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

Sujatha Gidla has a master’s degree in technology from the Regional Engineering College at Warangal, one of India’s top technical universities and, after moving to New York, she worked as an app designer for the Bank of New York. When she was laid off during the Great Recession, she decided to become a train conductor for the New York subways, a job she’s still doing. “For me, it’s exciting and romantic,” she says. She lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

In her off hours, though, Gidla has another vocation — author — and her writings have been included in “The Oxford India Anthology of Telugu Dalit Writing.” Now she has written a memoir, “Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

Gidla is a member of the untouchable caste, like one in six people in India. Most untouchables are illiterate. But Gidla’s immediate family has always valued education, beginning with her great-grandmother Marthamma, whose beautiful singing voice attracted the attention of Canadian missionaries in the Thirties. Marthamma became a Christian and learned to read and write alongside her children at the mission school.

Gidla describes her family as “lower middle class.” Then she adds, “In the circles that I come from, people don’t know this culture of writing or reading books. Some people asked me, ‘Do you have a pen name?’ [Others suggested] ‘Her boyfriend — he’s American, he wrote it for her.’”

To write “Ants Among Elephants,” a 10-year labor of love, Gidla interviewed many family members and their longtime friends, and she observes in her book that, in some respects, her efforts were “a race against death,” since some of her subjects died or lost their memories before she had finished interviewing them.

Three of the central figures in her narrative are her mother, Manjula, and two of her mother’s brothers, K.G. Satyamurthy and William Carey Kambham. Gidla’s own story is also told.

The family was based in the South India state of Andhra Pradesh. Gidla’s mother is a college lecturer and activist, as was her father, Prabhakara Rao. Although both had salaries coming in, “not everyone in the family made it,” as the writer puts it, so that they were frequently supporting a large household of non-working relatives, who also interfered in her parents’ relationship.

Satyamurthy, or Satyam as he was known, was an extraordinary figure, a celebrated poet who wrote under the name Shivasagar and founded the Maoist People’s War Group. After a series of crackdowns against Communists in India, he spent much of his life in hiding. He was later expelled from the People’s War Group, which he had helped to create, for daring to raise the issue of assigning tasks on the basis of caste.

“He was the most mild-mannered man ever, with extreme respect for women,” his niece says. “His values were initially molded by Christianity.” Gidla observes in “Ants Among Elephants” that she was startled when her uncle died in 2012 to see an endless stream of stories about him on television, the many newspaper articles featuring his poetry, tributes and processions in his honor throughout his home state.

Carey, her other uncle, was a bright but tough man, also a Communist. He was known for being completely fearless and frequently getting into fights. He took a long time to finish his degree but eventually did, then became director of the sports department of a medical college. But he dealt with the pain of being an untouchable by drinking heavily. Gidla’s interviews with him proved problematic, because he was frequently drunk.

At 14, inspired by her uncle Satyam, Gidla joined the junior ranks of the People’s War Group, the Radical Student Union (RSU). While she was pursuing her master’s degree, one of the professors, who was from a high caste, routinely gave top marks to high-caste students and failing ones to those from low castes. No one in authority would take action, so the students called a strike. Gidla went home and she was there when a police van pulled up and took her into custody.

Gidla was imprisoned for three months without being charged in a series of jails in different precincts around Warangal, where she was starved, beaten and tortured. Her family couldn’t track her down until her mother hired a famous civil rights lawyer named Kannabiran and asked him to file a writ of habeas corpus. At that point, her daughter was moved to the central jail. By the time she was released, she had contracted tuberculosis. Only because her mother appealed to an assistant superintendent of police was she allowed to finish her master’s degree.

Gidla points out that there is still considerable discrimination against untouchables. Certain laws intended to free them from their traditional roles have backfired to some extent. A new rule turning them into wage-earners who are free to offer their services to anyone they choose has resulted in angry responses from the landlord class. These have included burning villages to the ground and murdering groups of people, often in grotesque ways intended to send a message. Then there is the technique of social boycott, which in some ways, Gidla says, is the worst. No one will buy anything from the untouchables, sell anything to them, or interact with them. They are totally ostracized.

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