in Children's Books

BhimBaba: A Refreshing Paradigm Shift in Children's Books
Book Review by Aparna Pallavi

I just finished reading Prashant Tambe's delightful children's book, BhimBaba, based on the life of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, the author of India's Constitution and liberator of the entire Dalit community. And I find the book refreshingly different and, in many subtle and gentle ways, quite a paradigm shift in how children's books on challenging subjects may be written.

For starters, it steps away from the stereotypical depiction of Dalits as oppressed and helpless and weaves the story around two middle-class Dalit families enjoying a vacation at a national park. That, in itself, is a major paradigm shift -- from seeing the community as weak and disadvantaged to seeing it as second to none, enjoying the fruits of its decades of struggles for dignity and equality.

It is a much more empowering depiction.

For me, this is the key difference between a book written by a scholar who is looking in from outside and one written by someone within the community who really knows how a member of the community would like to see themselves. And that, in itself, is immensely powerful.

The story revolves around two eight-year-old girls, Arundhati and Anandita, classmates and friends, who keep asking their parents questions about Bhim Baba, as Dr. Ambedkar is lovingly known in the community, first during a trip to Diksha Bhoomi for Bhim Jayanti celebrations and then during a trip to the Pench National Park.


The book is structured in questions and answers -- and follows the natural cadence of conversations children that age tend to have with their parents. The whole atmosphere of the book is light, full of banter and playfulness, and the story of BhimBaba is interspersed with descriptions of the places the families are visiting, the people they meet, and the food they eat so that the story is told in a way that can hold the interest of children that young.

This, I regard as paradigm shift number two -- because most of the children's books I have read on Babasaheb and other personalities like him (and I am no expert) tend to be clinical or didactic and on the heavy side. Depicting a subject of such gravity with so much lightness is something that can be a welcome trend in how children's books on such subjects are written.

The detailed descriptions of Bhim Jayanti celebrations were also interesting, and I really liked this detail because mostly celebrations of marginalized communities tend to be sidelined in favor of dominant caste festivals in India. More books like Bhimbaba are needed to bring knowledge about these festivals into the mainstream.

This light, cheerful approach to the subject is matched by the way the book is produced -- it is full of colorful pictures of scenes from the Bhimjayanti celebrations and forest scenes, which give the book a cheerful and attractive feel.

I also loved the way caste is explained to the little children -- as something that is utterly illogical and untrue but still does exist and does cause damage to millions of lives. In children's books, I have so far only seen caste depicted as a given. And this irreverent departure from that trend is very refreshing indeed.

The book also pays homage to other political struggles of marginalized communities in India. In the course of their travels, the families meet people representing the struggles of Muslims and Indigenous people of India. I particularly liked the character of an indigenous origin woman who runs an alternative bookshop. The people in the book greet each other with the slogans of their movement -- not just Jai Bhim, which is an iconic Dalit slogan, but also slogans of other movements.

This is a wonderful way of locating the Dalit struggle within the context of other marginalized people's movements in the country.

There is one good thing about the book that was difficult for my upper-caste privileged mind to grasp. Several times in the book, adult characters describe Bhim Baba to the children as 'our father, our great father'. At one point, a character tells the girls something to the effect that "Bhim Baba is our father, your father, everyone's father, he means so much to us that we call him Bhim Baba".

This was difficult for me to receive at first because it is an expression of reverence that I am unfamiliar with, and my first, off the cuff response was to ask 'why this needless glorification? Why 'father of all'? Why not just a great leader?'

It took me some time to realize that this was my upper-caste privilege. I had to ask myself why it was difficult for me that the community chose to see their greatest icon, whom they, quite accurately, consider their savior, in this way? Why can't I just respect it? What gives me the right to judge their choice of words and expressions? Can I ever know what it is like to have suffered as a Dalit, and what it is like to look at the one pivotal person who fought for the community and brought it the basic human rights that were denied to them for centuries? Can I ever know what I would feel towards Bhimbaba if I were in those shoes?

And the result of that self-questioning was sobering. People like me, who were born with the privilege of caste, who have never known what it is like to not have that privilege, and who still want to be allies to the less privileged, need to be exposed to such unabashed expressions of community identity often to be able to respect it and come out of the ivory tower of how we have seen upper-caste intellectuals verbalize these issues.

With all its good points, the book does have a few flaws. Firstly, the sentence structures and usage could have been a little more streamlined to bring it in alignment with contemporary writing trends. That would have given the book an easier flow in terms of reader reception. In the second part, the two stories -- the story of Bhim Baba and the story of the travels of the two families -- are not as well integrated as they are in the first part and seem to segregate from each other. This could have been fixed by a good editor. Also, more anecdotes from the young Bhim's life would have made the story more relatable to children.

But then, this book is a pioneering attempt, and I would rather focus on the good. Flaws are bound to be there in the beginning, and those are valuable lessons that can be integrated into later work.

On the whole, the book was refreshingly enjoyable, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in educating their children on social realities and issues of marginalized groups. It can provide both delightful reading and valuable talking points for future exploration.

Preface: A Long-Awaited Dream Realized and a Personal Debt Repaid

In the preface, author Prashant Tambe shares his heartfelt sentiments, expressing that this book is the realization of a dream that had been deferred for far too long. He acknowledges the profound gratitude he holds towards the guiding lights in his life, among whom Bhimbaba shines prominently. Growing up, Tambe was fortunate to have been immersed in the captivating stories of Bhimbaba, thanks to his beloved Aai-Baba. As a father of two daughters and a passionate lover of books, Tambe often ponders on the best way to introduce iconic figures to young minds. Recognizing the power of storytelling, he believes that stories serve as a compelling medium, particularly for children, to acquaint themselves with these luminaries.

This book, therefore, stands as Tambe's earnest attempt to engage young audiences on their own terms. Encouraging parents to share this literary journey with their children, he emphasizes the invaluable role they play in helping their young ones grasp the deeper significance of the incidents shared from Bhimbaba's remarkable life. Tambe advocates for a collective appreciation of this guiding light in our lives, emphasizing the importance of passing on the legacy to future generations.

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