Saturday, September 2, 2017

Review of Sujatha Gidla's Ants Among Elephants : An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern IndiaAnts Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Your life is your caste, your caste is your life."
Sujatha Gidla was born a Dalit-Christian - an untouchable. She had to move to a different country, the USA, to realize the unfairness of her life in India. Her opening lines in Ants Among Elephants are "My stories, my family's stories, were not stories in India. They were just life". I can relate to this; moving to Qatar taught me that I had been on the nicer side of the unfairness. This acceptance does not come easily though, and -- to use a phrase favoured by Sujatha Gidla -- "even to this day", I have the tendency to get riled up or turn defensive on this topic. There is no surprise in the fact then that when Sujatha Gidla remarks "all Christians in India were untouchables, as far as I knew"  and adds that "I knew no Christian who did not turn servile in the presence of a Hindu", my immediate reaction was to deny the exaggeration. But then, my unawareness of the caste system is by itself a manifestation of my privilege, and it is time that people like me listen to voices like Sujatha Gidla's. After all, "even to this day", caste plays a significant, life-changing role in large parts of India.

The two principal characters of Ants Among Elephants are Satyam and Manjula; the writer's maternal-uncle and mother respectively. Satyam is K.G. Satyamurthy, a revolutionary, an intellectual, an acclaimed poet (going by the pen name Sivasagar),  and a founding member of the left-extremist People's War Group ("the most notorious, famous and successful Naxalite party, a thorn in the side of Indian rulers"). Manjula is a woman growing up in India as an untouchable. Their struggles are equally dramatic and arresting.

Ants Among Elephants begins before the independence of India. While Sujatha Gidla promises us a tale of the cruelty of caste system, Ants Among Elephants is much more. The tales of Gidla's maternal family is actually a testament to the complexity of India as a country, where people are so abundant and lives so cheap that inhumanity does not take a single form. Lives are drastically affected by myriad macro-events - a flooding of the Godavari river; the Japansese bombing of Vizag; the presence of Razakars, a brutal army of Islamic militants serving the Nizam of Hyderabad; the suppression of this brutality by and the subsequent cruelty of the equally ruthless Indian Army; the Chattel system, which the Gidla refers to as "a modern product of the capitalist world market"; the vetti (forced labour) system; the struggle for the separate state of Telangana and much more. We see that casteism was omnipotent, with members of every caste (including the Untouchables) mistreating what they considered as the lower castes. The historical context is also educational in many ways. For instance, one of the many things I learnt was how the country began to get divided by linguistic barriers thanks to relentless protests in Andhra.

I felt that in her introduction to the book Sujatha Gidla came across as unemotional to the point of seeming cold. At one point, she remarks that "as of this writing, I do not know if this book's principal subject is alive or dead" (Satyamurthy died in 2012). But this detachment becomes an advantage, as she does not balk from the flaws of her subjects. So much so that the subjects become characters and we forget that these were actual people doing their best in troubled circumstances. All of us commit mistakes, but when you are at the bottom of the social ladder, your mistakes become irreversible. Sujatha Gidla is so impersonal that she even refers to her own birth in third person. This quality gives Ants Among Elephants an objectivity, allowing her to unflinchingly examine moments like her father's domestic abuse of her mother. On the flip-side, the fact that there are so many threads within the tapestry of Sujatha Gidla's work cause it to seem rushed at times. I wonder if the relatively shortness book (a little more than 300 pages) contributes to this feeling.

One of the many caste names Sujatha Gidla keeps referring to is "paki", which sounds very similar to a derogatory word in Tamil. I have a strong suspicion that the origin of the word is caste-based. The effects of caste system is not always explicit. Casteism has seeped into us in ways we can not even imagine.  Like Arundathi Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Ants Among Elephants is a significant work that forces us to take an unflinching look at the past and present of India. After a low profile release in the USA, the book still managed to gather rave reviews and is being released in India now. I highly recommend this book, especially to the Indians who feel that historical injustice does not affect the present.

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