Sujatha Gidla's wonderful memoir works within the rhetorical tradition of Dalit memoirsby Gaiutra Bahadur / June 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.