"My stories, My family’s stories, were not stories in India.
They were just life.” The first line of Sujatha Gidla’s non-fiction Ants
Among Elephants is an indictment of Indian society well after
untouchability was abolished by the Constitution in 1950. Writing in
2016, Sujatha describes herself as a Christian untouchable: a Mala. The lot of
her cohort in the past was/is to perform whatever menial tasks caste Hindus
require. She is also a Baptist who attended mission schools. She holds a
Masters in physics that led to an assignment at the Indian Space Research
Organisation (ISRO), then on to IIT in Madras. Ultimately, she got admission
into a graduate programme in the US at 26. Now 53 she has been a resident
since. This reveals the opportunities available to academically-inclined
untouchables—even though they may encounter prejudice and ill-treatment at
their place of work. It is these slights and more that she accepted as “just
life” through her school and university days. Other outcasts suffered more.
Looked at from the cloud in which the internationalised, English-speaking, well
heeled Indian of the liberal variety lives, it is a life of horror unimaginable
just as, say, the gulag would have been for a professional Russian space
scientist valued by the state.
Ants is written with brilliant simplicity. Stripped to the bone, it exposes the life of those beyond the varna with an honesty that would not be possible if she had tried to make a literary work of it. In its tone the book similar to paintings of the passion of Christ, culminating with his crucifixion. They show his rib cage pushing against the skin, stomach hollowed by hunger. Such icons are not to be conflated with the Gandharva School showing the fasting Buddha. Christ suffered because he was punished; the Buddha because of his experiments with Truth.
There is nothing voluntary about the tasks and occupations our outcasts have been mired in from the time of the Vedas. Their punishment is inflicted and over three millennia of a degrading daily routine has left them incapable of considering their quotidian tasks unworthy or repulsive, as caste Hindus might. Here is the picture she paints of the cohort “whose occupation is most degrading, the most indecent, the most inhuman of all is known as pakis”.
In print they are known as manual scavengers or, more euphemistically still, as porters of night soil. In plain language they carry away human shit “ …Their tools are nothing but a small broom and a tin plate (pannier)… Some modernised areas have replaced these baskets with push carts (this being what’s thought of as progress in India), but even today the traditional head-loading method prevails across the country.
“Nearly all these workers are women. They don’t know what gloves are, let alone have them… when their baskets start to leak, the shit drips down their faces. In the rainy season, the filth runs all over these people, onto their hair, into their eyes, their noses, their mouths. Tuberculosis and other infectious diseases are endemic among them.”
No adjectives, no adverbs, just action: Verbs. What does shit do? It drips down their faces into the mouths of these women, the most downtrodden of the downtrodden, even more than their men. But, she notes wryly, there is a bright side to this. Human beings perform regularly so there is no lack or seasonal slack of work as there is for those who work in the fields.
Not even the tormentors of Inferno would have the perverted genius to invent hereditary punishment of this sort. The wonder is that though political regimes have changed from Vedic to Buddhist to Hindu to Islamic to Christian and largely Hindu again, caste and outcast have persisted. Having been abolished by a liberal constitution, will the 21st century see untouchability buried? Or will it outlast legislated equality under law and then be confronted by an atheistic era under communism?
Under Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution the highest man had to do the lowest job. If chief ministers were forced into manual scavenging every person would have had access to a latrine very long ago. Ants also gives us a front row view of the attitude of communist cadres. Orwell’s law that “some pigs are more equal than others” applies in India with a manifold force that compares the paki with the seven star lifestyle of our plutocrats. The gap couldn’t be greater anywhere in the world. A copy of this book should be on the coffee table of all educated Indians to increase the chances of positive action.
And perhaps in some ways it seems the worm is now turning. Perhaps shamed by press coverage and outrage expressed by the people of the capital, Delhi, after the 12th death of a sewer cleaner this summer because of poisoning by the inhalation of noxious gasses while scooping pipes, the new minister of urban affairs announced that he would order mechanical cleaners. The deaths recorded in this lethal occupation in the capital have crossed one hundred, a figure that indicates the state of our social conscience. It also shows how the upper castes view untouchables. Needless to add, no municipal worker who cleans sewers is a caste Hindu.
