Sponsored by

Ants Among Elephants review: Sujatha Gidla's passionately researched examination of what it means to be Dalit in India

A month ago, I received a package; it was a hardbound copy of Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants — a gift from a friend. Much restless reading and several vague intervals later, I finished reading it. The stories and people Gidla mentioned in her book were not alien to me, growing up (as I had) in a Dalit/Buddhist basti in Nagpur, Maharashtra, where political confusion, violence, frustration, poverty as well as resistance were our lived realities.

For a life to be a story, it needs a vision with certain amount of idealistic madness. Satyam, also known as KG Satyamurthy, the central figure in Ants Among Elephants, was one such visionary — mad about his Communist ideals. Who was Satyam? Gilda introduces him in this way: "My uncle KG Satyamurthy, who was known as SM, was a principal founder in the early seventies of (a) Maoist guerrilla group recently declared by the government to be the single greatest threat to India’s security."

 Ants Among Elephants review: Sujatha Gidlas passionately researched examination of what it means to be Dalit in India

Cover for Sujatha Gidla's Ants Among Elephants. Image courtesy: Harper Collins

As soon as ideologies such as Marxism, Communism and Maoism came to India, they turned out to be dark comedies when applied on ground — since they came via the castiest agency of oppressors in India, the Brahmins. Ants Among Elephants — rather than telling us stories of the members of an 'untouchable' family (who converted to Christianity) and their struggles in a casteist society — tells us that liberation in India could never come from the social 'top'. It had to come from the bottom, since it was this social 'down' that had absorbed the agonies of oppression. Gidla’s narrative — poised in its tone, dispassionate in its energy, and ruthless in telling its tales — also brings our attention to the failure of religion and emancipatory ideologies which intended to bring liberation to caste-society — without understanding it or engaging with it.

The book offers the perfect cocktail of caste, Christianity and Communism and examines how the latter two failed to free people from pathological caste norms. Since the personal in India is shaped by the social positioning of caste into which a person is born, for Dalits in India, ideologies such as Communism or religions such as Christianity have very little to offer. They alienate the personal of Dalits, the empirical, which should supposedly be the ideological reference in their struggle.

Satyam’s life at a certain phases appears to us as a metaphor for this failure, as Gidla writes: "SM, when I asked about himself, would only talk about his political life, his life in the movement. I would try asking what it was like for him when his first child was born. He did not care to answer. When I asked how it felt to be separated from his children when he went underground, he told me he did not remember. That may have been true. He was like that. The movement was his life."

However, what makes Gidla’s book a reference text for understanding caste, Christianity and Communism in India is her illustration of the social history behind a person's history, the connections between social realities and personal stories. Unlike earlier biographies or autobiographies mostly written from an empirical standpoint, Ants Among Elephants is a passionately researched book that will create its own space in the legacy of stories written by Dalits. To me, Satyam’s story appears as a journey to seek a roof, a homeland to call his own, and to reach to an identity. In this journey, he believes Communism (armed struggle) is the answer. While aware of caste realities, and the discrimination and humiliation based on it — within and outside Communist parties in India and in Telangana — Satyam is however determined to use a militant way to free landless folks and 'untouchables' from the clutches of oppressive landlords, the Reddys and Kammas. This was where Indian upper caste propaganda seemed to create a false consciousness in which Dalits’ attention was deliberately shifted from real oppressors to constructed enemies.

For instance, as Gidla mentions: Now that it seemed as if something was finally going to come of all the talk Satyam had been hearing, he embraced the nationalist cause. For over two hundred years, the British had ruled his country and stolen its vast wealth. Freedom from that rule would naturally change everything, including his family’s situation. He’d heard that the white lords lived in bungalows, ate bread they sliced with knives, and wiped their mouths with cloth. When they left, surely all Indians could live like that.

Soon after this, however, Satyam comes to the point where he could sense a gross difference between what he heard or was promised and what he was witnessing. After India won its independence from the British, Satyam — then in college and preparing to celebrate the nation's impending epoch  — could feel the alienation, finding himself sidelined precisely because of his caste. He was conveniently seen as a communist and perceived as an 'untouchable' by the upper castes. At this moment, a fellow 'untouchable' boy comes up to him and asks: “Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?” Satyam had no answer to this, or perhaps he was still searching for one. Did he find it at the end of his life? The answer is no.

All through his life, Satyam — facing discrimination from upper caste communists — never reached the point of comprehending them fully so as to translate it into action against caste-discrimination. As Gidla mentions: He was told that the servant belonged to his master. When the Paleru became a Paleru, he must have entered an agreement. An agreement between two people cannot be dissolved by a third party. “But the purpose of a Communist party is to break those agreements,” Satyam pointed out. The leaders had nothing to say to that. Satyam saw (a) contradiction.

A decade or so after Marxism, Communism came to India, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar launched his anti-caste struggle. However his struggle was prohibited from reaching the masses across all 'untouchable' castes. Instead, it was the Brahmins who brought Communism to the 'untouchables' across regions and provinces. The 'untouchables' within the Communist parties were used and hardly recognised. Satyam’s own death is the tale of being forbidden from the life of mind — even though he pursued a great one while living as a poet and a writer. However it was his death that was given more coverage and attention rather than his life. His death became a spectacle rather than his life; the death of a Dalit merely reduced to a commodity in the political economy (dominated by Brahminical class) of struggles in India.

Yogesh Maitreya is a poet and translator. He is the founder of Panther's Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. 

Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.

Updated Date: Jan 25, 2018 15:17:35 IST

Also See