The memoir of an Indian woman who was born a so-called untouchable and now works as a conductor on the New York City Subway has been hailed by critics for its unflinching account of caste and family in India. Journalist Sudha G Tilak spoke to Sujatha Gidla about her life story and how it became Ants Among Elephants.
In Sanskrit, the main language used by scholars in ancient India and sometimes referred to as the language of gods, her first name means one of noble birth.
An expressive personal examination of her life, her parents, especially her mother, grandparents and Satyamurthy, a Maoist uncle who hoped revolution would help improve the caste discrimination his people suffered, Ants Among Elephants has quickly become the toast of critics and readers in America.
The New York Times said the “unsentimental, deeply poignant book” gives “readers an unsettling and visceral understanding of how discrimination, segregation and stereotypes have endured throughout the second half of the 20th Century and today”.
Reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote that Gidla’s family stories reveal how “ancient prejudices persist in contemporary India, and how those prejudices are being challenged by the disenfranchised”.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune described the book as the “boisterous life of an Indian family that fought the caste system”.
“Gidla is our Virgil into the world of the untouchables and their acts of defiance; not just as an observer, but as a participant,” wrote reviewer Peter Lewis.
“She is bitten by the revolutionary bug, and bitten hard: arrested by the Indian authorities, tortured, left to rot, released. She has been party to the heights and the depths of living a revolution.”
Michael D Langan, a culture critic for NBC-2.com, wrote that Gidla breaks away her “indomitable soul” and tells her family stories, adding: “They are not stories of shame, but of grace.”
Gidla’s story is one of personal struggle and a certain freedom she has found in America today.
Gidla hails from the Dalit community of Kazipet, a small town in southern Telangana state.
The 53-year-old subway conductor has been luckier than most Dalits back home, women especially, who suffer unspeakable cruelty, are employed in menial jobs including cleaning of human excreta and are segregated by their communities.
Unlike most of her lot, her family was “middle class”, thanks to the help of Canadian missionaries in her region who aided in education and offered them religion. Her family was thus Christian and benefited with education. Her parents held jobs as college teachers.
Gidla says that proselytization didn’t help her lot. “Christians, untouchables – it came to the same thing. All Christians in India were untouchable. I knew no Christian who did not turn servile in the presence of a Hindu.”
The book chronicles unflinchingly the caste slurs and segregation Gidla and Dalits like her have to endure in India.
Separate plates and glasses in eateries; a junior school classmate who refused to eat the sweet she offered; barred from access to the community’s source of drinking water; riding a bicycle or wearing sandals and the many rejections of love and opportunities that remind Dalits of their status as social outcastes.
Since her teens Gidla was spurred to rebel with her uncle, the rebel Telugu language poet Shivasagar, setting an example. His call to join the Communists and later the guerrilla movement of the region demanding social justice held appeal for the young Gidla.
‘Culture of protest’
Gidla admits that she has had it better than many Dalit students who are “driven to suicide” despite securing education under affirmative practices She was able to study physics in an engineering college in south India. She also joined India’s top and most sought-after engineering school, the Indian Institute of technology (IIT), as a researcher in applied physics.
In Madras (now Chennai) she found most of her classmates clearing the tests to study further abroad.
“For me, what was appealing was the idea of America, especially Bob Dylan’s music, the culture of protest, and the draw of joining a society where debates on rights and equality could be articulated,” she told the BBC.
At 26 she came to America “where people know only skin colour, not birth status”, she writes.
There, she says, she faced racism. And caste was right here too. She says she found “petty caste discrimination” among the Indian community.
Yet life was much more liberating. As she says: “If you are educated like me, if you don’t seem like a typical untouchable, then you have a choice.”
Writing the book has almost been a family affair as well, with her mother who was “involved in this book as it is her story too” and her young niece Anagha who wanted to design the book.
After she was laid off from her bank job in 2009, Gidla took up the job at the New York subway. She was the first Indian woman to be employed as a conductor on one of the busiest mass transit systems in the world.
In her job she is often identified as “that Hindu conductor”, she says.
She is “a novelty”, she says, to fellow Indian commuters. And if she hears an Indian language she is familiar with, especially the south Indian language Telugu, she calls out a greeting and watches them in glee “as they do a double take” and smile back.
In America, writes Gilda, “people know only my skin colour, not birth status”.
“One time in a bar in Atlanta I told a guy I was untouchable, and he said, ‘Oh, but you’re so touchable’.”