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‘Ants Among Elephants,’ a Memoir About the Persistence of Caste

Gidla’s family was educated by Canadian missionaries. Her parents were college lecturers, and she attended the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, where she became a research associate in the department of applied physics, working on a project funded by the Indian Space Research Organization. Despite their education, she and her family were daily subjected to reminders of their caste status, and the author found herself thinking, incessantly, about the relation between religion and caste, between caste and social status, social status and wealth.


Sujatha Gidla

Nancy Crampton

Her precocious mother, Manjula, struggled in school with the poor grades she received from one professor, who realized that “she was poor and untouchable” and reacted with disgust. She was also rejected from — or harassed at — teaching posts for similar reasons. Gidla’s uncle Satyamurthy (also known as Satyam) felt himself “an ant among elephants” in college, and was cruelly dumped by a well-to-do young woman named Flora, who had started a flirtation with him, only to announce: “We are brahmins. You are have-nots, we are haves. You are a Communist. My father is for Congress. How in the world can there be anything between us?” He realized that life was not like the movies so popular after Independence, in which “the rebellious daughters of rich, evil men” fall “in love with a champion of the poor.”

An accomplished poet, Satyam did, in fact, become a champion of the poor, though an oddly spoiled one, who had followers do those things he “wouldn’t do for himself: shaving his chin, clipping his nails,” carrying his things. In the 1970s, he organized a Maoist guerrilla group, aiming, Gidla writes, “to liberate the countryside village by village, driving off the landlords and gathering forces to ultimately encircle the cities and capture state power.”

Although Gidla’s account of her uncle’s political activities — from his student days through his life in the Communist underground — can grow tangled for the reader unfamiliar with Indian politics, she writes with quiet, fierce conviction, zooming in to give us sharply drawn, Dickensian portraits of relatives, friends and acquaintances, and zooming out to give us snapshots of entire villages, towns and cities.

Gidla, who now works as a conductor on the New York City subway, conveys the strain of living in the sort of abject poverty she knew as a child, where some neighbors were skeletal from hunger, and an apple was a precious Christmas treat. She chronicles the horrifying violence that could break out between the police and Maoist rebels, and among local hooligans, hired at election time to intimidate voters. And she captures the struggles of women like her mother to pursue careers in the face of caste and misogynist bias, while raising children and helping to support, in her case, as many as two dozen relatives.

When asked about caste — and in India, she says, “you cannot avoid this question” — Gidla writes that an “untouchable” like herself has a choice: “You can tell the truth and be ostracized, ridiculed, harassed,” or “you can lie.” If people believe your lie, she goes on, “you cannot tell them your stories, your family’s stories. You cannot tell them about your life. It would reveal your caste. Because your life is your caste, your caste is your life.”

In these pages, she has told those family stories and, in doing so, the story of how ancient prejudices persist in contemporary India, and how those prejudices are being challenged by the disenfranchised.

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