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Sujatha Gidla writes a powerful account of a life lived under the shadow of the caste system, and the gut wrenching poverty and inequity that comes with it.
“It’s only the cobbler,” said my mother. I wanted to see whom this old voice coming from outside the house belonged to.
Every year we visited a small village in North Kerala, my father’s ancestral home. He had left home as a young boy, involved himself in the trade union movement and was now an owner of a small business. So every summer when we went to Kerala, neighbours and friends came to speak with him and sometimes asked for a little financial help. A few hundred rupees or so. There was always tea for guests, along with a lot of chatter, much laughing and joking.
Yet this afternoon as the old lady called my father’s name out plaintively, no one responded. Neither my aunts, my father, my uncle or even my Christian mother. I was forbidden to go into the verandah. After a while, she left and I never heard her again. It has stayed to me till this day.
“She belongs to the cherapkuti (cobblers) community. They don’t stay in the village, they are dirty thieves!” I was told when I asked quite innocently why we had not invited her to have tea. This instance has stayed with me, travelling with my then eight-year-old self to my now forty-four-year old self.
I continue to see several instances of casual discrimination particularly on caste lines all around me and I see it as the real scourge that ails my beloved country. Just as I see proud proclamations of belonging to one community or the other. It was this that drew me to the book Ants Among Elephants and I was delighted at the chance to read it.
Sujatha Gidla, the author calls it a family memoir, but this would be limiting the scope of this painfully honest book. Gidla deftly weaves in history, politics, religion and economics as not merely a backdrop, but as events that drove the fortune of her family through generations. The book is an endeavour to understand the relationship between caste and wealth and social power and religion through the story of a family.
Gidla’s great-grandparents were forest nomads. The British drove them out from the forests and they found deserted, uncultivated land to settle on. Once they had cultivated and tamed the land, they were exploited by other land-owners, traders and settlers who wrested their land from them and turned them into landless peasants and untouchables to boot. Eventually many of them converted to Christianity in the hope that this would save them from the fires of caste, but sadly this would prove futile. They often had to face crushing poverty and social ostracisation thanks to their untouchability.
Gidla’s grandfather Prasanna Rao was a teacher, as was his wife. They had educated themselves at Christian missionary schools. Gidla’s mother Manjulabai, Satyamurthy, and Carey grew up in the care of their grandmother when their parents passed away. Gidla’s uncle Satyamurthy was socially aware since quite a young age, a devout Christian and a Gandhian who went on to become a Communist trade union leader and eventually a guerilla, always fighting for the weaker and unspoken people of society. He was a bundle of contradictions – a revolutionary who seeks the abolishment of caste, yet who secretly admired upper caste behaviour. At his wedding he served a vegetarian feast and looked down on his caste members who were looking forward to a wedding feast of pork and alcohol. It reveals a contradiction but emphasises how caste becomes so deeply entrenched even in those who suffer most because of it.
Gidla’s mother faced the double difficulty of being an untouchable and a woman. Discrimination for her began quite young. Despite being a brilliant student, she was not encouraged to study subjects of her choice, and suffered in her married life too too. Yet her willpower, her patience and her faith that education can take you out of the worst places was proven true. The odds that she had to face are simply staggering, including the disregard of her voice in life changing decisions for her, be it in her family or work life. This affected her both psychologically and physically.
Her frustration comes through in a college job interview.
She was asked, “What is Democracy?” She gave the textbook answer that it is political system that is for, by and of the people. She however went on to add: “This is what they write in textbooks. This is what the professors teach their students in colleges and universities. This is what students are forced to write in exams, and candidates to utter in their job interviews. As I have just done. But so far there has not been a single example of democracy in the world. Nowhere in the world, not in one single country, is there a rule of the people, let alone by the people or for the people. The British, the Americans, the French and now the Indians – they may claim they have democracy in their countries. But it is all bogus. Hypocrisy. The very definition is wrong!” Such was her anguish. Yet Manjula quietly tried to work within the system, with her focus on being able to educate her children well.
Gidla observes all the members of her family, and writes about them as an objective chronicler. The stories of hope are few and far in-between. The continuous impact the heavy yoke of caste has on the trajectory of this little family reminds us of Joseph Conrad’s famous phrase from the Heart of Darkness “The Horror! The Horror!” To be discriminated against from birth with little or no choice regarding education, healthcare, housing or a social life is a true horror. Yet, the family persists, some overcoming it, some falling prey to the demon of caste.
Ants Among Elephants is a powerfully written book that entreats us to look closely, to examine ourselves and society, and change even if it is one person at a time, to eradicate caste from our society. Then perhaps there is some hope.
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Top image via YouTube and book cover via Amazon