Title: Ants Among Elephants
Author: Sujatha Gidla
Price: Rs 500
In her fantastic book, Ants Among Elephants, Sujatha Gidla tells about a great revolutionary — KG Satyamurthy — who played a decisive role in formulating the Maoist Line in India after Charu Mazumdar. The book also talks about Satyamurthy’s sister, Manjula, Gidla’s mother, as well as the rest of the family. Referred to as Satyam in the book, Satyamurthy was also known as Shiva sagar in Telugu literary circles. Interestingly, his Dalit background was not known until he was expelled from the People’s War Group (PWG, now Maoists) in the late 1980s. Born in 1931, he died in utter poverty in 2012. But in his lifetime, he played a key role in the blood-spattered struggles of the Telugu region. At the fag end of his life, he came into the Dalit movement, still uncertain of his conviction in that ideology.
I heard about Shiva sagar in the early ’70s, when I was doing my masters in Hyderabad’s Osmania University. His most incendiary poetry book Udhyamam Nelabaludu (The Movement: A One Month Baby) was constantly referred to and quoted from. He was a stellar poet. The early communist movement did not talk about caste and untouchability, as the Gandhians did. Their new line was formulated after they were all expelled from the CPI(M) in 1967. Mahatma Gandhi responded to Dr BR Ambedkar’s bitter critique of caste and engaged with him in a debate on varna and untouchability. But no communist leader seemed to have read Ambedkar’s book, Annihilation of Caste, nor did they respect him. They only respected Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and his writings. Ever since the party was born in 1925, the communist leadership mobilised Dalits under the banner of the red flag and class struggle, but the Brahmin and the Shudra upper caste — Kamma, Reddy — communist leadership refused to look into the history of caste and untouchability. The caste-blind communists forced even a powerful leader like Satyamurthy to hide his background till he was expelled from the PWG.
In Gidla’s brilliant narrative of the history of her maternal family, she traces the untouchable roots of the family and its conversion to Protestant Christianity. She tells the world, not just India, how the most poverty-stricken untouchable Dalit family negotiated between the mission-educated Dalits and the brutal and superstitious casteism of the Brahmin, Kamma and Reddy communities in the Krishna-Godavari river basin of coastal Andhra Pradesh.
This book also brings out the casteism in Indian Christians, apart from that displayed by the Hindus. Gidla’s modern India has made a multiculturalist journey of castes, religions and education. She narrativises the course of the evolution of modern India through KGS’s story — how he turns into a young communist at the Andhra Christian College of Guntur in the 1940s, and lives like an “ant” (a poverty-stricken Dalit) among “elephants” – upper caste boys and girls, who were rich and felt liberated after the British left. She tells how the girls in his college (mostly Brahmins) admired his artistic talents but abandoned him as he was a Mala (untouchable), when he thought of loving and living with one of them. Many Dalit youths across universities meet with this situation even now and some even commit suicide.
Angry at his fate and his maltreatment, starving and burdened by shame, Satyamurthy turns to communism and revolution. He fails in all his exams. He is dismissed from his job at the Visalaandhra, a communist newspaper, when the upper castes within the administration realise that he is a Mala. However, he pursues his revolutionary line and strikes up a friendship with Kondapalli Seetharamaiah (who was from a Reddy family) and carries the revolution on his shoulders. He, along with Panchadi Krishnamurthy (a Kalinga Kapu), started the Naxalite wing of Andhra Pradesh in the presence of Charu Majumdar himself, and extended the Chinese movement for the annihilation of class enemies to Telangana.
In the story that Gidla tells with majestic mastery, Satyamurthy does not read Ambedkar at all. Instead, he reads quite a bit of Marx, Lenin and Mao, accessed through Telugu upper-caste writers. His poems reflect their profound influence on him. He was a great sloganeer of the party and was the one who said, “If the gun hurts your shoulder, move it to the other shoulder. But do not put it down.”
Satyamurthy was also a master in ridiculing “timid revolutionaries”. His slogan-centred poetry was admired and used by the upper-caste literary figures of the PWG, who had enormous influence on the urban media, till they discovered that he was a Dalit and wanted to put the caste question on the agenda of revolution. His expulsion from the party, and the erasure of his poetry from their mindspace, was done with a vengeance thereafter. The story that Gidla tells in the afterword of the book is familiar — I was introduced to Satyamurthy at the time she describes.
Gidla, a physicist by training, a writer by struggle, raises the hope that many such untold stories of India’s Dalits will be put out in a language that the world can understand. There isn’t a single Hollywood film on the history of the marginalisation of 200 million untouchables because there wasn’t a good story about it in English. If Gidla’s first book enables her to make a living from writing, she should resign from her job and write full-time, so that her books can reach the Nobel Prize shortlists. That would internationalise the Dalit question much better than everything that we all tried to do in the Durban Conference of the United Nations in 2001.