One wonders how these deaths are recorded in the Census and by the government’s statistical apparatus since Delhi’s municipal corporations deny having any sewer cleaners on their rolls.
And what is the cure for callousness, technology or revolution?
As a physicist and technology post-graduate, a Christian and an untouchable, few are better placed to answer this question as Sujatha Gidla. Having worked on space projects she would surely be up to date on robots, for example.
So we must turn to the penultimate page of her 306-page work (slotted, to my mind, questionably as non-fiction. It belongs to whatever category than lies between factual fable and real life happenings. Though she now lives in a country fundamentally opposed to communism, as it is founded on the right to property, she writes: “I still look forward to the day when there are no poor people in the world and I agree with my uncle (Satyam, of whom more later) that it will take a revolution to achieve this.”
This is subversive stuff in the US. But she doesn’t stop here. She remains a staunch supporter of the creed that seeks to overthrow the established order with a gun to violently annihilate a state that she claims is unfair and a creature of the upper castes. Communism of course is about class warfare and perhaps that is why parties like the CPI- ML have missed the point that since one’s caste is one’s occupation, class war must first be about caste war. The bourgeoisie would be caste Hindus.
How long will it take to achieve? It has taken democracy 70 years to get to mechanical sewer cleaners although they have been around for a century. If this is the pace of a dictatorship of the right in India, how much faster would a dictatorship of the left achieve this goal? This depends on the list of priorities of the ruling leadership within the party. Here is what happened to Sujatha’s uncle Satyamurthy who co-founded the Peoples’ War Group in the 1960s. It is an armed group even today and one I am familiar with as I had an association with a mill in Warangal that quietly negotiated a sum when demands came and thereafter it was left to work in peace.
“In 1984…KS (the general secretary) had been arrested…During that time Satyam, who had been second in command, took over as general secretary of the PWG. Seizing the opportunity a group of young untouchable members approached him and complained of casteist practices in the underground functioning of the party. They pointed out that when members were recruited, they were assigned duties according to their caste.”
Washermen washed their comrades’ clothes, barbers cut hair and “Untouchables, of course, were made to sweep and mop floors and clean the lavatories’’.
As Alphonse Karr said as far back as 1849, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing)”.
When Satyam brought this to the attention of the Central Committee of the party he was expelled for “spilttism”. Communists of all colours may fight for a classless society, but will it be casteless?
owever, Ants suffers from the same weakness as other works on current affairs and recent history: that is that events often surpass them. Far from remaining static, Hindu society seems set for parivartan. The Sunday Express of October 15, 2017 carried a two-page spread “Any Hindu can be a Brahmin.” It records that P. R. Yadukrishna, 21, a “member of the Scheduled Caste Pulaya community”, traditionally toddy tappers, finished fourth among 946 candidates, who appeared for the maiden examination and interview conducted by the Travancore Dewaswom Board for the post of melshanti (priest), and was appointed on the basis of a rank list.
The move was thought socially risky but as another priest, Rakesh who belongs to an OBC category, explains, there is little opposition from upper castes mainly because not many Brahmin youths are willing to take up the profession. “Upper caste women nowadays are highly educated and are employed in the sunrise sectors. They are reluctant to marry temple priests. This has forced Brahmin youth to gravitate to other professions.” Cherchez la femme.
Kerala is far more socially conscious and advanced than other states (it had the first democratically elected communist government in the world, headed by E. M. S. Namboodripad in 1957). The Travancore Dewaswom Board manages 1,252 temples and has nearly 2,500 priests on its payroll. Since 2016 it has been holding competitive exams for the job. Appointments are made after candidates appear for interviews in addition. Sanskrit is a language all have to be proficient in, as also in temple rituals and pujas. Of the 62 appointed five were Dalits. P. R. Yadhukrisna earned his sacred thread by standing fourth in the merit list.
“His entry into the sanctum sanctorum, however, is of much greater significance… achieved through reform processes that have lasted the last 100 years.” These include several governments headed by rationalists, communists and reformers.
