As he looked on, a short chubby dark boy Satyam had never before seen came up to him and introduced himself. He had a strange question for Satyam, one that Satyam had no answer to: “Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?” - Ants Among Elephants, An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India
At a time in India when multiple narratives and different perspectives have been almost flattened out and where myths and mythology are rapidly replacing facts, Sujatha Gidla’s stunning debut novel Ants Among Elephants, An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India is a brilliant journey into other histories – those of the Dalits, the dispossessed and the struggles for land and movements waged by the left.
The New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani hails Gidla’s book as a memoir on the persistence of caste, how ancient prejudices persist in contemporary India and how these prejudices are being challenged by the disenfranchised.
I met Gidla at the Times Litfest in Mumbai in December and later she responded promptly and graciously to my questions on email for an interview, even though she was jet-lagged and quite done with interminable questions on why she became a conductor for New York’s subway system!
I began by asking her to elaborate on what impelled her to record her family’s story and narratives of those that have been marginalized. Did she feel the acute need for memorializing the stories of defiance and grace under abject oppression?
Gidla whose book declares that “Because your life is your caste, your caste is your life,” is emphatic that it is obvious that caste persists to this day. “It has been the foundation of class rule in India for 2000 years, adapting over time to serve the interests of different rulers. During British rule, the existing caste system was used to create new forms of oppression such as the Vetti or caste-based servitude system whereby every untouchable had to give up the first male child born to the Dora Gadi (landlord’s fortress).
“Now under ‘independent’ rule, caste has not merely persisted but become more virulent and violent. Does caste exist today? Open the newspapers and see if there is not at least one report of a Dalit insulted or raped or maimed or killed. And it is not just the untouchables but the majority of Indians including caste Hindus who suffer under the caste system. It profits only a tiny minority.”
Gidla says that when she was writing these stories of the marginalized she didn’t know whether they would hold enough interest for the privileged to be published, especially since she was writing about Marxist politics in a death-of-communism era. “But when I showed my book to people who didn’t share my background or my politics, I realized it had some mainstream appeal.”
Having spent anxious years trying to tape her mother and her uncle, KG Satyamurthy, a major pioneering figure in the left and then Maoist guerrilla movement, she adds she did feel the pressing need for memorialization. “That is why I felt so much angst about dying relatives/friends/acquaintances. In the end, it is only my mother who is the surviving member to see the publication of the book. We know about caste but we need to know what it was like in our previous generations, to see if we have made any progress or if it is worse.”
One of the fascinating aspects of the book is the huge amount of background detailing that Gidla brings to show just how insidiously caste permeates every minutia of life. She writes about her uncle being physically attacked as a young boy for daring to wear knickers, or how even cattle were segregated according to the caste of the owners, or food and its connotations of “purity.” Satyam, the revolutionary is caught in a dilemma when his in-laws want a traditional pig hunt and serving of pork during the wedding but he, himself, as a leftist has been influenced by his fellow comrades’ Hindu customs who view serving pork as “impure.”
How much of this is based on memory or then did Gidla have to do extensive research?
Gidla comments, “The examples you mentioned seemed new to me even though I had experienced some of this myself. I was confused about caste and its significance. As a young girl, I was also harassed for wearing decent clothes and did not understand why a boy once splashed me with dirty water. Only in the light of these accounts that my mother and uncle spoke about was I able to understand why and what happened to me.
“When I was growing up, we never talked even among ourselves about our caste or sub-caste. My parents demurely used the word MLA or MD for Malas and Madigas, the two main untouchable communities in Andhra. My brother, sister and I didn’t know what they were talking about. I overcame the shame I felt only in my mid-twenties. So I reassessed what had happened to us in the light of what the earlier generation told me.”
Another distinguishing feature of Gidla’s book is the way she weaves personal stories with the political. (She writes: “My mother and her eldest brother have a facility with language, insight into people and social conditions.”). I asked her to elaborate on the socio-political insights that make her book a richly layered one, of not just narratives of caste but the Telangana movement, the struggles for land, Kakinada and so on. Struggles that have been are distorted or simply not touched upon much in mainstream narratives of post-independent India
She says, “In general everyone has a family. And so everyone has a family story. Why should your family story be of interest to others unless it has something to say about the larger society? I needed to tell the stories of the social struggles of the times – Independence, Telangana, Naxalism – because my uncle was involved in them. But, even to explain what happened to my mother in school I needed to put her story in the context of the society she was living in.
