By Vijeta Kumar
Originally published on 31 October 2017.
Sujatha Gidla’s memoir Ants among Elephants: An Untouchable Family And The Making of Modern India has been shortlisted for The Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2018.
I have never been able to understand my father’s boundless love for fruits. We once purchased a kilo of sithaphal and put it in the back of the car. We forgot about it and when he discovered the rotting fruits days later, he beat his chest and wept bitterly.
I remember how he’d also been very upset with me a few years ago when I told him I didn’t like eating idlis. Idli tinakke punya maadirbeku, he’d said. One should be fortunate enough to eat idlis.
It’s only after I read Sujatha Gidla’s memoir Ants among Elephants: An Untouchable Family And The Making of Modern India that I understood my father a little better. Growing up as a Dalit boy, my father only ever saw fruits in books or when other people ate it. Idli must have been an annual treat. But the obligation to feel fortunate and blessed enough to eat fruits or idlis never left him, even after he could afford to buy them without hesitation.
In her memoir, Gidla mentions how her ailing grandmother was once given a grapefruit and how the family had to sit the children down and make them understand that they couldn’t share the grapefruit like they shared everything else.
There is medicine for her inside that grapefruit, and all of the medicine is in one single section of the fruit. From the outside we can’t tell which one has the medicine in it, so we have to let her eat the whole thing.
The Kambham family lived within the limits of what they had. They never thought to want more. When they made egg curry, a man was served half an egg. They never thought of fruits unless they saw some on a tree, or unless someone was sick.
It is extremely important for me that Gidla has written about this because these are things that I have always taken for granted and that my father never will.
* * *
Ever since I discovered my caste, I have been feverish with the worry that I must learn my family’s history before all the people who know it begin to die. It is a strange kind of worry because it is galling to suddenly establish intimacy with people only to learn their stories. But it is equally galling, maybe more, to let them die without learning their stories.
The most remarkable thing about Sujatha Gidla’s memoir is the unabashed confession she makes in the introduction of her book.
Getting everything I needed from them (her family and relatives) before it was too late became an obsession of mine.
Sadly though, as if they’ve all woken up together from a Marquez novel, obstacles begin to land on her little project — an aunt falls down and loses her memory. An uncle has a stroke and loses his ability to speak.
I thought of all the things for him to lose the use of, why should it be his tongue, the one part that mattered most for my purposes. I didn’t need him to dance; I didn’t need him to lift anything. As I saw it, I had been cursed most cruelly. My mother thinks I’ve developed an attachment to the people I am writing about. She thinks I am grieving their loss. But what I am really grieving is the material that is lost forever.
* * *
Gidla’s anguish is that the history of an entire community would be wiped out and this is what makes her tell us this story. She is 55 now and works as a conductor for the New York City Subway. She moved to America when she was 26.
When she recollects the first time she was made aware of her caste, she is confused. “No one informed me that I was untouchable. It is not the kind of thing that your mother would need to tell you.”
Years later in America, she is amused when at a bar in Atlanta, she told a guy she was an untouchable and he said, “Oh, but you’re so touchable.”
Gidla’s curiosities about caste began when she was 15, when she was taken to watch a film. It was a love story about a couple who couldn’t marry because of caste differences. “My blood froze,” says Gidla when she realised that the rich girl was Christian and the poor boy was Hindu.
“This movie, in sheer defiance of the laws of nature, portrayed Christians as rich and powerful, and most amazing of all — scornful of Brahmins, the highest caste of all,” she writes.
Gidla was unable to believe that rich Christians existed. She wonders why she’d never seen them before. Because what she grew up seeing were the members of her family “scrambling to their feet, straightening their clothes, and wringing hands when a Hindu man passed by.”
* * *
The book follows the story of the Kambhams, a ‘lower caste’ community in Andhra Pradesh, who converted to Christianity. Prasanna Rao, Gidla’s grandfather, studied in an untouchable school set up by the Canadian missionaries. After his wife passed away, he had to leave his three children — Satyam, Manjula (Gidla’s mother) and Carey — under the care of his mother-in-law and look for a job in another town.
At 18, Sujatha Gidla enrolled in a Master’s program at the Regional Engineering College in Warangal. In her second year, she was part of a strike organised against an ‘upper caste’ professor in the engineering department, “who was passing all the students of his own caste with high marks and failing his ‘low-caste’ students.”
The students who went on strike were all thrown into jail, with Gidla being the only girl. Her mother, Manjula had to go to Hyderabad and contact a civil rights lawyer to help them. Locked up for three months, she contracted tuberculosis. Upon release, she was allowed to come back to college only if she agreed not to talk to anybody and remain invisible.
What kept her alive ultimately was her invisibility.
So long as they are all invisible, they are allowed to live. Most Dalit memoirs are a testimony to what happens when they refuse to live invisibly. Gidla has set upon herself the very difficult task of narrating two vastly different yet similar stories — Satyam’s and Manjula’s.
She tracks Satyam’s struggles as a young rebel who gathered the paki community together to perform, sing, and dance across villages to spread awareness about caste violence. He called this troupe ‘Toilers Cultural Forum’.
In print, the pakis are called manual scavengers. In plain language, “they carry away human shit,” says Gidla. Satyam began to recruit them as performers after he discovered that they loved reciting movie dialogues, after watching every film that played at the nearby Gowri Shankar Cinema hall.
From Ambedkar and Siddalingaiah to Gogu Shyamala, Manjula and Sujatha Gidla, the one thing that seems to bring together many Dalit writers and thinkers today is how they moved towards reading and writing, and learnt to be independent. Sometimes it’s because it’s the only way to be after everyone in the world has shut them out.