Gidla may be right about a Red revolution but the country seems to have rejected the idea for the present. One has to agree with her, however, that our democracy has many ugly traits. It is also satisfying to note that some other state governments have taken the same turn as Kerala.
ther than ideology, the heart of the book is the tale of a family spanning over a hundred years. If Princess Scheherazade had included Gidla’s story in One Thousand and One Nights she would have split Ants into four tales: The Tale of the hunting-gathering tribal men pushed out of the forest and into a world of agriculture absolutely new to them. Victims of British colonialism, they founded a village by a lake and called it Sankarapadu, after one of their gods. A skirmish with the police finds them attended to and rescued by missionaries who offer them Baptism and places for their children in mission schools. Sujatha’s great-grand parents had six sons. Three were too old to go to school and worked as coolies, but three, including her grandfather, did.
And with this starts the Tale of Prasanna Rao. One day Prasanna saw Maryamma (Mary), who had also educated herself, across the aisle that segregated sexes in the church and it was love at first sight. Marriage followed. Thus starts the story of Sujatha’s grandparents. The missionaries not only educated them but gave them jobs as teachers and self-pride by having them dress in Western clothes whereas caste Hindus would have insisted on untouchables, Christian or Hindu, wearing loin cloths.
Soon enough there were children. The third generation was led by a son, G’nana Satyamurthy (known as Satyam), a second son, William Carey, after the founder of the Baptist mission in India and a daughter, Mary Manjulabai (called Papa or “little one” and later Manjula).
On a Christmas day, Mary was insulted and jeered at by a gathering of Hindus when she wore a fine sari and blouse to the bazaar of Adavi Kolau, the village they taught in. When the Christian community did not protest Prasanna Rao decided to leave the village. They went to Vishakpatnam (Vizag to the British) and got better jobs in Christian schools. The family was happy—but only for a few years. Mary contracted TB and died. Her husband was left with three children and the huge debt he had taken for his wife’s treatment. One day Prasanna Rao dressed the children, left them on the steps of the school in which his wife had taught and abandoned them. The boys were taken by their aunt and the girl, Manjulabai, by her great-grand mother Marthaamma (to whom the book is dedicated). If anyone needs to know about the tremendous accommodativeness of the Christian community in looking after the needier parts of its society, Ants provides deep insight. Mary’s last words to her mother were: “Educate my children”. And this the old lady set out to do in right earnest.
The father unbeknown to his family or children joined the army and the benefits of this come to the children and his family when he re-appears in uniform some years later. (Dr. Amedkar’s father served in the army too.)
Two of them aspired higher than their parents. Rather than be teachers, they wanted to train to be college lecturers, while Carey showed no aptitude for studies but became a village toughie and later a physical trainer in a college. The tale of these siblings is touching.
The struggles, successes, failures and achievements, despite prejudice, of three siblings are well presented. Take for example the circumstances of their departure from Vizag in the wake of the Japanese bombing in 1942. They were evacuated to the house of an uncle, Nathaniel, who was uneducated and worked as a coolie. He lived in their family village and had ten children, none of whom went to school. This was also the year in which Gandhi gave the Quit India call. There was a yearning even among those of Nathaniel’s class to see the British out of India. Eleven-year-old Satyam, the political voice of Ants, imagined that with their departure everyone’s life including his family’s would improve. “He’d heard that the white lords lived in bungalows, ate bread they sliced with knives, wiped their mouths with cloth. When they left, surely all Indians would live like that.” He was disillusioned in his later teens.
The boy was not drawn to Gandhi but to Subhas Chandra Bose, who had raised an army in Burma, determined to drive the British out by force. Nathaniel was sceptical: “If we drive the white devil out, the Hindu devils will massacre us,” he said. The majority, however, wanted freedom. Five years later when Independence finally came “a fat boy Satyam had never seen came up… and asked a strange question that Satyam had no answer to: “Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?”
This is a question that lives on, 70 years later: for the slum dweller, old people without means, day labourers on minimum wages under MGNREGA, the agricultural and urban proletariat, those who die in our sewers, to those who make up the hunger index, et al.
