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From Tuesday to Monday, Sujatha Gidla works as a conductor on the New York subway — another person of colour in a city of many ethnicities and languages. Here, the Dalit from Andhra Pradesh is mostly free from the burden of her caste — “until I encounter Indians. Then it comes right back.”
America has also allowed her another transformation: she is now the author of a memoir, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, which The Economist has hailed as the “most striking work of non-fiction set in India since Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers”.
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an American imprint under Macmillan, the book tells the story of Gidla’s remarkable family, whose members were born into the “untouchable” Mala caste and fought their way up a repressive social hierarchy through education, largely enabled by an early conversion to Christianity. “We lucked out. The reason that we escaped poverty is not because we were smarter. We were there when the opportunities came. It is like we were driving and all the traffic lights were turning green just in time,” says Gidla, 54.
Ants Among Elephants, though, is not a fable of middle-class aspiration and success; it does not endorse Indian democracy’s ability to help its poorest realise their human potential. Its beating heart is a revolutionary who took up arms against the state, Gidla’s uncle — her mother’s brother — K G Satyamurthy, co-founder of the People’s War Group, and a fiery poet who wrote under the pseudonym Sivasagar. “His inspiring poetry became a part of several slogans of the Left movement,” says Karthik Navayan, a human rights activist in Bengaluru, who knew “Comrade S M”, as Satyamurthy was better known.
Gidla’s uncle went underground when she was three and then largely spent his life following his political beliefs. She remembers him as a soft-spoken, romantic man, who “sought poetry in revolution and revolution in poetry”.
In the book, Gidla recounts the story of Satyamurthy’s life — from a hopeful Youth Congress leader in Gudivada at the dawn of Independence to a young college student tormented by loneliness and shame in the company of rich upper-caste students (he was “an ant among elephants”); from a Communist fighting for an Andhra state to a comrade inspired by the Naxalbari movement to join the Srikakulam uprising of 1969. In doing so, she writes a brief history of subaltern resistance. A story of modern India seen through the eyes of those without privilege and power.
“You can know about the entire history of the Srikakulam movement just by reading his poems. S M’s literary contribution to the movement is immense,” says Vara Vara Rao, a People’s War ideologue and poet, who is also a critic of Satyamurthy.
Satyamurthy was expelled from the party in 1986 because, as secretary, he raised issues of caste discrimination within PWG — he objected that untouchable cadres were being “handed a broom”, not a gun, and told to sweep the floors, writes Gidla. That contention is denied by Rao, who says S M failed as an organiser and was removed when he refused to hand back reins to his mentor, Kondapalli Seetharamaiah.
Gidla criticises Rao and the Left movement for “closing their eyes to caste”. “They have no specific programme for organising untouchables. They don’t analyse what caste is, why it is there in India. Rao would say, ‘We are Marxists. Where is caste? We are all about class. Once we achieve classlessness, [caste will disappear]’”, she says.
Before he died in 2012, Satyamurthy too was trying to forge a politics of caste, by seeking a union between Karl Marx and B R Ambedkar.
He joined and then left the Bahujan Samaj Party, after differences with the party. He would later form a Bahujan Republican Party of India. Gidla, though, realised early on that caste was the key to the differences between her and other Christians, between opportunity and a fruitless struggle. “Your life is your caste, your caste is your life [in India],” she writes.
It was the Karamchedu rape and killings of Dalit women and men in 1985, triggered by a Madiga woman’s objection to Kamma youths defiling their water, that politicised her. “After that, it became clear to all Dalits in Andhra that it would not help if they avoid thinking they were untouchables, if they kept quiet or not answer when asked their caste. People opened their eyes to the reality of caste and violence,” she says.
The daughter of college lecturers, Gidla grew up in the Dalit slum of Elwin Peta in Kakinada. She was educated at the Regional Engineering College, Warangal, and went on to work as a research associate in the department of applied physics in IIT, Madras. Her college life, she says, was a nightmare. “Every day, I would face abuse and people would call me names,” she says. Like her uncle, she was a far-left student activist. In second year of engineering college, she says she was imprisoned for taking part in a student strike and her parents had to file a habeas corpus petition to get her back after three months.
Till the age of 21, Gidla says, she was not fluent in English. When she arrived in America in 1992 as a student, she got better at the language. She worked in the software industry for 13 years before she was laid off in 2009. That was when Gidla, always drawn to jobs where women are scarce, took on the job of a subway worker. Most importantly, in America, she realised, that her “stories, her family’s stories…were worth telling, stories worth writing down”.
Gidla keeps track of the Dalit experience in India. “The blood boils”, she says of incidents of violence over beef. “The violence and discrimination happens in universities because Dalits are aspiring to move up economically. They are no longer staying put in their village or untouchable colonies. If you look at the history of caste in 3,000 years, there has always been violence. But now it has become systematic, widespread and immensely more brutal. It is meant to teach Dalits a lesson never to stray from their place,” she says.
After all these years, does she feel she has shaken off caste oppression? “I still feel caste and it is like an un-get-rid-offable stench when I am visiting India, beginning at the check-in line at the airport.Our experience has been that whenever we have thought we have plumbed the depths of casteism, we find that it is even deeper,” she says.