Ask an untouchable what it means to be one, and you learn the stories of oppression and suppression that stemmed from such regressive practice. Sujatha Gidla writes about her family’s story in Ants Among Elephants — An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India — published by HarperCollins. The narrative hasn’t changed in 21st century India, where social classes, whose power rests on the caste system, still perpetuates it. Excerpts from a chat with Gidla...
Can you tell us in brief about the book, Ants Among Elephants?
It is a family history as told to me mainly by my mother and her brother. In giving their stories social and political context, I also talk about the modern history of India — Independence, states reorganisation, the Communist movement, and especially the Maoist movement. My uncle was one of the co-founders of the People’s War Group, the predecessor to the current Maoists operating in tribal areas.
Since we are untouchables, there is necessarily a description of the caste system and untouchability. Since the book was written not so much for Indians as for Western readers, I included some very basic facts. But it became clear since the book was published last year, that many Indians also felt that it gave them better insight.
Why did you choose to write this now, and how did it come about — the research, the writing, the fact-checking etc?
After leaving India in 1992, I realised I did not need to hide my caste from my new non-Indian friends or lie about my background. They didn’t understand how one Indian is different from another when all of them look more or less the same. This gave me enough courage to try to understand why and how we became untouchable. I approached my mother and uncle with this question. They told me what they knew of our ancestors and, as I talked to them, I also became curious about their life stories.
The book is based on taped interviews with the two of them and others with knowledge of the events related in the book. Whenever possible, I verified the stories told by my mother and uncle, with their contemporaries.
As for the social and political history, I read many books including Against Dora and Nizam by Inukonda Thirumali, The Proudest Day by Anthony Read and David Fisher, India: The Most Dangerous Decades by Selig Harrison, and P Sundarayya’s history of the Telangana Armed Revolt. I also read articles and research papers. I went to the New York Public Library to consult maps.
Caste still plays a huge role in the Indian landscape. Your views on it?
Anyone can see that Brahmins still occupy all high positions in government, in administration, in universities, in the press. Baniyas (Ambani etc) still control the economy, the industries — they are the capitalists (not all of them). While some of the middle castes have moved up as a result of land reforms, many are still stuck in their traditional work such as washermen.
Untouchables remain landless labourers and menial workers. Those who clean streets, buildings, latrines are exclusively untouchables. Those removing dead animals are all untouchables. The fact that a thin layer of untouchables have managed to get educated and find other employment hardly changes this picture.
This is not an accident. There are social classes in India whose power rests on the caste system and they perpetuate it. They are a minute minority. The great majority of Indians — including most Brahmins and Baniyas — do not benefit from this system. It only serves the interest of the people at the very top.
While belonging to a so-called ‘lower-caste’ is anyway a difficult thing in our country, being a woman makes it further tough. How does one deal with these things?
This is called double oppression. As an untouchable, you are oppressed and then as a female untouchable you are doubly oppressed. Untouchable women are the most vulnerable members of Indian society, apart from tribals. The average life span of an untouchable woman is 39 years, a full 14 years lower than caste women. They are subjected to sexual exploitation and oppression, which is often violent.
There is no way to deal with it other than smashing the caste system. Bourgeois feminism is not only useless but positively inimical to Dalit women’s problems.
You moved to USA at the age of 26. How did that change things for you?
Like day and night. To Americans, the caste system is stupid. My life is no longer defined by my caste unless I am with other Indians. Although women in America are not fully liberated from oppression, it is far less cruel here for women than in India.
In America women get paid less, they get harassed sexually, they are deemed less capable. But certainly they don’t get married off in arranged marriages, there are no honour killings (though there are race killings), no parents kill their own daughters. Here rape is not used as punishment for political dissent as it is in Kashmir and in the Northeast India — namely Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Tripura and Sikkim — or to maintain the social hierarchy as it is everywhere in India against Dalits and tribals.
Here, in New York, there is also greater scope for social, political, intellectual and cultural advancement than I have seen in India. I meet people from all different countries, cultures and religions. They enrich New York’s culture. In India, I could never have thought of writing anything, let alone trying to publish.
You chart your mother’s battles with caste and women’s oppression. What made you do this?
As I wrote in my book, one’s life is one’s caste, one’s caste is one’s life. This is especially the case for untouchables. We are reminded of our social status every minute of our lives. To tell the stories of my family members, I necessarily had to talk about the oppression they faced. My mother’s life was one long struggle as a woman, as an untouchable woman.
Nor are these two forms of oppression unrelated. Nowhere in the world are women equal to men, but why are the restrictions placed on them so severe in India? To maintain the caste system.
This is like a history of modern India told by you. How have you maintained objectivity?
I do think I am as objective as anyone can be. I believe that’s why the book has been successful. One can tell what is authentic and what is not. Everyone has their politics, even when they say they are apolitical. I have my politics, and it shows in the writing. But the points that support my politics are facts.