It’s possible, but hard, to find marginalised voices in literature — after all, how many labourers, refugees or those living in ghettos end up publishing novels or memoirs and have their stories told in their own voice? This alone — this opportunity to read a unique story — is reason enough to pick up Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, that traces the writer’s and her family’s triumphs and travails as Christian untouchables or Dalits (‘oppressed’ in Sanskrit) in Andhra Pradesh, India.
Being born into the untouchable caste, Gidla confesses, was not something she thought was worth writing about till she was living in the United States — she moved to New York when she was 26 where she worked in the banking industry and as a subway conductor. “My stories, my family’s stories, were not stories in India. They were just life,” she points out. “When I left and made new friends in a new country, only then did the things that happened to my family, the things we had done, become stories. Stories worth telling, stories worth writing down.”
And Gidla, indeed, has a story worth telling. Through the history of three generations of her family, the writer captures the indignities — big and small — of living at the bottom of a caste system. Granted, Gidla and her family, since they were Christians and educated, were better off than many fellow Dalits. However, the writer says it didn’t make much of a difference: “Christians, untouchables — it came to the same thing. All Christians in India were untouchable. I knew no Christian who did not turn servile in the presence of a Hindu.”
A writer traces the century-long struggles of her Dalit family in the largest democracy in the world
Later in life, Gidla finds herself questioning why generations of her family have been labelled as untouchables. She traces her lineage back to her ancestors who “worshipped their own tribal goddesses and had little to do with society outside the forest where they lived.” But when the British colonisers cleared the forest for plantations, her great-grandparents’ clan was forced off their land. Eventually, they formed a settlement they called Sankarapadu near a fertile lake and spent their time content as successful farmers. Their happiness did not last long; an agent of the local zamindar [landlord], who collected tax on behalf of the British, discovered the clan. The clan was taxed, given loans which they were unable to pay back and also had their land stolen from them: they ended up being mere labourers on their own land.
Sadly, Gidla’s family doesn’t belong to an oppressed caste that is in the minority: there are an estimated 300 million Dalits currently in India. In other words, one in six Indians is considered an untouchable by their peers. While their plight may be familiar to many readers — how they are segregated from society and can’t share or touch the same plate or glass as an upper-caste Hindu — Gidla does a brilliant job of bringing alive the indignities of such unimaginable poverty. An apple, she tells us, was a luxury, something reserved as a Christmas treat and she was surrounded by people who had never even eaten a fruit. Her neighbours and friends were often worse off. She recalls, for instance, how a destitute neighbour, Santoshamma, “was so ravaged by starvation that she couldn’t walk anymore” and crawled across the street to their home begging for food.
All families have certain larger-than-life characters and for Gidla it is her maamoo [maternal uncle] K.G. Satyamurthy, a famed poet and revolutionary and co-founder of the communist party the People’s War Group. While much of the book is focused on Satyamurthy, his efforts to build a Naxalite resistance movement and his involvement in the communist party, Gidla also explores the story of her other maamoo, Carey, and his many escapades as a ladies’ man, and her mother Manjula.
All three siblings faced their own unique obstacles and heartbreaks: Manjula was failed by professors as a student, wasn’t hired as a teacher because of her caste and had to deal with an abusive husband; Carey struggled academically and career-wise, and Satyamurthy was pushed out of the People’s War Group — the very party he set up — because he dared to point out that casteism didn’t belong in communism and thus neither in the party.
But Ants Among Elephants isn’t a story of just poverty and systemic discrimination; it’s also a story about resilience and defying the odds. While Satyamurthy, through his political activities, may stand out as the rebel, none of the other central characters in the book completely accept defeat or the logic of the caste system: each of the siblings push against the obstacles society throws at them and succeed in their own way.
Gidla, by writing this book, is being defiant in her own way. In America, she points out, “people know only my skin colour, not birth status”, but we’re lucky she began to question her status and research its origins. The result is a book — which has now also been published in India — that deservedly starts a conversation about one of the most oppressed people in the world.
The reviewer is a former member of staff
Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable
Family and the Making of Modern India
By Sujatha Gidla
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 1st, 2018