In A.C. college, Guntur, where Satyam is sent for degree, his father is unable to afford the fee after the first two months and so Satyam begins to spend a lot of time in the library, teaching himself to read and write. He learns to hide between the shelves when the librarian came to lock up, leaving Satyam alone to spend the night with books.
But even after reading about Satyam’s journey into co-founding the People’s War Group and his revolutions, the hero and the heroine of the memoir is Manjula.
It was delightful to read Gidla’s narration of her mother’s journey to Banaras Hindu University where she is sent to study. With nothing but an old and rusting green trunk and an equally old water bottle, she boards a train from Gudivada. She goes to a place about which she knows nothing — neither its people nor its language. And in the middle of her journey, she gets down at a station to fill some water. When she looks up, the train is leaving- so she runs to catch it.
In a book that is filled with struggle, hunger, fear, loss, resistance, Manjula running after the train, after her green trunk, while still clutching at her water bottle is the most powerful scene.
I have watched many women running after trains — Geet and Simran from Bollywood films, my aunts and grandmother in real life. While they were all fascinating to watch, (especially my grandmother who beat the TC with a bottle of mineral water for yelling at her after she got on the train) — but no one has run quite like Manjula.
With one hand clutching the bottle and the other gathering the folds of her sari to lift it off the ground so she wouldn’t trip over it, she sprinted frantically behind the moving train. She raced behind it, her braid lashing across her chest and the railway water sloshing in her belly. With one burst of effort, she caught hold of that bar and hoisted herself onto the second step leading up to the door. She was in.
In BHU, she finds herself alone, much like Satyam did in A.C. College. She begins to spend more time in the library and learns not to need friends.
When she is married off, I begin to worry. I worry that her runner’s spirit will die after marriage, the way so many women’s spirits die. But with Manjula it only becomes stronger. She teaches at a college where everybody already hates her — for being Dalit, for having the authority to teach and make money out of it. But she has other things to worry about.
The marriage isn’t a healthy one. The absentee husband, when he returns, only fights and abuses her. And so she raises all of her three children single-handedly. She moves from house to house, never finding one that is suitable.
At one point, Gidla recollects a horrifying memory she has of her father beating her mother
The scene that day is burned into into my memory. The terrified woman dishevelled, her hand wounded, utterly naked, running to save herself. The man – Sujatha’s father, her beloved father – chasing after her mother, who, desperate, ran out of the house. Her father went after her. Sujatha’s mother ran around to the other side of the well. Her father followed. He pretended to start chasing her mother in one direction, and when she tried to run away, he turned around and caught her from the other side.
On one particularly stormy night, Manjula and her three children are huddled against one another. They can’t sleep and every time there was thunder, they’d all scream. That night they see the bloody head of a snake — just the head.
They saw it crawl silently, purposely, relentlessly, making a drawing in blood on the floor. It crawled and crawled. They were scared to breathe.
Next morning, their neighbours told them that when it rained, snakes come out of the swamps and fall prey to animals who eat most of the snake, leaving the head to crawl off and die.
There are other such stories of survival.
Once, Manjula brings a pack of cornflakes for her children. She had never dared to buy something like this before. The children hate it and never eat it after that. Manjula is very disappointed but decides to save the cornflakes box as a ‘souvenir and token of modernity.’
While her brother Satyam is in the forests — organising the PWG to continue its war against the government — Manjula continues to fight a similar, if not, more sustained battle against the world in which she lives.
Through unwanted pregnancies and operations to running back and forth between work and home, and making sure her children are well-fed, Manjula fights like a guerrilla warrior through her life.
* * *
Speaking of her mother’s response to the book in this interview, Sujatha Gidla says,
She has been involved in the process of writing this book, so she almost feels as if she wrote the book. The fact that it is her story is very important to her. But one sad thing is that there’s nobody for her to share it with in India. She lives in India, she reads all these newspapers, but there’s nobody to share it with in India. A colleague of hers, she came to visit my mother when the BBC interview was coming, and when she saw the interview, she just got up and left the house. It’s another upper-caste colleague. Two of her colleagues actually woke her up in sleep and berated her, “How dare your daughter write this stuff, haven’t we treated you well enough? What’s your complaints? Why are you still talking about untouchables?” It’s very sad that even though she’s very proud, there’s nobody in India that she can share her happiness with.
In the first half of the book, there is an elaborate section where Gidla writes about Satyam’s wedding preparations. It is a big affair because the entire community celebrates it. The only conflict is between Satyam and the rest of the community. He doesn’t want any meat served during the feast and they cannot understand how it is a feast without a ‘wedding pig’.
Eventually, the bride’s family brings a pig and all is well. Gidla observes how a pig is never able to look up at the sky because of its fat neck. But a wedding pig, in the last moments of its life, gazes skyward at last.
“Veedu pandi lanti vadandi. Chacchi poyye munduaka sanni choosedu” is a common Telugu saying among untouchable families. It means, “This fellow is like a pig. He saw the sky for the first time at the end of his life.” It applies to unfortunate men and women whose only shot at happiness arrives when their children can finally take care of them as they lie looking upwards on their death beds.
Ants among Elephants is a story about many such people who dared to lift their heads up and look at the sky. And I am grateful for this because these are stories that must be written and told and shared — again and again — not just because soon, we will have lost all those who lived in these stories but also because these stories are what allow us to save them from being frozen like statues in history and government offices.
Vijeta Kumar teaches English by day and binge-watches Gilmore Girls by night. She blogs at rumlolarum.wordpress.com.