As a graduate student newly arrived in the United States in 1990, Sujatha Gidla told a man at a bar that she was untouchable. His flirtatious response—“Oh, but you’re so touchable”—captures the steep contrast between life as a Dalit in India and life as a South Asian woman in the US. (Dalit, which means “ground down” or “oppressed,” has replaced untouchable as the term for a lower-caste person.)
Early in her remarkable family memoir, Ants Among Elephants, Gidla executes a shift in perspective just as sharp as her move from oppression in India to desirability in America. She begins by using the first person, with immediacy and warmth, but soon switches to the distancing third person to describe the sufferings of her family, caste and community in India. She swaps “I” for “Sujatha” or “Suja”—a change which speaks eloquently to the divided sense of self that persistent discrimination produces.
Gidla’s book has won international acclaim since it was published last year in the US. After losing her job writing software code for the Bank of New York during the 2008 crisis, she became the first Indian woman to work as a conductor for the city’s subway. Much of Ants Among Elephants was composed on her laptop during breaks and down-time from her job.
In order to explain the centuries-old Hindu caste system to a western audience, Gidla draws parallels with anti-black racism. She notes that caste, like colour, is an inescapable barrier, determined by birth and used to justify discrimination and segregation.
You could take her argument further. Dalit struggles for dignity and African-American battles for civil rights have inspired each other. BR Ambedkar, an important Dalit thinker and a minister in India’s first post-independence government, explicitly allied the two causes.
In a 1946 letter to the pioneering African-American intellectual WEB Du Bois, Ambedkar wrote: “there is so much similarity between the position of the untouchables in India and of the position of the Negroes in America that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary.” When the Indian Dalit Panthers were founded in 1972, they took their radical black counterparts as a model.
For both groups, centuries of contempt and systemic bias have led to psychological trauma. As Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, the oppressed person suffers from a kind of “double consciousness”—African-Americans inevitably see themselves as their oppressors see them. Ants Among Elephants shows how this bifocal vision also applies to caste in the subcontinent.
The memoir’s two primary subjects—her mother Manjula, and the Marxist poet and guerrilla leader KG Satyamurthy, who was Gidla’s uncle—bear the marks of this damaged outlook. Originating in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, the siblings were more privileged than many in their caste. Born into a family of Christian converts, both had postgraduate degrees and lived in towns and cities outside their ancestral settlement—a ghetto on the village’s outskirts. Yet their mobility and education painfully estranged them from their own background.
On Manjula’s final day of college, a poorer Dalit classmate accused her of preferring to be friends with high-caste students. Manjula admitted the truth: “I do like kammas [members of a landlord caste] more. But I can’t help it. I don’t like poverty.”
Yet as an adult her dealings with higher castes were far from subservient. During an interview to become a college lecturer, Manjula responded with knife-like intelligence to the daunting panel of Brahmin professors. Asked to define democracy, she answered correctly but added that no real democracy yet existed anywhere in the world—including India.
Still, the internalised perception of being inferior was never banished. Manjula once tried to say thanks and goodbye to a Brahmin professor even though he had humiliated her in class. He wouldn’t even let her into his house; she had to speak to him from outside his gate.
Gidla’s radical uncle, nicknamed Satyam, is a singular figure. He saved a settlement of lepers from being evicted, robbed a rice lorry to feed the poor, joined the most radical wing of India’s Communist Party and then critiqued it for caste prejudice.
Yet even he was marred by the same double consciousness. As a young man, he was besotted with a fair-skinned upper-caste woman. When she made him visit her mansion via the back entrance, he rationalised her behaviour. “One has to respect other people’s customs,” Gidla writes, in the sarcastic tone that occasionally electrifies the book. Eventually, the woman tells him bluntly: “Your caste and my caste are not one… How in the world can there be anything between us?”
When Satyam married a cousin from his ancestral village, the wedding rituals exposed his alienation from his Christian Dalit roots. As an avowed Communist, he at first refused to marry in church. Then he denied his caste brothers the customary pig at the groom’s wedding feast. Pigs symbolise filth to higher-caste Hindus, an attitude Satyam had absorbed. The bride’s family served pig at their own feast, however, and Gidla’s vivid description of the ritual chasing of the animal is perhaps the most evocative passage in the book.
Echoing Dalit folk humour, Gidla draws an analogy between Indian pigs—scrawny, black-skinned, associated with muck and excrement—and Dalits. The hounded animal gets to look up at the sky right before being slaughtered, just like the impoverished Dalit whose suffering only abates at his life’s end.
