“This is a very BJP crowd, full of Brahmins,” says Sujatha Gidla dismissively, as she walks around the Jayamahal Palace in Bangalore, which hosted the Times of India Literature Fest in the city. Moments earlier, she had taken a sledgehammer to the polite, accommodating camaraderie of literary festivals by asking philanthropist Rohini Nilekani — on stage – why she had been chosen to moderate a panel on writers under attack. In India on a tour to promote her memoir, Ants Among Elephants (Harper Collins), Gidla is both observer and the observed. In this interview, the Dalit writer speaks about caste, the new vocabulary of young Dalits today and why she thinks Jignesh Mevani has set himself up for a fall. Excerpts:
How has this trip to India been? You have been to four literature fests now.
They haven’t paid me but I already feel like I have got a lot out of it. The reception of the book in India is tremendous; more than I had expected. I was able to make my political points in these festivals. I met a few young Dalits in Kerala. A few people asked me what they could do about caste. I say why can’t you stand guard if Dalit pastors are being attacked? Or, if there is a threat to Muslims, why don’t you go and stand with them? No, they would rather change people’s minds.
Do you think that people in India are uncomfortable with your forthrightness?
They are, very much. There was a guy my father’s age and we were discussing Ambedkarite politics and I argued with him. He was taken aback. But it is politics, I have a right to dispute, right?
Is it true that a Telugu translation of your memoir has run into trouble?
See, my uncle [KGS Satyamurthy, the co-founder of People’s War Group] was expelled from the party because he raised the caste question. That Left group in Hyderabad, they don’t like him. There is a Brahmin-Kamma clique which is the custodian of culture, literature and politics over there. So, anything that goes to Andhra goes through them. They clearly don’t want this to be translated. Prism, a publisher in Andhra, reached out to Harper Collins with a request to translate it in Telugu, but they finally backed out. When I asked them why, they came up with some lame excuse, saying that the spirit of my book would be lost in translation.
The Communists in Andhra felt that they had buried my uncle completely. And they don’t like that this book, which is about his life, is getting so much praise. The second thing is that here is this Dalit who has written a book and got international fame. There is also pure jealousy.
‘You no longer live in India, and so what do you know?’ Is this a common response to your work?
People do ask, ‘How come you ran off to America, which is a capitalist society?’ But is India a socialist paradise? No. Why should I prefer India to the US? At least, in the US, there is more freedom for women. And I didn’t run away.
So, what drives Sujatha Gidla? A sense of injustice about caste and life?
Oh, very much. It is not something that we only think about. It affects us physically. I might have left the party, but the politics stays with me. I was also lucky to have read other points of view when I went to America, and I can look at things critically. I know what my politics is, and I know why I am opposed to the Communist parties here.
Tell me about your childhood in Kakinada.
I was feisty but also naïve. My parents were very liberal compared to others. They didn’t tell us to do namaskaram to elders or stuff like that. That really stuck with us. My father was very encouraging. He bought me a bicycle, when there were very few children who had cycles in Kakinada. He always wanted to buy me a moped. My brother is very proud of how I rode the Vespa. His friends would gape at me, and he would say, ‘Yes, my sister’s style is very different.’
You were very close to your father. And you say that it was difficult to write about your parents’ relationship in this book.
My father was an exceptionally kind, sensitive and romantic man. In fact, an obit in the local papers after his death said that here is a man who can smile with his entire being. [When I wrote] he was not there to tell his side of his story. There was a great pressure on him from his family to not be a sissy — and if you didn’t beat up your wife, you were a sissy in those days.
When we spoke last, you said that you didn’t know English fluently till the age of 22. And, yet, he was an English teacher.
We went to Telugu medium schools, and he was angry with my mother for not sending us to English medium schools. But we didn’t have the money for it. There was no tradition of my parents teaching us. But my father would teach in our living room, and we would be playing around. It fell into my ears and that way I learnt a lot. But I had no speaking experience. That I had to learn when I went to Chandigarh, for my final year of post-graduation.
If you were growing up in India now, would things have been different?
People used to be very scared of saying what caste you are. They would not want to reveal it. Now, they are blatantly saying that ‘I am an untouchable’, ‘I am a Mala’. That courage was not there in my generation. The first time I was able to say proudly — no, actually, not with pride at all; rather without hesitation — that I am an untouchable was in 2005. I was flying when an Indian woman asked me my caste.
The BSP did not do much for Dalits but they gave them this courage to call people Manuvadi or Savarna, to call out Brahminism and Brahmin hegemony.
As we saw in the case of Rohith Vemula, the university is a contested space for Dalit students. What was your experience as a student?
It is a contested space because they want to deny higher education to Dalits. They want them to stay where they are ‘supposed’ to be, in the villages as labourers. I went to take an entrance exam at Hyderabad Central University. I was second on the list, but when I went to interview, I was failed. There was no reason to fail me. But they had seen me in person. This (makes the sign to indicate a bindi) I don’t have, which means I am Christian. And, in Andhra, Christians are equivalent to untouchables.
In REC Warangal, it was different. It was like being in Calcutta in the 1960s. It was a hotbed of Maoism, people were afraid of the radicals and even professors listened to them. A lot of Dalits in REC joined them because they thought this is one way they could find a voice. But it is not that the discrimination stopped. A professor was giving marks to students of his caste, and failing lower caste students. That was when we went on strike, and were then jailed.
What is your case against reservations?
Reservations came into existence and helped Dalits, even if it is a thin layer of Dalits. So, any attack on that reservation is a reactionary, conservative act. But then, the demand for new reservations is all about electoral politics and divide and rule.
Reservations means that you are allowed to study at the expense of others, which means that the fundamental problem is that there are not enough seats. Why should one have to compete with others? Instead of fighting for reservations, there should be a fight for free education. Why is that not happening? That’s because the resources have been appropriated by the capitalists and landlords.
Because reservations will be caste-based, in order to protect their own quota, people will dissuade their children from marrying people from other castes. This is the fundamental basis of women’s oppression. There will be less freedom for women, and more honour killings.
What do you make of a Dalit leader like Jignesh Mevani?
The path he has taken to serve Dalits has been trodden already by the BSP. And what did they do? Nothing. What is he going to be able to do from within this framework? He is asking for five acres of land per head for Dalits. How is he going to do that? It’s already there in the laws, but it is not being implemented. On the other hand, he is in alliance with Congress. But Rahul Gandhi does not stand for these things. In this alliance, Congress will call the shots. It is completely useless for Mevani to do this, and I will be proven right very soon.
Are you sceptical about electoral politics as a way to take the Dalit movement forward?
Look, this is a social system, there are certain economic relations in it. If the government changes — whether BSP or BJP — the system is intact. If you get into government, you are going to operate within that system. That system is what perpetuates caste. You can’t do anything for untouchables if you contain yourself within that system.
Looking back, what do you think made you write this book?
I wrote about my family because our lives intersected with what should be of importance to other people. We are all social beings, and anyone who says he is apolitical is a liar even if he doesn’t know it. I wanted to put everything in a political and social context.
What do you do when you are not writing or working?
My job is very hard and I don’t have time for much else. If I were to write another book, I would have to consider if I can keep working.
Has the book made you some money?
Zero money so far. I went into debt just taking care of the expenses of travelling. I am quite indigent. My pay is hand to mouth, and I have taken off work to come here, which means I lose my income. I am waiting for April, when the contract says I will be paid.