by Shoba Viswanathan
The power of finding representation in the written word is critical for both writer and reader, but is still not always accessible. While there is growing talk of #diversevoices, even those who seek authors from different backgrounds do not always find a true variety of perspectives. I was moved to discover Sujatha Gidla and her Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India (Farrrar, Strauss and Giroux), thanks to Bloom’s own Sonya Chung, because Gidla’s is a strikingly new perspective.
Sujatha Gidla takes on India’s infamous caste system from the viewpoint of a Dalit family that sought to break narrow restrictions; her family members explored religion and politics, Christianity and Communism, in pursuing meaningful self-determination. Gidla’s honesty and authenticity leave us reeling with a renewed sense of the grave injustices of the caste system. Her focus is primarily on her uncle K.G Satyamurthy and his political journey, but she also delves into the stories of various family members, particularly her mother’s. Social structures, the vulnerability of human dignity, the ease with which people absorb notions of superiority and inferiority: Gidla tackles these with a political consciousness and unflinching factuality. The book is remarkable also because every one of her characters is relatable in their amalgam of idealism and pragmatism.
Gidla, who currently works as a subway conductor in the NYC transit system, has been generous with her time; her thoughtful answers below reflect the honesty and earnest engagement of her book.
Shoba Viswanathan: What surprised you in researching your family’s history?
Sujatha Gidla: I never knew my great-grandparents. I guess they weren’t talked about because there was nothing to boast of. My great-grandfather wasn’t someone of whom you could say, “He was a sight to villagers when he would go on his evening walks with his cane in his hand along the paddy fields,” or something like that. He and my great-grandmother and their whole clan were tribals. They were born in the jungles and lived there until they were forced onto the plains by famine. They were illiterate and wore loincloths, and they earned their living as coolies. It wasn’t until I asked that my mother, and then my uncle told me about them. This was the most surprising thing because I never knew there were manual laborers, let alone jungle-dwellers, in my family.
I was also surprised by how intimately my family members were involved in historical developments in India. Incidents they told me they witnessed or participated in, I later found described in outsiders’ histories. My uncle was growing up in Visakhapatnam when the Japanese bombed the harbor in World War II, where his uncle John was working at the time. They all fled the city that day. I read about the bombing in American books on military history. Inspired by the Quit India call by Gandhi and the Indian National Congress, my uncle joined the Youth Congress when he was just 11, and at 15 he led a strike at school to which he tried to give an anti-colonial message. At college, he met guerrilla fighters in the famous Telangana Armed Revolt that did away with the centuries-old rule of the Nizams. In another book, I read about Nehru’s 1952 election tour in which he faced mass anger over his opposition to a separate Andhra state. A public meeting he addressed was sabotaged by cutting off electricity to the microphone. My uncle was among those present. Nehru was whisked away to safety and put on a special train. When he tried to wave from his car as though nothing was wrong, my uncle ran alongside it and tried to pull him down. The Maoist party that today is called “the biggest threat to India’s internal security” came out of a party co-founded by my uncle.
SV: There are easy parallels drawn between race dynamics in the US and caste dynamics in India. How far do the parallels extend and in what ways do they differ?
SG: Untouchables feel an instinctive kinship with American Blacks. In Ants Among Elephants, I describe how my uncle, then a teenager, wrote a highly alliterative, ornate essay for a Telugu publication on Joe Lewis, the famous Black American boxer. When interviewing him, I asked why he chose to write about Lewis. He said, ”Because he is ours.” As soon as he came to know about Blacks in America, he knew they were like us untouchables. This is a common sentiment. When a group of militant untouchable young men in Maharashtra founded an organization to fight their oppression in 1972, they called themselves Dalit Panthers after the Black Panthers in America.
It isn’t just untouchables who sense this similarity. Recently, a famous Tamil Brahmin classical singer’s daughter caused a scandal by marrying a Black man. I saw many people calling it an intercaste marriage.
Segregation defines what it means to be Black in America just as it does what it means to be untouchable in India. Under Jim Crow, Black people in the South had to eat in separate sections in restaurants, use separate drinking fountains, ride in the back of the bus. Today, housing, schools, and even churches in America are still segregated by race. Black people, like untouchables, are routinely hounded and killed by police.
