Sujatha Gidla’s debut Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, is a gripping story of the writer’s family living as Dalits [untouchables] in India, a history of India’s communist movement and a rare insight into one of the most oppressed class of people in the world. Gidla’s book may never have been written had the writer not moved to the United States where she gained the distance to question her identity and the opportunity to publish her work. The author chats with Books&Authors about the caste system, how she was punished for her political affiliations and the #MeToo movement.
You’ve made readers think about hierarchy (caste, patriarchy, class system), how it’s a part of daily life and how we’re all complicit in it.
People tell me my book opened their eyes to caste oppression. This takes me by surprise. How can anyone living in Pakistan or India fail to be aware of caste? For me and for all Dalits, caste is everywhere. But those not on the receiving end of caste oppression may not see it, or may take what they see around them as normal.
I grew up in an untouchable colony, but my parents were lecturers. When we witnessed how poor untouchables were treated, it seemed normal to us too, as though they belonged to a different species. I remember a 12 or 13 year old girl brought from a village to work as a household servant. The sons in that family yelled at her constantly to wash their clothes, clean their dishes, carry buckets of water for their baths, calling her unspeakable names. To us it was merely a spectacle.
I am glad if books such as mine can help people realise how things are, but unless there is an active struggle against caste, it will be hard for people to maintain that awareness.
You feel the #MeToo movement has been “hijacked” by “white bourgeois feminists.”
I work as a conductor on the subway trains in New York City. A large percentage of my co-workers are women. In all these months, I have not heard #MeToo mentioned at my workplace even once. #MeToo does not address the concerns of working-class women. It is a movement of middle-class and professional women. Middle-class women are right to complain of the sexual harassment and abuse they experience.
Supporters of women’s rights should fight against the oppression of all women, but #MeToo’s tactics reflects its class basis. It appeals to the press, private companies and the authorities to protect women. In India, after the horrifying 2012 Delhi gang rape incident, the demand from middle-class feminists was for more cops on the streets. Indian cops are the biggest rapists of lower-class women — Dalits, tribals, Muslims and other poorer sections. In India-held Kashmir and in the north-eastern states, the Indian military uses rape as punishment for political opposition. There is another problem with movements such as #MeToo. When you expect authorities and the establishment to punish alleged perpetrators, it is very easy to see that it will be used to go after Dalit professional men, politically conscious professors, or journalists who question the government.
Can feminist movements ever truly be universal, cutting across racial/class lines?
No. Feminists want equality for women without changing the existing socio-economic system that gives rise to these disparities of class, caste and race. This means privileged women should have the same rights as privileged men and poor women must be satisfied with being equal to poor men. Feminism does not recognise that it is private property that is at the root of women’s oppression and that unless it is abolished, women can never be truly equal to men.
Your narrative about your uncle K.G. Satyamurthy, co-founder of the People’s War Group, revealed the extent of casteism in both the communist party and PWG, something that your uncle fought against. It’s such a paradox — such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a landlord, becoming a left-leaning politician...
According to my uncle, the fundamental problem was that the leaders of Indian communist parties started their political careers in the Indian National Congress. They had the same interests, but differed on tactics.
Congress under M.K. Gandhi stood for non-violence; the communists wanted to achieve the same goals, but by “breaking a few chairs and benches.” In my view, casteism in the subcontinent’s communist movements exists because their political programme is based on peasantry, which is not a homogeneous class such as the working class. There are rich peasants who are interested in continuing caste exploitation. Bhutto represented the interests of the Sindhi zamindars who wanted to transition from agriculture to industry. To remove competition from the Punjab zamindars and those who had already established themselves in the industrial sector, he formed the PPP. Since zamindars alone could not carry out this fight, he appealed to the working masses. For this reason, he postured as a leftist.
You were a revolutionary yourself: a teenaged member of the Radical Students Union [RSU], student group of the Maoist Communist Party of India…
I was just 14 when I joined the RSU. It was passion for social justice that made me join, not knowledge of Marxism. At 19, I was arrested and tortured for my politics. My family went through a lot to get me out. The police wouldn’t let me continue with my degree unless I stopped talking to anyone on campus so I lost a direct connection [with the RSU]. Also, I didn’t want my family to suffer again. At the time I heard a lot of stories about casteism in the party and retrospectively I could see that. I was somewhat disillusioned. Then I got a job and went to a city where I knew no one so I drifted away from the organisation. In America I had an opportunity to read Marxist literature.
I was able to see how my uncle’s party’s political programme itself was faulty. Basing struggle in peasantry is the structural cause of caste in the party. Casteism in the communist movement is not an aberration; peasants vary from those without land to those with hundreds of acres of land. The rich peasants benefit materially from casteism. Also, in Indian communism the cadre are not encouraged to read. According to my uncle, the prominent communist leader P.C. Joshi used to say, “Reading only confuses you.”
What was your writing and the publishing process like?
I worked on the manuscript for over 10 years. The research was largely talking with family member and friends, mainly my mother and her brother. I also travelled to India for the express purpose of seeing the places and things they spoke about. Whenever possible, I cross-checked their stories with their contemporaries.
I doubt very much that an untouchable story would have interested a major publisher in India, had I tried to publish there first. Because my book was praised in the West, I was able to publish it in India.
Any suggestions for our readers?
I loved Mohammad Hanif’s novel Our Lady of Alice Bhatti about a young, beautiful, honest and self-respecting untouchable nurse. Many Pakistanis I meet in New York strenuously deny caste exists in Pakistan because “there is no caste in Islam.” Hanif’s heroine is not only an untouchable, but a Christian — I understand that in Pakistan Christians are an oppressed minority. Hanif, without being patronising, portrays the untouchable characters in his book as dignified and upright people.
Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom depicts minutely and unsparingly the brutal poverty that crushes millions of Indians. I would also recommend Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned: Life in the New India and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 1st, 2018