Manjula was Sujatha’s mother. Her mother’s brother Uncle Satyam was her hero. The main narrative of the work (which reads more like a novel than non-fiction) is about her mother and Satyam who had a passion for and wrote Telugu poetry. He got involved in politics at 14 in the Youth Congress. After participating in the organisation of various agitations and strikes he ended his mature life as a member of the Peoples’ War Group (now CPI Maoists), an armed, leftist, revolutionary group he helped found in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, from whose jungles the insurgency that persists even today has spread to Chhattisgarh.
Then comes the short and incomplete Tale of Sujata Gidla, the fourth generation, the great grand-daughter of the forest dweller displaced by the British to make way for a teak plantation. Now around 53 she was probably born in 1963. Taking each generation at 30 years we may say Ants could also be appropriately titled “Untouchable’s Century” and we get only glimpses of her life as an adult. Having been laid off by her bank in New York she now works for the New York metro.
The work shows the progress a family that has its origins as hunter gatherers can make over time. They owe this to the missionaries so reviled by the right wing Hindu dispensation. Our President Ram Nath Kovind, himself a Dalit, recently praised the church for this much, so newspapers hint, to the disapproval of the ruling dispensation. Sujatha combines these tales into one admirably. The historical highlights from the tyranny of Nizam’s rule, his attempt to keep Hyderabad as a Sultanate independent of the Indian union, the depredations of the thuggish Razakars, the takeover by the army, the reassertion of power by the landed classes, the India-China war of 1962 and the support extended to Beijing by the Communist Party—all this and more is deftly used as the backdrop to portray the effect of events on untouchables in general and her family in particular.
nts has been reviewed widely in the western papers. Both The New York Times and The Economist carry lengthy and incisive reviews. But for them it is a story of eternal Hinduism in its classical form with the laws as written by Manu. However, The Economist notes that “Ms. Gidla’s stirring memoir, chronicles her family’s experience of the contest between modern India’s civilising aspirations and the savagery of a decaying but persistent old India.”
There is the next phase of her life that The New York Times notes: that of the émigré in the US where she went at the age of 26 and worked in the Bank of New York till she was laid off. At 53, she is now a conductor on the New York metro.
Noting the first line of the book, NYT says: “Although foreigners may assume that momentous changes sweeping across India … have blunted, if not erased, ancient caste prejudices, AAE 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.”
Ants is the story of the contest mentioned by The Economist, of an educated tribal, middle-class, Christian, untouchable, family against this oppression. The story of the great grandparents is one of hunter-gatherers who emerge from the jungles of central India as non-Hindus and pray to their own goddess. As such they belong to no caste. But they are forced soon enough by usury to lose the land they settle on and learn to cultivate. Thereafter they begin to work on others’ fields and since only the lowest of the low are in this occupation find themselves slotted into untouchable cohort of society along with the slur and servitude this entails.
Sujatha also honestly decries the structure of society within outcasts. She is a Mala but there is, for example, her school friend who does not let her enter her house because she is a Madiga. Their occupation is to carry away dead animals, strip them and use the skin to make hides. They also eat carrion beef. Yet they are not the lowest—there is always somebody lower in the ladder, the pakis for instance. Each group of artisans has its place in untouchable society. But today market economics—supply and demand—has hiked wages and leather workers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians and others in specialised occupations are hard to come by. Consequently there is a churn in society and their living standards.
Money whitens, as the saying goes in racially divided America. In India, too, money erases divisions. So does education. It increasingly enables inter-caste marriage, though as the author notes, often to the peril of the couple. Among the older villagers such “love marriages” are unacceptable as “love jihad” ones are to conservative parents and hide-bound communities—even though the younger generation is in the process of going beyond the classifications of caste and religion. But the real story is that of educated outcastes like Gidla.