“Besides, my family (thanks to my uncle) is a very political one, we love these stories. I was writing them for those who also love such stories. When communism was in vogue, when Naxalite politics were in vogue, other people might have written about their experiences in these movements. But we are living in a “post-communism” era. And many people want to be disassociated from that stuff. For our part, we disassociated from specific political lines and programmes and tactics, but we remain loyal to the end goal — social justice. It is too bad that others are not recording their stories in this manner.”
Stories of struggle or then accounts by “truth tellers” can enable analogies and interestingly Gidla had remarked to me how she found similarities between the reign of the Nizam in Hyderabad and that of the rule of the Dogras in Kashmir.
Gidla believes the similarities revolve around decisions of princely states in the wake of independence and the wishes of the people. In Hyderabad, the majority population was Hindu and oppressed by the minority Muslims under the Nizam. In Kashmir, it was the majority population of Muslims that was ruled and oppressed by the minority under the Dogras. In Hyderabad, the Indian military forces attacked the Nizam’s territory and annexed it to the republic. In Kashmir too there was military intervention and it is militarization that continues to keep it under India’s rule. “I would say Hyderabad is the mirror image of Kashmir.”
Coming to Gidla’s own stories I asked her about her experiences in the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras where she got a job as a research assistant at the age of 22. The IITs were being seen as citadels of India’s commitment to modern technology and a scientific temperament but here Gidla faced terrible casteism.
“The first instance was when I learnt I had been selected. Someone told me about one of my seniors who might help me adjust to a new state with a different language and culture. My brother took me to her house but she did not even invite me in. She turned us back at the gate saying she had nothing to offer as help. I remember my brother and I standing outside the gate black faced in the hot summer sun. We never spoke about it. We felt humiliation even though we individually pretended that we had not noticed what had happened.
“Then when I went to IIT there was this clique of several Brahmin girls. One of them recognized my name. She said, ‘You are the same girl who got the second rank in the Central University entrance exam! Wow, I am so delighted to meet you.’ But once she found out my caste she would make snarky remarks every single time we ran into each other in the hallways and in the mess. One time she said, ‘Look at her, she thinks she’s a mod beauty queen’ because I wore my hair short and wore an unusual blouse on a sari and I was running in the corridor (a sign of me being carefree). When she found out that I had been arrested, she said loudly in the mess, ‘Oh, are you the same Sujatha Gidla arrested for violent politics?’
But, there was also the other side of the coin. There were people from other regions in the IIT and the cultural differences meant they could not assess Gidla’s caste or class from her appearance.
“Some boys even fell in love with me. But those who knew my caste ridiculed me and would inform those who were interested in me.”
It was not until Gidla, at age twenty-six, went away to the USA that she found people who “know only skin colour, not birth status.” And in talking to friends she met there, she realized that “my stories, my families stories, are not of shame.”
So I put the question to her. Does she believe that the USA, even under the leadership of Donald Trump, is still ahead in terms of ideas of equality?
“Yes, and YES,” she declared emphatically. “Look at the records. Were there any books banned in the US? How many books are banned in India? How many Muslims are killed in each of these countries? Do the criminals get away scot free? How many rapes are there in the US as a “punishment” for the political and social opposition? America was never a completely free and equitable place. It is less so under Trump. And yet it is far better than India.
“Incidentally you speak of Trump, but life for black people and immigrants was no different on Obama’s watch. Racist police brutality was particularly rampant under Obama’s watch.”
The crucial difference, according to Gidla is that there are many, many more anti-racist white people in the US than there are anti-caste Hindus in India. And the anti-racists in the US are committed and proactive.
“I have a friend who stopped talking to his brother over a racist comment. They did not speak for 15 years. I want to see one such Hindu in my lifetime. How many anti-caste protests have erupted in India in which caste Hindus took a leading role or even participated? Many whites took part in the civil rights movement in the United States.