Sujatha Gidla's 'Ants Among Elephants' is a searing indictment of caste, untouchability in India
Sujatha Gidla talks about her memoir, Ants Among Elephants, caste-based discrimination and why she refused to participate in an event alongside Smriti Irani
When Sujatha Gidla was growing up in a Dalit slum in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh, she witnessed the grown-ups in her family adopting a deferential, servile stance whenever an upper-caste Hindu passed them by. Gidla was born an untouchable, but was never explicitly told so – she was a Christian, her grandfather having been converted and educated by Canadian missionaries before Independence. And thus, she learned to equate Hindus with superiority and power, while Christians were “lowly” and “weak”.
When she was 15, she watched a movie where a rich girl and a poor boy fall in love. The boy is forced by the girl’s family to stop seeing her, and after failed attempts to track him down, the girl agrees to marry a well-educated wealthy man. Gidla’s brain went numb when she saw the wedding scene — the girl was dressed in a Western-style white gown, complete with a veil. The girl was a Christian, while the poor boy was actually a Brahmin. “This sheer defiance of the laws of nature portrayed Christians as rich and powerful and – most amazing of all – scornful of Brahmins, the highest caste of all,” writes Gidla, in Ants Among Elephants (Harper Collins).
In the recently released book, the New York-based subway conductor draws up a poignant portrait of the centuries-old caste system in India with her own family’s story at its heart, in particular her uncle KG Satyamurthy and her mother Manjula. Wherever she travelled in India, her untouchability accompanied her like a dark secret, something she could never discuss with anybody. It was only after moving to America in the early ’90s that she realised that her identity wasn’t confined by her caste, and that her family’s stories were “not stories of shame”.
“It was too shameful to bring up the subject of untouchability, even with your own folks. I was trying to figure out how it came about. I don’t think having a caste system is a traditional custom. There’s an economic reason for why a 3,000-year-old system still exists. I started thinking on the lines of ‘why caste’ instead of saying this is how it is. That’s how I started writing the book,” says Gidla, on the sidelines of the Times Lit Fest in Mumbai.
In 1999, she began speaking to Satyamurthy on the phone from New York, recording their conversations. When this proved to be challenging, she made two trips to India in the following years. “He was an amazing person and had participated in all kinds of struggles since Independence. His stories were incredible. But by that time, he was old and frail and it was exhausting for him to talk,” she recalls. Satyamurthy was a Maoist revolutionary and had co-founded the People’s War Group (PWG). He was also a noted poet who wrote under the pseudonym Sivasankar.
Gidla admits that much of her politics was shaped by her uncle’s. While she initially viewed liberation through the prism of Christianity, she soon crossed over to the side of the revolution and at 14, joined the Radical Student Union, a student body of the PWG. “Circumstances shape people’s personalities and his were shaped by what was going on at the time, whether it was the Independence movement or Telangana. He moved further and further left — from Congress to communism to more militant communism to caste politics,” says the Regional Engineering College Warangal graduate, who was arrested and tortured by the police in her second year after striking against a professor who was failing low-caste students.
Despite growing up hearing stories of Satyamurthy through her mother, Gidla did not meet him until she was in her early 20s, by which time he had been expelled from the PWG. “Even after I became a radical student, I would keep hearing stories about him from other people in the party and it only intensified the mystique. When I met him after the expulsion, he was at a very low point. He was on the run, both from the police and his ex-comrades. He didn’t have food to eat and clothes to wear and was seeking my assistance, which was very sad."
Gidla faced various challenges while putting the book together, the biggest of which was the race against death. Some voices passed away before she was finished hearing their stories while others were afflicted by poor health — her other uncle Carey’s high school friend lost his ability to speak after a stroke, her father’s aunt lost her memory after a fall. “There was a part of my uncle’s (Satyamurthy) story I couldn’t bring out — he was a very lively person. One of his friends, who had been very loyal to him, would have remembered all the witty things but he had an early death.”
While she left India over two decades ago, Gidla believes not much has changed and casteism has only got worse. Her mother was berated by her upper-caste colleagues, women who had been her closest friends, after the book was published. “They said things like why is she in America if she’s so concerned about your caste fellows? Why isn’t she here helping them out?”
While the reception to Ants Among Elephants has been mostly heartening, Gidla is amused by hyperbolic reactions to it in the West. “In America, people wrote ‘defiance of New York conductor’ or ‘against all odds’. This gives the wrong message — that if you are tenacious enough, you can be successful.” She doesn’t see it defiance, but her life story, narrated in plain words. “I'm .001 per cent of the untouchables, and what I said is nothing compared to what happens to real untouchables in the country. If you are shocked by what I had to say, imagine how much worse it is for those people.”
She’s not a fan of reservations, as they're akin to putting a band-aid on a bullet wound and only help a minuscule percentage of untouchables. “In competitive exams, you can clear the written test but once you get to the oral interview and they see you’re an untouchable, they fail you. All the untouchables who score enough to be in the merit quota are put into the reservation quota to limit them to that percentage. It’s helped very few people to begin with, and even if they did get through, they were failed at every stage. Look at what happened to Rohith (Vemula), he went all the way to a PhD and killed himself, she says, adding, “My sister and I were failed because of our caste. But it’s worse for Rohith, he died because of the discrimination.”
Gidla was recently invited to be part of We The Women, a women’s only festival curated by Barkha Dutt that had influencers from sports, politics and entertainment — but she refused. “There were two reasons," says Gidla. "First, it was sponsored by the UN, which in my political view is a fig leaf of American imperialism. Secondly, Smriti Irani was part of the festival. She was instrumental in Rohith’s death. His blood is on her hands. I couldn’t possibly have participated alongside her.”
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