An area of darkness: review of 'Ants among Elephants...'

A Dalit Christian’s memoir takes on the Indian state for failing to stop the inhumanity endured by the wretched of our hearth

September 30, 2017 07:25 pm | Updated 10:16 pm IST

Ants among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India
Sujatha Gidla
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Ants among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India Sujatha Gidla Farrar, Straus and Giroux ₹1,262

It’s a comparison that Sujatha Gidla will hate.

In her landmark dismantling of the Indian state that has failed to live up to the idealism of its preceptors, Gidla appears like a modern day Mahishasuramardini — the goddess who rides a tiger and destroys the buffalo-headed demon of ignorance with a trident aimed at the heart. The modern India that she targets is the humongous buffalo-headed demon that lies bloated with its betrayals and failures. The tiger or the lion she mounts is her memory and that of her immediate family.

Since the age of 26, Gidla has lived in the U.S. After a long stint at a bank job in the banking capital of the world, Gidla, now 53 years old, works as a conductor in a New York subway. Gidla had studied at IIT (Madras), now Chennai.

Or as we are repeatedly reminded she belongs to the third generation of a Christian Dalit family who grew up in a remote region of Andhra, as it was known in the pre-partition era where she begins her story.

The way it was

They were discriminated on three counts. They were Dalits belonging to the Mala caste, forced to live outside the village proper, but within its perimeter by virtue of being educated. They were converts, but one whose family having turned to the Communist theocracy, did not go to church. They were poor.

It would appear that both the distance and absence have given her the luxury to recognise, and even in a tangential way celebrate, the one feature that sets her apart. Gidla insists that she must be recognised as an Untouchable as defined by the Indian caste system. It empowers her. In the land of the free that is America, Gidla discovers her need to be not just a Dalit, or a Mala, but an Untouchable. The knowledge is what sets her free.

Gidla uses the capital form of the word, for as most of us will know, and she describes it in minute detail, there are degrees of untouchability based on occupational differences.

When she describes the exact nature of the work expected of the ‘shit collectors’, the ‘carrion eaters’, each one living in their prescribed-by-custom ghettos, we may feel that we are back in what Gandhi called the drain inspector’s report with Katherine Mayo’s Mother India (1927). Or more recently with Sharankumar Limbale’s Akkarmashi (1986) where he describes his grandmother washing the undigested grain from the cow dung to make the rotis that she swallows as if stoking an unforgiving fire within her belly — we are not without reminders of the inhumanity endured by the wretched of our hearth.

Against this background Gidla’s recollection of her family’s history appears like the images of the Andhra shadow puppets against the stirring events of the country’s history as projected on the canvas of the cloth screen in lurid colours and drumbeats. One of the interesting anecdotes Gidla tells us is how the Dalits living just outside the space of the rural cinema theatres were so adept at learning the songs, the dance sequences and dialogues from the films of that early era, that they were inducted as performers by Marxist cadres once they started organising themselves. Many of them joined the film industry of the South.

Like the shadow puppets, some characters loom over the others. In Gidla’s case it is that of her maternal uncle, K.G. Satyamurthy, a prominent poet writing under the name of Sivasagar, a lifelong dissident, whose first hero was Subhas Chandra Bose and who was one of the founder members of the Naxalite movement in Andhra Pradesh.

‘Forrest Gump’ figure

As a legendary folk hero, Satyamurthy appears like a Forrest Gump figure in Gidla’s narrative and gives it a luminous intensity beyond the darkness.

It may sound almost absurd to compare Gidla’s story to that of the Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. There is, however, the same ferocious intimacy in dragging out every bit of the family history within a deadening culture, set against the failed promise of Marxism that makes both riveting.

We are living in an age of anger as Pankaj Mishra reminds us; in the prologue to his eponymous book, Mishra examines the current cult of individualism: “An existential resentment of the other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness, ressentiment, as it lingers and deepens, poisons civil society and undermines political liberty, and is presently making for a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism.”

Gidla’s anger is that of a rebel holding a kerosene-soaked torch that she flings into the face of her reader: These are my experiments with Truth! Whether we grab the burning brand, or duck, it’s hard not to be seared by it.

Ants among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India ; Sujatha Gidla, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ₹1,262.

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