Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla
I often think about how to explain caste to an outsider, and I always fall back on “It’s like racism, except it is not based on the colour of your skin.” This is the line of reasoning the author takes as well. Systemic oppression assumes different forms in different places, but what remains constant is its ugly nature. This issue is one of my big obsessions, having experienced both the privilege of the system, and its suffocating grip.
Ants Among Elephants is the narrative of one family’s story, as seen through the lens of a changing India, from before Independence to now. Born into a caste of untouchable landless labourers in Andhra Pradesh, the author moves to the United States as an adult; and realizes what she thought of as a normal way of life is in fact a fantastical story of survival. In tracing her family’s roots, she goes all the way back to the nineteenth century when her ancestors lived as nomads, worshipping their personal deities, unaware of caste; and how they stumbled onto caste Hindu land where they were robbed of their dignity. She talks about her grandfather who became a school teacher owing to the work of Canadian missionaries, her charismatic uncle who was a revolutionary and an important member of the Naxal movement. She writes about her mother, who in spite of working as a lecturer in college, was oppressed by her husband, brothers, employers and society at large.
There are some interesting themes explored in the book – how colonialism was beneficial in some ways, for instance. Fighting a common enemy helped people overlook the differences they saw among themselves. But this unity is short-lived, and one of the characters wonders who the independence is for. She examines the plight of a Dalit woman, the invisible among the oppressed. She looks at the cycle of poverty, the frustration and the helplessness of the people, the obeisance that is forced into them.
I found the book to be littered with explanations meant for a foreign audience, and this kind of thing tends to annoy me. I do not like reading meanings and factoids in brackets, describing what a panche is, or who a vadina is. I also do not like it when the author continues to set a foundation within the text for the reader to understand the work better, I believe it is the reader’s responsibility to understand the writer’s world by reading supplementary material.
I was reminded of My Father Baliah while reading this book – another Dalit family’s history told to us within the framework of a changing India.
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