*** Ants Among Elephants works within the rhetorical tradition of Dalit memoirs, which first started appearing in the 1970s. They tend to downplay the narrator’s individual quest for self-realisation—the usual memoir format—in favour of portraying the everyday realities of a group yet to be emancipated.
These memoirs resemble ethnographies as much as they do autobiographies. The narrator bears witness to enduring injustices rather than singing a Whitmanesque “song of myself.” This was true of the work of the former Catholic nun Bama, whose Kurukku was published in Tamil in the 1970s, and the Dalit feminist activist Urmila Pawar, whose Aaidan or Weave of My Life was published in English a decade ago. Gidla’s vernacular style—earthy, direct, simple—also fits within the tradition of the Dalit memoir.
She does, however, depart from the conventions of the genre in significant ways. She provides both the heroic (her rebel uncle) and the quotidian (her mother’s marriage and her hustle from job to job). While other Dalit memoirs move back and forth in time, Gidla sticks to a chronological narrative that proceeds “as though she were picking up beads and stringing them one by one on a long thread,” as she describes her mother’s storytelling style.
In the epilogue, when Gidla once more inhabits the “I” in her story, her own exceptional nature becomes clear. At 20, she was jailed for three months for protesting against an upper-caste professor at her engineering college who automatically failed Dalits. While she was locked up, the police beat her with sticks and ropes.
Her dalliance with rebellion provides clues for understanding the style of Ants Among Elephants. As a teenager in India, and as a member of the student wing of her uncle’s left-wing party, she engaged in street theatre, performing songs and skits about unemployment and government corruption. This perhaps explains the fabular, oral quality of her account of a peasant uprising. She begins that entrancing passage like a perverse fairy tale, with a direct address: “O brother and sister, mother and father, this is the story of Telangana [a southern Indian state].”
If Gidla’s prose lurches at points, it does so with performative feints—as when she tells us that Satyam rescues his light-skinned beloved from a car accident only to reveal that it’s a fantasy or when she tells us that he glimpses the woman nightmarishly morph into the lion statue at the front door of her house—an entrance barred to him. Gidla’s tone is deliciously sardonic and deliberately scatological: “What grace! Its hind parts, the part the tail grows out of, the part the shit drops down from, moved along with the rest of its body. Whenever the lion moved, its ass moved, too. No, that was Satyam: he was the lion’s ass.” Aesthetically, the book is a jab in the eye to refined sensibilities.
*** For BR Ambedkar, emancipating women was critical to annihilating caste. As early as 1916, when he was a student at Columbia, he saw the control of women, biological as well as cultural carriers of caste, as key to maintaining this unjust system. Indeed, upper castes seeking to punish Dalits who transgress continue to mete out sexual violence against lower-caste women. As a woman in Anand Patwardhan’s 2011 documentary Jai Bhim Comrade framed it, when she eloquently testified that she belonged to the “caste of woman,” patriarchy in India is a parallel form of oppression profoundly interconnected with caste.
Women in Ambedkar’s movement asserted their freedom by rewriting the lyrics of religious and folk songs into social protest anthems and by taking part in political theatre troupes. Orality was part of their arsenal. Ants Among Elephants reveals that before the arrival of Christian missionaries in Andhra Pradesh in the late 1800s untouchables were forbidden from learning to read and write. Caste taboo also effectively prohibited their public expression. Not only were they not to touch or be touched; they were also not supposed to speak.
Gidla had to leave India to see the tales of her family and caste as worthy of being told. Migrating gave her new eyes. Those eyes also perceive the self-torture of educated Dalits who, having left villages where everyone knows their caste, lie about it. Locked into the attempt to pass as non-Dalit, they can never tell anyone their stories. As Gidla writes: “Your untouchable life is never something you can talk about.” In this context, her own storytelling assumes special significance.
Ants Among Elephants gains much of its force from the critical lens with which Gidla views her father and her uncle. She is clear-eyed and sharp-tongued in rendering the flaws of these complex men, whom nevertheless she loved. Satyam the firebrand poet and freedom fighter is pampered, always shadowed by an assistant who clips his nails and shaves his beard; he chooses a wife who virtually becomes his domestic servant. Her father, an English lecturer, beats his wife whenever his authority is challenged or his masculine insecurities inflamed.
Tellingly, Gidla uses the first person point of view only once in the main body of the book, to recount an episode of domestic violence. Her father, angry that her mother is sleeping late, drags her out of bed by the hair, slaps her, and chases her naked around the courtyard. “The scene that day,” Gidla writes, “is burned into Sujatha’s—into my—memory.” She owns the trauma. It is hers. Only the personal pronoun will do.