Christian missionaries are much reviled today by the so-called Rightists who are bent on avenging 1,000 years of slavery first under Islam, say, from the sacking of the Somnath Temple by Mahmud Ghaznavi in 1025 ACE to the defeat of Bengal’s nawab, Siraj-ud-daulah, at Plassey in 1757, and under the Christian British from then till 1947. But Ants very clearly outlines the benefits of the latter era and the belief of the clergy and higher officials (Macaulay, for example) that if the oppressed were educated they would progress—from forest dwellers, to teachers to a woman-physicist research associate at India’s space agency to a New York banker when Sujatha Gidla immigrated to the US. If she had clung on to the Hindu fold she would have been a mother of several undernourished children and an agricultural labourer—an untouchable. Socially, too, she records progress in America: “One time in Atlanta I told a guy in a bar I was untouchable, and he said, ‘Oh, but you’re so touchable’.” One wonders what next. One is left tantalisingly uninformed of her personal life in her new world.
o return to the mother and the hold that religion has over people and communities. The conversion of untouchables to Christianity and study at a mission school had a salutary effect as far as neatness and order were concerned. To get an MA and become qualified to teach in a college, Manjula had to go far from home to Benaras Hindu University. There her roommate, Durga Kumari, an Andhra Brahmin, asked her to accompany her to the temples along the river that she loved going to.
When they got to them “Durga Kumari almost fainted from emotion. The force of the divine that infused every element there—the air, the water …consumed her Brahmin soul. Manjula on the other hand nearly fainted from disgust. The filth, the stink, the slime… the revolting activities going on around them overwhelmed her.
“Surrounding the temples were thick masses of people in nothing but loin cloths, displaying their pot bellies, hairiness, hairlessness, diseased skin …missing limbs… fungal toes. They were all bathing shamelessly, men and women, together. Hindu worship equipment, dead flowers… strewn all over… Manjula had seen many untouchable colonies including those of the Madigas. But never had she seen, never could she have imagined a filthier place on earth.
“On the Ganga bodies burned on ghats… and the remains were pushed into the water, often only half consumed.” The pollution was concentrated. Yet “throngs of bathers took the water into their mouths, let it swirl into their throats, and swallowed it down.”
At the temples Manjula faced another problem. “As an untouchable she was not supposed to enter the Kashi Viswanath temple. Even though her Brahmin friend would ignore this if she did, she wondered whether she should pretend that such a monstrous oppression did not exist? This dilemma resolved itself when she out of her own will refused to enter even the holiest of temples. She knew that if she took even one whiff of the air into her lungs, she would drop dead on the spot.”
She happened to go to Sarnath later where Buddha first taught his dharma and got his first disciple. “In utter contrast to the Hindu temples, it was a clean, peaceful place.”
Those who have been to Saint schools and Jesus and Mary convents know that their teachers are obsessed with cleanliness. In fact the difference between them and students of a pathshala created a schism in society. It is a happy augury that Mr. Modi has launched a “Swacch Bharat” drive. This could close the gap between the two groups.
The clean Ganga mission started with Rajiv Gandhi in 1995. Narendra Modi is the MP from Benaras now and the mission carries on. The myth of the river is that its source is in heaven and it flows through Lord Shiva’s locks. It is also eternal and its water is Amrit—but one hopes not eternally polluted Amrit. One can live on hope but not on polluted Ganga Jal.
ndian society is in deep churn. Many Dalits today follow Ambedkar and are reverting to Buddhism. As he said “I was born a Hindu but I will not die a Hindu.” They convert even though by doing so they lose access to reservations in educational institutions and government jobs. The irony is that even as they do many others are agitating, litigating and politicking to go down the ladder so that they may step into the space the scheduled caste are vacating. In September 2016, for example, the Amroha municipality advertised 114 vacancies for sweepers. It got a staggering 19,000 applications from people of all castes. Among them were MBAs and B. Techs. When the scheduled castes found out they protested that the jobs should be reserved for them!
Gidla does not touch on the meaning of such incidents—and perhaps rightly as it is not a part of her middle-class family’s experience. A point for the future is that Sujatha Gidla was born a Christian untouchable. One wishes her a long life. But will she die a communist untouchable or will India have changed and become a truly egalitarian society?
Hopefully many Indians, especially those who wield power, will read this remarkable work.