There are differences, too. Some years ago, when my mother was visiting New York, I took her to a park where she saw some Black people for the first time in close proximity. Just as she does when she comes across poor untouchables on the street in India, she gave them a look of deep sympathy. But the Black people she spotted glared back at her as if to say, “What are you looking at?” My mother instantly realized that Blacks don’t need pity from anyone. They are not like untouchables who seem scared and insecure in public places. Of course, I am talking about New York City. It may be different in the South. In America you see Blacks on TV and in movies. That is still very far from happening in India for untouchables.
Whatever gains American Blacks have made are the result of hard-won, historic struggles. Such struggles have yet to happen in India.
I worked in the IT field for more than thirteen years and never had a Black colleague. Not one. But I have many Black friends and coworkers in the New York City transit system where I work now as a subway conductor. Thirty percent of the workforce is Black.
SV: Neutrality can be offensive in social hierarchical contexts. How best can allies engage with issues of caste and privilege without seeming intrusive?
SG: I once heard the story of a man who grew up in the Jim Crow South and went to college in the North in the years of the civil rights movement. He was politically liberal but when he showed up for swim practice and saw black students in the pool he couldn’t get himself to jump in. He went back to his dorm room and thought about it all night. The next day he came back to the pool and jumped in and never looked back.
Individuals can change their attitudes, especially in times of social struggle. That upper caste people want to help the Dalit cause reflects the fact that the caste system is outmoded and offends the sense of bourgeois justice. This is true despite the fact that it will never be overcome under capitalism. I was happy to see many caste students join the protests sparked by the death of Rohith Vemula.
I don’t consider caste people intruders in the struggle for untouchable rights. Who wants to live in a society where an evil like the caste system prevails? Untouchables are most directly oppressed by caste, but they are not the only ones it hurts. Women of all castes are oppressed by restrictions on their freedom due to concerns about caste purity. Caste divisions poison common struggles against exploitation and injustice. Students are told that reservations (similar to American Affirmative Action) for untouchables in higher education mean fewer seats for their own kind. They should defend reservations and struggle along with their untouchable fellow students for open admissions for anyone who wants to study.
SV: Do you think any of the -isms offer real solutions to structural social inequalities—whether stemming from class, caste, or race? In terms of vision or policies?
SG: Hindus and Muslims have no inherent enmity, and yet in India today Muslims are lynched by far-right Hindu mobs. Behind this is the drive of Indian and foreign capital to shove market liberalization and austerity down our throats. This policy was ushered in by the Congress Party’s Manmohan Singh. Congress having lost its credibility, the same policy has been taken up by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi.
Liberalization means the immiseration of millions and millions of Indians. It means gutting social services, driving down wages, wrecking labor unions. To divert the anger of those affected, Muslims are made scapegoats. Poor Hindus are used as shock troops against poor Muslims, escalating a fratricidal conflict aimed at increasing support for Modi and the ruling class interests he represents. Communal and caste lines in India, like racial and ethnic lines in the United States, divide the masses and render them powerless against the exploiters.
The primary division in society is between the handful who control the resources on which everyone’s life depends and the majority who must work for a living or starve. And oppression on the basis of caste and race will disappear only upon a successful outcome of the class struggle. That successful outcome is nothing but socialism.
SV: I read an interview where you expressed doubts about seeing yourself as a feminist. Your mother’s story, which is remarkable, seems to address the issues of not only class and caste, but also gender oppression.
SG: In Ants Among Elephants, I describe how my mother grew up under the strict control of her father, grandmother, and brothers. When the time came for marriage, her choice was restricted by caste and by the values of a patriarchal society. Her married life was a life of drudgery. My father wouldn’t make his own tea even when she was heavily pregnant. When my parents were posted to different cities, the burden of raising the three children was placed upon her. India was modern enough for women to go to university and become college lecturers, and yet day care remained an unknown concept.
I did not face the same kind of oppression, thanks to my liberal parents. And yet I felt the sting of these pressures at times. I remember standing at the gate of our house, talking to a friend and laughing. My brother, who must have been 14, said to me, “Why are you laughing outside?” Humiliated, I ran inside and complained to my mother. She told me that my brother didn’t say anything wrong. At the time, I didn’t know of feminism or women’s equality. Girls don’t need to know any of that to sense they are being demeaned on the basis of their sex.
The main reason I came to America was to be free of those strictures. I wanted to mingle with men as easily as I do with women. I wanted to escape the burden of husband and children. And I did. In America, women are much freer. Many can now make a choice whether they want to be tied down by family or not. There are no strict rules against having male friends. There are no arranged marriages or honor killings. The reason for this difference is that America is the most advanced capitalist country in the world, and its economic development has had social and cultural effects. India, though also capitalist, has been held back under the domination of the imperialist countries and is still a backward, caste-ridden society.
