'Story of India Is the Story of Caste'

In conversation with Sujatha Gidla about her memoir Ants Among Elephants, which provides a sharp take on caste, gender and Left politics in India.

A Dali woman in a village in India. Credit: Reuters

A Dalit woman in a village in India. Credit: Reuters

Chandrashekhar Azad ‘Ravan,’ the president of the Dalit organisation Bhim Army, was recently charged under the National Security Act by the Adityanath government. For the BJP government in UP, this young Dalit leader is seemingly ‘prejudicial to the security of India’ for protesting against upper-caste violence last May.

Far from being an anomaly, such absolute acts of shutting down ‘untouchables’ have been an inveterate habit of the Indian state. In her book Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla, a New York-based writer, subtly probes the future and possibilities of democracy in a nation that unapologetically carried over and sowed caste violence into the very fabric of its modern decolonised avatar.

This unsentimental memoir begins at the original moment of confiscation of tribal land and livelihood in British India. Gidla’s great-grandparents, Venkataswami and Atchamma, became agriculturalists when the commons they lived off in the Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh were seized. Thereafter, they were soon reduced to the status of landless labourers by machinations of neighbouring estate agents. Thus, as occupants of the lowest rung in the Hindu social hierarchy, Venkataswami and Atchamma entered the fold of caste as ‘untouchables.’

Lines of discrimination being thus drawn for good, the punch is felt strongest when Satyamurthy, Venkataswami’s grandson, realises there is no space for people like him in newly independent India. It is August 15, 1947, and Satyam has spent the previous days in a hopeful camaraderie with his college mates preparing for this historic moment. However, when the day arrives, the untouchable students are denied the stage or chance to celebrate the occasion. At that time Satyam had asked, “future citizens of India. Who were they?” The question still stands.

Gidla’s grandparents were one of the few who had the chance to educate themselves. As Christian converts, Prasanna Rao was a teacher who also served as a military clerk in the British Indian army. He spent his entire life trying to provide for his children’s education. However, be it Maharashtra, UP or Andhra Pradesh, the school system in the new nation faithfully reproduced caste hierarchies and made the Mala, Chamar and Mahar children sit on the floor or outside, perform caste duties such as cleaning and sweeping and drink water from separate glasses. Gidla’s mother, Manjula, and her two brothers could never afford to ignore the difference between caste Hindus and themselves. The author’s own fate was not significantly different.

While Ants Among Elephants hauls the baggage of caste atrocities up to the fore once again, it is an unusual addition to the oeuvre of Dalit memoirs. While it faithfully records the inhumane existence of the Malas, Pakis and Madigas, Gidla takes the conversation beyond humiliation and pain. In fact, the starkness of the narrative perhaps lies in the fact that her family never quite internalised the social laws of servitude of India. Not a single figure in the book gives up or bows to the system.

Gidla narrates simply, and sometimes coldly, episodes of emotional, physical and mental struggles, but none that end in despair. For instance, Manjula is a determined figure whose dire pregnancies, poor health, estranged domestic life and hostile professional front constantly anticipate a tragedy. But she stays the course, protecting her children single-handedly from a hostile society and even animals until she is able to reunite with her husband and set up a functional home for them.

Sujatha Gidla. Credit: Twitter

Sujatha Gidla. Credit: Twitter

Most importantly, Gidla adds a critical layer to the book. Hers is an incisive dissection and critique of both the official and radical Left, which she expertly unfurls through the biography of her maternal uncle, K.G. Satyamurthy, co-founder of the CPI (ML) (People’s War) Party. His life and relationship with Left parties in India, which forms the mainstay of the book, raises the issue of caste consciousness overriding progressive politics.

In his lifetime, Satyamurthy did not allow his own caste status to determine political service and believed that he could work for the cause of untouchables as a Marxist. He avoided identity politics for the better part of his political career until he was summarily expelled on charges of ‘conspiring to divide the party,’ when he attempted to address casteism within the radical PWG. From handing over powerful positions to upper caste men (as in the case of Jyoti Basu in the CPI (M)) and having Dalit cadres clean and sweep floors or deliberately leaving money around to see if Satyamurthy’s would pick up the bait, his account indicates a sad insurmountability when it comes to our collective social advance.

Sujatha Gidla
Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India

Further, Satyamurthy’s legacy is interlaced with accounts of his sister Manjula (Gidla’s mother), as well as his relationship with his wife, Maniamma. Most women readers would identify easily with the gender dynamics in motion between the men and women in the book. Wives and sisters sacrifice, clean, cook, care, console and stay within the limits set by their brothers, husbands and sons. As a result, Satyam is revolutionary yet incompetent in basic tasks of self-care, Manjula is both nurtured and yet taken for granted, Prabhakara Rao ignores his mother and yet seeks to please her by beating his wife, and Carey can’t choose between loving and abusing women. These rich intersections make the book unputdownable.

