Sujatha Gidla’s Memoir Shows That Education Can’t Cure The Caste-Gender-Poverty Curse

Sujatha Gidla's parents were both educated and worked as school teachers, yet, their caste followed them- they remained Untouchables. No matter how hard they worked, the family could not shake off poverty or untouchability.

“I was born in South India, in a town called Khazipet in the state of Andhra Pradesh.”

“I was born into a lower-middle-class family. My parents were college lecturers.”

“I was born an untouchable.”

These three single sentence paragraphs from the Introduction of Sujatha Gidla’s family memoir Ants Among Elephants. An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India sums up not only the author’s family history, but also the reality that is India. As she puts it, “my stories, my family’s stories, were not stories in India. They were just life. When I left and made new friends in a new country, only then did the things that happened to my family, the things we had done, become stories. Stories worth telling, stories worth writing down.”

Educated, but born Untouchable

Sujatha Gidla was born an Untouchable. Her great-grandparents were part of a nomadic clan which was forced to settle in the plains when the British cleared the forest for teak plantations. Though they had worshipped tribal goddesses, the family was co-opted into Hinduism, and assigned the lowest rung in the caste system- the Untouchables.

Her grandfather converted to Christianity, and married a woman who had been educated by Christian missionaries. They were both educated and worked as school teachers, yet, their caste followed them- they remained Untouchables. No matter how hard they worked, the family could not shake off poverty or untouchability. Without a trace of irony, Sujatha Gidla reports on how, post-Independence, her grandfather was tasked with the responsibility of educating children belonging to high caste families, but his caste prevented him from being permitted to rent a house in the village.

As the author recounts it, these twin strands of education and abject poverty continued to run through the generations. Despite being much better educated than their peers belonging to higher castes, the family struggled to find well paying jobs, and even when they got a job, they were forced to live in slums designated for untouchables. The number of dependents in the family was always so high, the family could never rise above poverty.

Sujatha’s mother Manjula suffered more because of her gender, unlike her brother

It is while recounting the story of her mother, Manjula, that Sujatha turns around all the common tropes about female empowerment on its head.

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Manjula was a brilliant student and was often the primary wage earner in the family. Yet, she was denied agency because of the twin curses of caste and gender.

In the memoir Sujata recounts, ‘As it was, her younger brother slapped her twice a day to warn her to behave like a proper lady. “Why do you sit on the veranda?” he would say. “Don’t talk with that girl in a short-sleeved blouse.” “You were seen laughing in the street.”’ Ironically, Manjula’s brother himself was a skirt chaser, but the more he got his way with other women, the stricter he became, because he was convinced that his own sister was no better than others of her gender.

When it was time for Manjula to go to college, it was decided by the men in her family that she should be made to look as unattractive as possible- “One weekend when Prasanna Rao came to visit, he and his sons and mother-in-law sat together and decided that Manjula ought no longer to wear half saris, which looked too youthful. All her old clothes disappeared overnight. To replace them, her father bought a bolt of coarse white cloth without a spot of colour and cut it into four pieces. Even brahmin widows dressed better than sixteen-year-old Manjula. They wore white, too, but proper saris, not lengths of fabric with no borders. The decision about Manjula’s dress was made right in front of her, but nobody asked her what she thought of it.”

The political becomes personal as Dalit women are controlled more than Dalit men

In this, and many similar passages, Sujatha Gidla brings out how women are controlled by their families, and how they are prisoners to the expectations placed on them. Manjula was not allowed to study the subjects of her choice, she was required to stay home and look after the pregnant partner of her brother’s friend, and she was expected to uphold the honour of the family even if she was the only one doing so.

Post marriage, too, the family finances were so precarious, Manjula had no choice but to keep working. When she couldn’t get a job in the same city where her husband was, she had to move to another city with three children under the age of five. Childcare remained her greatest concern, and she put up with a controlling (and often toxic) mother in law just so she could go out and earn enough to keep her family afloat. After her mother in law refused to stay with her, Manjula was forced to leave her children in the care of a distant relative who sexually abused her oldest daughter.

We tend to think that education and financial independence leads to emotional independence, but that was certainly not the case for Manjula. She continued working because there were too many people dependent on her earnings, but she didn’t enjoy the status which it should have led to.

Bullying and sexual abuse for a young Sujatha Gidla

Sujatha Gidla recounts the conditions she grew up in with something close to detachment.

Sujatha writes: “One evening Manjula came home and saw her eldest daughter’s hair all sticking up in a swirl on top of her head with a small cropped circle the crown. She questioned her daughter as to where she had been. Had someone come into the house? Suja said no to everything. She was four and a half years old and felt too ashamed to tell anyone that the neighbour boy and his friends had made her stand still while they spun their tops on her head-heavy wooden tops with sharp carpenter’s nails at their base. The nails made a small bloody hole in her scalp, and the hair was snarled and cut short. The boy and his friends had bullied the three children while Manjula was away teaching.”

While reading this passage, it is hard to imagine that it is a now grown up Suja who is narrating the incident.

After that incident, Manjula found the teenage son of a distant relative who was confined to the house due to TB to act as the baby sitter for the children. “One afternoon he put hands in her armpits and lifted her up, standing her up on the cot. Opened his lungi and pulled out his jujji (Manjula’s made-up word for “genitals”). Suja had never seen a jujji like that before. It wasn’t small and mouse like. It was hard like wood and big. It was burning hot with fever. She felt bad for that anna (big brother) that this thing was hurting him, which why he was asking her to caress it. He moaned and whispered. Somehow she knew that this also must be something to never tell anyone.

The misconception that Communists are somehow liberal

Though we like to pretend caste based discrimination doesn’t exist, the anecdotes narrated by the author bring them alive.

While the book is rich with details of individuals and their lives, the author does not shirk from describing individual and systemic caste based discrimination which people had to face. Throughout school and college, both Sathya and Manjula had to face casteist slurs from both students and teachers. In fact, despite being one of the best students in her class, Manjula’s overall grades were very low because one particular professor graded her very poorly in all the subjects he taught. While seeking a job, Manjula had to face the triple discrimination of being a woman, of being an Untouchable and of being from a family of Communists. Once she got a job, too, she continued to face discrimination because of her caste and her gaunt looks.

What hits hardest are the passages where the author talks about the casual casteism within the Communist Party/ies. One assumes that Communists seek justice for the most marginalised, yet the author quotes many incidents where the views of members from the upper castes were given preference over those of people from lower castes. Within the party too, tasks were assigned according to caste, something that Sathyam fought against all his life.

Ants Among Elephants is more than just a family memoir. It is the history of the working class people from the Telugu speaking states- their fight for independence, and their continuing fight for justice and equity.

A version of this review was published here first.

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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

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