Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India is Sujatha Gidla’s account of her family in a tumultuous time during India’s period of independence. As the third generation of a Christian Dalit family of the Mala caste, she grew up in the state of Andhra, as it was known just after Independence. The state is now known as Andhra Pradesh after merging with Hyderabad in 1956. In the Hindu caste system, the Dalits or “untouchables” are considered to be the lowest caste and treated as absolute outsiders. Because caste is a hereditary system, there are various forms of brutalities and impingement on Dalit people that vary from place to place, but the commonality is this: “The untouchables, whose special role－whose hereditary duty－is to labor in the fields of others or to do other work that Hindu society considers filthy, are not allowed to live in the village at all.”
As Gidla puts it succinctly, “Because your life is your caste, your caste is your life”. People are born into this profoundly unjust and brutal system of social hierarchy each day, and they are trapped in it until they die. Then, the cycle repeats for their children.
Gidla moved to the United States when she was 26. This is an interesting fact because it highlights both the fusion of class and caste India, but also it’s separation. Many Dalits, because of their class position, will never be able to set foot outside of India at all. But Gidla’s parents were both college lecturers and they are considered to be lower middle-class. Gidla is the product of a third-generation Christian family that was educated by Canadian missionaries. Gidla herself was educated and studied physics in Warangal, going to America for a graduate programme. After having worked as an applications developer for over a decade, Gidla is now a train conductor for the New York City subway system; the first Indian woman to serve in this job.
This book is a trenchant critique of the Indian caste-based social system as well as a memoir. It primarily focuses on two characters; Gidla’s mother, Manjula, and Manjula’s elder brother, the revolutionary K.G. Satyamurthy, who founded the Maoist guerrilla People’s War Group and also wrote radical poetry under the pen name Shivasagar. Gidla’s family history traces the processes of disenfranchisement of the Indian state of small nomadic clans. British colonialism and its rampant need for resources meant that the clearing of lands forced many of these clans, like Gidla’s ancestors, to settle on a piece of land and cultivate it.
The land-owning castes soon “took notice of them”, as Gidla puts it, for existing harmoniously with nature and not taking more than their share. As we all know, it goes against the core values of “civilisation” for people to simply live off the land and use the bare minimum without exploiting resources and the labour of other people. Thus, Gidla’s ancestors were taxed and forced to take on huge loans to maintain their land. The common capitalist promise－or lie－is that of trickle down wealth, but the one sure thing that trickles down and hampers generations of families is debt. Each generation of Gidla’s family was further trapped in the cycle of debt and impoverishment.
Gidla situates the story such to show how both the mechanisms of British colonialism, with its obsession of racial categorisation and hierarchy, and the hegemonic Hindu system, with its obsession of caste categorisation and hierarchy, served to displace and render whole swathes of people as a permanent group of the displaced; a reserve army of labour for the use of the caste Hindus, the landowners, and the ruling class. Because Gidla’s family converted to Christianity due to the presence of Canadian missionaries, some members were sent to mission schools and received an education that would not be granted to them under the Hindu system. Thus, her brother and mother were two of the beneficiaries of an education system that opened up avenues to a wider range of job prospects. As Gidla’s story shows, however, education is not a panacea that magically lifts people out of poverty; the latter is systemic and built into the economic and political machinations.
Her uncle Satyam’s turn towards radical politics is unsurprising, seeing as how being a first-hand witness to rampant injustice and the realisation that one occupies the lowest strata of society for no other reason other than being born into a pre-existing system is likely to sow the seeds of dissent in anyone. In Satyam’s case, it was the fact that these seeds were sown through his love of poetry and literature and his educational milieu, a means by which communists and socialists spread the word among students. Manjula, Gidla’s mother, and their brother Carey, idolised Satyam and his political views soon became their own.
Gidla writes in a matter-of-fact manner, not given to literary flourishes, but allows the events and facts described to speak for themselves. This is perhaps a deliberate stylistic choice that nevertheless produces mixed results. The writing is occasionally choppy and brusque. I think I understand why this is the case: Gidla was transcribing oral history, and as an author perhaps it was a conscious decision not to fill out or pad out sentiments and thoughts of characters in the story in order to make it more readable. Because she’s not making up this story, the author has a responsibility to the truth and Gidla, based on her own politics, seems like she would be averse to more bourgeois literary techniques in narrative style by imputing upon real-life characters thoughts and feelings that belong to the author.
Perhaps a little more effort could have been made to polish and smooth over the rough edges so that it doesn’t read as a dispassionate catalogue of tragedy that befalls the Dalits and the poor in India. For example, a friend of Manjula’s dies in a fire while studying late at night with a kerosene lamp; because the friend’s family was so poor, they could not afford a lamp with a glass cover for the flame. Gidla conveys this story in a brief aside and keeps going. In another case, it’s the offhand way Gidla reports on the abuse Manjula suffered at the hands of her husband, Gidla’s father. Some contextualising and perhaps some of Gidla’s own thoughts would have been welcome in those scenes. Manjula’s suffering at the hands of multiple men who, despite their radical politics, could not see the world without patriarchal control, is an incredibly moving story. Here too Gidla remains a dispassionate reporter of events, despite the occasional glimpse of anger the reader sees in her prose.
These are small quibbles over style and are not an indicator of the worth of the book, which is tremendous. By looking at the Telangana peasant protests and the casteism and misogyny of India’s Communist Party, Gidla gives a historical account of leftist and radical movements in India that is mired in this system of both caste disenfranchisement and patriarchy. Ants Among Elephants is an example of history as told from down below, by the people who were involved in the labour and caste protests and the women who did the reproductive labour for the revolutionaries. It’s also a timely reminder that when the ants amass together in large number to fight for a common cause, the elephants tremble. That’s the kind of reading that leftists all over the world need as a reminder of what’s possible and the hard work that is required in both achieving socialist aims and dismantling the social structures that weaken leftist movements: elitism, patriarchy, racism, and casteism.