Finally, what sets Ants Among Elephants apart from other Dalit memoirs such as The Weave of My Life or Joothan is that Gidla’s own story is only partly told; up to the point when she is released from jail as a student activist and leaves for the US to study Physics. In a way, the memoir is coterminous with her stay in the country of her birth. The result is that while one gets a distinct impression of the author’s efforts to record India’s political life and her family’s biography, faithfully and distinctly, Gidla’s own internal struggle and contradictions remain inaccessible. Nor do we get to know how and why she disagrees with Satyamurthy’s politics. Perhaps, she will let us in in her next book?

Either way, Ants Among Elephants is a sharp read on caste, gender and Left politics in India. For this alone, it is a stupendous achievement.

Excerpts from the interview with Sujatha Gidla:

Congratulations on your first book. It is a riveting memoir and a most engaging biography of the Indian communist parties. There is not a hint of bitterness in personal relations but a quiet and extraordinary grace. I would imagine the responsibility of translating justly and compassionately the stories of several persons/a people, not to mention your own, to be immense. Did you feel the pressure? What were the challenges and joys of the writing process?

Thanks, I appreciate your comments, not just because they are positive, but also discerning.

When I wrote spontaneously without setting aside a time or place, it felt ecstatic. I couldn’t write at all when I wasn’t in the mood. This became a problem after signing a contract because of deadlines.

I never feel bitterness about poverty because I am not in that situation now. And when I see people feeling bitter, I think, “Why, you are now OK, no?” On the other hand, when I hear or write about what my forefathers went through I feel very sad. As for my own story, I don’t feel any anxiety about it, except for the torture I faced in jail.

Apart from English, I only know Telugu. So I can only worry about how my book gets translated into Telugu. Other languages in India, I just have to trust the publisher, editor and translator. Telugu translation is going to be very important because we are from Andhra. Many people mentioned in the book or their relatives and friends are still alive. It would be exciting for them to read about themselves in a book that is read internationally. There will also be many who will be upset because what I write may not be flattering. But I expect it to be an explosively popular book in Andhra.

While reading Ants Among Elephants I kept wondering about Papa, your mother, trying to imagine her narrating the dreams, injustices and pain to you. Women are often cogent yet diffident storytellers of their experiences. Was it at times difficult to access your mother’s thoughts and feelings?

My mother needed no extra enticement to talk. She did not hesitate at all in talking about even the most painful or intimate stories. For one thing, she likes to talk. She knows she is very interesting. Second, it is sort of a vindication for her that her stories are out there for everyone to read and sympathise with her and admire her courage. Finally, I think she felt a psychotherapeutic value in talking to someone. I did have some trouble listening to the stories of terrible things that happened to her. It was also difficult for me to listen to her talking critically about my father. I love my father very much. Many times I couldn’t see what he did so wrong (in specific fights she told me about). I would feel bad that he is not here to tell his side. Yet even if he were, he wouldn’t have talked about stuff like that. I hope to say more about these things in a sequel if I ever write one.

“The story of the Negro in America/is the story of America/It is not a pretty story” – James Baldwin. Same holds for the Dalit in India. My question is in two parts: (a) Would you label casteism as an ancient practice, or would you say India has been finding new ways of breathing energy into it and shall continue to do so? (b) How has the American experience been?

Yeah, I would say that story of India is the story of caste, and it is not a pretty story.

In America, I know many white people who are not racist. I don’t think I have come across as many upper caste people who are not casteist.

That’s just my personal observation. I find it curious that a few Indians who were casteist and who didn’t pay any attention to their servants in India become aware of caste and class only after they had lived in the US for a while. For example, I used to have a colleague, a woman from a wealthy landowning Reddy family. They had servants in their house in Hyderabad. She never thought of how her family was treating them. But after living in America for some years, she told me, “Wow, I never even thought about our servants as human beings.”

I met another Indian guy on an aeroplane. He said, “Until I lived in America, I had never thought of how we used to treat the latrine cleaners. We threw food at them instead of handing it.”

Caste, according to most reliable research is about two or three thousand years old. Old does not necessarily mean dying. Through centuries the system has been adapted to serve the purpose of the ruling class, the exploiters. Muslim rulers and then the British rulers did that. Without disruption, the native ruling and exploiting classes – the landlords and owners of industry and services – have done the same.