Of course, women in America have not achieved equality with men. They are paid less. Career women face discrimination. Many women, especially those in low-wage jobs, are sexually harassed in the workplace. Women are still the primary caregivers to children, and domestic chores mainly fall to women. Reproductive rights, the hallmark of women’s freedom, have been eroded with attacks on legal abortion.
I see feminism as a pro-capitalist ideology that accepts the institution of the family, which is the main source of women’s oppression, as a given. Under capitalism, the family is needed to pass on private property to legitimate heirs and to raise and discipline the next generation of workers. I’m for the socialization of childcare and domestic work, and the freedom of individuals to form any intimate relationships they wish.
SV: It was interesting to read when you speak affectionately of family members who’d not always behaved well earlier in the book. What allowed you to see their behavior in context?
SG: Ants Among Elephants is based largely on interviews with my uncle and my mother. My father was not alive to tell me his side of the conflicts between himself and my mother. I took the information my mother gave me, but did not entirely adopt her attitude.
I also bear in mind that people have different sides. For four years after my father’s death, my mother suffered a deep depression. She would say, “I am left with this mystery of how such a generous man could act so badly at times.”
I agree that people are responsible for what they do. But in a book like Ants Among Elephants, the actions of individuals need to be seen in their social context. My father was constantly under scrutiny as to whether he was living up to his society’s standards of what a man should be and how he should treat his wife. Being affectionate to one’s wife was (and still is) considered a weakness. He was generally agreeable to my mother but would act differently when his own mother (my grandmother) was around. Even my mother’s own brother, Carey, who loved and cared for her, advised my father not to be too nice to her. How does one explain that?
My grandmother’s attitude toward my mother, in turn, stemmed from her own insecurities: “What if my daughter-in-law ill treats me because I am not as educated as she is? I don’t have a job or money of my own, where would I go?” These fears of hers were fueled by her relatives who, again, were not evil. They were all participating in the patriarchal system, as victims as well as transmitters. My grandmother was acting in her own best interest. Not until I started writing my family story did I realize the terrible oppression she suffered as a daughter, wife, mother, mother-in-law, and sister.
On a personal note, I have some beautiful memories of my grandmother. My father and my grandmother, people without any “isms,” were the only ones who loved me and my sister as much as they loved my brother. When it came to us, they set aside all social values and let love be the only thing. My father not only let me do anything I wanted, he absolutely reveled in everything I said or did. This despite pressure from relatives not to educate us girls.
SV: When did you decide to write and how did you prioritize it while holding a full time job?
SG: After the very first conversation with my mother in which I began to find out about my great-grandparents, I started writing the story down. Not for the sake of publication, but simply to remember it and show it to a friend. It was only after talking to my uncle and seeing how my family’s story fits in with the story of India did I see that what I was writing could be made into a book.
I have not just a job, but a physically demanding one. Often I work more than eight hours. When I get home all I want to do is lie down. The greater part of the writing, though, was done before I started my current job, when I was working for a bank in their IT department. Whenever I was assigned a task, I would finish and spend the rest of my time writing. At six in the evening, everyone else would go home and I would stay and write. After some time, all the lights on every floor would be turned off. I used to feel like a vampire, waking up when everyone else was going to bed. I would write or research or transcribe my audiotaped interviews until 10 or 11 at night.
After I started working in the subways, I would write while commuting or while sitting in the crew room on breaks. I hardly ever wrote at home.
Each episode in the book was written in different versions, at least half a dozen, if not more. In the end, it took a lot of work to cull the best parts from each and assemble them into a final manuscript. All in all, it took me almost 18 years to finish.
SV: Do you have any writing projects in the works now?
SG: Yes. In Ants Among Elephants, the story of how my family became untouchable appears only in a condensed form, as the prologue. The book I am working on now is the full version of that part of my family’s story, from the lives of my great-grandparents up to when my mother and uncle entered their teenage years. This happened to be the period of India’s last years of struggle for independence.
Shoba Viswanathan is a writer and editor based in NY. As a book reviewer, she enjoys discovering new writers and is particularly interested in immigrant narratives and in translated literature. She can be found on Twitter @shobavish.
Image Credit: Nancy Crampton