Sujatha Gidla started writing a book on caste oppression when she realised that the answers to the questions she posed to her mother and uncle about their lives in India needed to be told to a wider audience. The book, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and The Making of Modern India, is a memoir that revolves around her uncle KG Satyamurthy, a Dalit revolutionary, poet and Naxalite leader; the life of her grandparents who converted to Christianity; and her parents’ struggle to be lecturers in India. Gidla minced no words when she called MK Gandhi as ‘casteist and racist’, and termed Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani’s speeches as “mostly empty rhetoric” at a session at this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival. Gidla further said, “Gandhi paid mere lip service to the uplift of the untouchables, as he really wanted to preserve the caste system… this was because Hindus needed a majority against Muslims for political representation in the British government.” The 53-year-old, who hails from the Dalit community of Kazipet, a small town in Telangana, tells Smitha Verma how political parties are the biggest oppressors and what America offered her when she moved there at the age of 26 years. Edited excerpts:
What kind of research went into the writing of Ants Among Elephants?
My mother and uncle were my main sources of information. I visited India more than three times just for the sake of research. That was because I wanted to see the landscape in which these stories took shape and whether it actually happened for real. From my visits, I realised how dire the situation was, and continues to be, for Dalits. From the stories that I heard and from what I experienced, I started feeling empathy for my family. And I wrote everything without thinking about whether it will hurt someone or not. Personally, I don’t like boring books. And writing something that is not real or factual gets boring for me.
What is the book about besides your family stories?
I started thinking, ‘Why caste?’, and talked to my mother and uncle. I realised it’s the story about several communities. It’s a wider story of caste and the oppressive burden of untouchability in India. I feel emancipation should occur for all the Dalits. It’s not that my family moved out of India, so I should be at peace. It affects me personally when everyday I read about stories of rape and malnutrition among Dalits. It needs to be written about and spoken aloud.
What kind of reaction did your book evoke in India?
Indians were taken aback by what I wrote. And I was completely taken aback by their reaction… that they didn’t realise what’s happening in their country. It’s happening all the time right in front of their eyes. Do you see any untouchables in your workplace? Do you see any upper-caste people working as janitors or sewage cleaners? So that’s obvious. But I think they were being truthful when they said they didn’t notice it. If you put an ant on a football and turn it, then it doesn’t know that the football is turning. It is like that for people living in a caste society… they actually don’t realise that there is caste operating in society. But I have also got fabulous response. People have told me that they read the book without looking at the dictionary even once, and that there were just three words they didn’t understand. And even for those three words, the context explained the meaning.
What do you think about the current political landscape in India for Dalits?
Casteism has always existed and so has communalism. Communalism has existed even before the current government came into power. The market liberalisation, which is inflaming these conflicts, was ushered in by the Congress and the sublime Manmohan Singh. So they are not free of guilt as to what’s happening currently to Dalits. The current prime minister, Narendra Modi, and the BJP are a result of the ushering in of Manmohan Singh and the Congress party. I think of it as a natural progression from the Congress to the BJP. And the BJP is playing its role in intensifying these conflicts. It’s only quantitatively different, but not qualitatively. Everyone says the BSP has given some impetus to Dalits, but that’s not so. Mayawati has made herself rich and the party has worked for the Dalit community in a limited electoral framework. It’s better only for those who benefitted from reservations and were able to move up.
What’s the hope for the common man?
The only hope is that there should be a class of people who are able to stand up to the governments that are against Dalits, against tribals, against women, Kashmiris or Muslims. Those people should be able to put up a viable fight against the ruling party and take up the cause of these people. There is a lot of struggle going on amongst the working class. But those things are not covered by the media as much as they should be. Those working class people have the power to change things and it’s in their interest to take up the cause of Dalits. Only they can lead to the emancipation of Dalits.
How was your experience in America? Did you face discrimination?
Indians in America will know your caste the same way they know it in India. As far as non-Indians are concerned, I am just an Indian for them and not an outcast or untouchable from India. For them, if they hate Indian immigrants, they will hate me too. And for others, they will look at my talent… I have more advantage among non-Indians because they look at how articulate you are, how well you speak English and your other talents. In that sense, I have a successful social life in America.
What will your next book be about?
I have a prequel ready. It will be about my own family story before my uncle’s generation. It talks about the story of my family after they left the jungles to settle in the plains of Krishna district. Then, I will also write a sequel to the current book, which will be about my generation. The Punjabi and Tamil translations of Ants Among Elephants are out. A translation in Telugu will follow soon.
You are a physicist, yet you work in the New York City subway as a conductor. Why?
I have studied physics from IIT (Gidla worked as an app designer at the Bank of New York before being laid off during the recession in 2009), but I wanted to do a manual job. The (job of a) conductor in the subway (she was the first Indian woman to be employed as a conductor on one of the busiest mass transit systems in the world) is like that of a railway guard in India—standing at the door, waving the flag and making sure that everything is fine. Because I am a Marxist and Communist, I have these romantic feelings about being a working class person. So this job attracted me. Secondly, I wanted to do something that men are supposed to be doing.