Indians also face racism in America but nothing like blacks. They are considered to be good at studies, science and math. Also disciplined and hardworking.

Here, I am treated by Americans like any other Indian. An immigrant. Not an outcast Indian. I live in New York City – a city of immigrants, of blacks, of Jews, of homosexuals, one of the most tolerant cities in America.

As is the case with caste, racism in America too is an act of shutting out those upon whose labour the nation stands. What has been your experience of African-Indian relations in the US?

Indians usually don’t mingle with blacks because they tend to be in high-paying white collar jobs – doctors, IT engineers and so on. There are very few blacks in such high paying jobs. Indians generally don’t like blacks. Blacks don’t have a particular dislike of Indians. I think they are aware that Indians don’t like black people. I often see this in corner candy stores. When a black person enters the store, the Indian store owner watches them like a hawk to see if they are stealing.

Throughout the novel, one reads about a family continually trying to put together a semblance of family life to give themselves and their children that which their fathers and grandfathers could not. Have your personal, as well as familial struggles, finally found a resting place?

Right now we seem to be doing all right. All three of us have jobs.  My sister and brother are in pretty good jobs. I don’t know about their job security. I don’t make as much as they do, but I think my job, being a union job, is relatively secure. My mother has her own pension, which is more than enough, though we don’t really have property.

Papa is constantly trying to get a job or hold on to one. What has been your own professional journey and what does it mean to your mother?

My mother had a lot of aspirations for me because I am the eldest and I did fairly well in school. She thought I would be an engineer and grow up to become a senior engineer or divisional engineer. She used to say, “You must stop wearing wrinkled clothes. Everyone will refer to you as that disheveled engineer.” But after IIT (Madras) it all went downhill. After coming to America, I stopped going to classes. Then struggled to find a decent job. She (and my father) worried about me a lot. Even when I was in software she worried because she would read about layoffs and some Indians committing suicide on account of this. She would constantly worry about me losing my job. And it did happen finally in 2009.

But I switched to this blue-collar job. I kept it a secret from my family for as long as I could. When my mother found out she was very worried. She would say, “Why don’t you apply for a desk job?” I thought she was saying that because she wanted me to get a respectable job, but she explained to me it wasn’t that, it was because of the strain and safety issues. She still asks me to try for a desk job. But with the book, she is perhaps at peace.

Was your decision to write in some way influenced by the legacy of your uncle, K.G. Satyamurthy?

I had zero literary aspirations. Growing up I had more interest in reading books than anyone else among my peers, except for my sister. Our relatives found us curious. There were four influences in producing this book. First, my uncle whose life provided all these stories, as well as my mother who got me interested in his type of politics and social views. Then there was my father who was an English lecturer. He used to tutor college students, PG students at our house. Flitting around the front room, going in and out of the house, I learned English from him, like Ekalavya. In America, there was a friend who, in my eyes, was highly intellectual and literary.

What role do you envision for Dalit literature in India’s current political climate?

Dalits are only one section of the population suffering in India. Right now, Muslims are very much an endangered species. If tomorrow the Hindu fundamentalists decide they want to wipe out the entire Muslim population they can do so because there is nothing to deter them. Muslims are not necessarily a crucial part of the working class. Workers may not know this but rulers fear workers. Workers potentially have social power. Indian Muslims, on account of not being a sizable section of the working class, don’t have such a position to counter Hindu fundamentalists on their own.

Then there are tribals and Kashmiris, and the people of the Northeastern states. Then, of course, there are workers, peasants and students. I am not sure I am up to date on current Dalit literature, the extent of it. Literature is a result of social turmoil, struggle. It is not the other way round. Maybe literature, in turn, can affect social consciousness, but not to any significant extent. On the other hand, unlike in America, music and performance seem to be a big part of protest in India. And finally, it is not just under the BJP that these communities suffer. They suffered all along even after independence, under Congress and BJP and every other party.

What has life been outside and beyond the pages of the book? Will there be more writing?

I still go to work every day. My work is still my bread and butter. I have no social life since I joined the MTA. When we were in training the instructors told us we should forget about having a social life. I thought they were exaggerating. They weren’t.

The work is exhausting and the money is not enough. I stopped going to movies, etc. I got so accustomed to not going out that I would have to try to have fun. Been trying to go out with my coworkers but it is difficult for all of us to have the same days off from work. In the future, it is my job, probably some writing and hopefully, I will go out sometimes.

Oeendrila Lahiri is an academic, a cultural observer and a freelance writer. She tweets at @oeendrila.