Ants Among Elephants
Jul 18, 2017
15 Min read time
Sujatha Gidla, born an untouchable in India, tells the story of her family.
Editor's Note: This essay is excerpted from Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2017 by Sujatha Gidla. All rights reserved.
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.
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.
When people in the United States ask me what it means to be an untouchable, I explain that caste is like racism against African Americans here. But then they ask, “How does anyone know what your caste is?” They know caste isn’t visible, like skin color.
One time in a bar in Atlanta I told a guy I was untouchable, and he said, “Oh, but you’re so touchable.”
I explain it like this. In Indian villages and towns, everyone knows everyone else. Each caste has its own special role and its own place to live. The brahmins (who perform priestly functions), the potters, the blacksmiths, the carpenters, the washer people, and so on—they each have their own separate place to live within the village. The untouchables, whose special role—whose hereditary duty—is to labor in the fields of others or to do other work that Hindu society considers filthy, are not allowed to live in the village at all. They must live outside the boundaries of the village proper. They are not allowed to enter temples. Not allowed to come near sources of drinking water used by other castes. Not allowed to eat sitting next to a caste Hindu or to use the same utensils. There are thousands of other such restrictions and indignities that vary from place to place. Every day in an Indian newspaper you can read of an untouchable beaten or killed for wearing sandals, for riding a bicycle.
In your own town or village, everyone already knows your caste; there is no escaping it. But how do people know your caste when you go elsewhere, to a place where no one knows you? There they will ask you, “What caste are you?” You cannot avoid this question. And you cannot refuse to answer. By tradition, everyone has the right to know.
If you are educated like me, if you don’t seem like a typical untouchable, then you have a choice. You can tell the truth and be ostracized, ridiculed, harassed—even driven to suicide, as happens regularly in universities.
Or you can lie. If they don’t believe you, they will try to find out your true caste some other way. They may ask you certain questions: “Did your brother ride a horse at his wedding? Did his wife wear a red sari or a white sari? How does she wear her sari? Do you eat beef? Who is your family deity?” They may even seek the opinion of someone from your region.
If you get them to believe your lie, then of course you cannot tell them your stories, your family’s stories. You cannot tell them about your life. It would reveal your caste. Because your life is your caste, your caste is your life.
Whether they know the truth or not, your untouchable life is never something you can talk about.
It was like this for me in Punjab, in Delhi, in Bombay, in Bangalore, in Madras, in Warangal, in Kanpur, in Calcutta.
At twenty-six, I came to America, where people know only skin color, not birth status. Some here love Indians and some hate them, but their feelings are not affected by caste. One time in a bar in Atlanta I told a guy I was untouchable, and he said, “Oh, but you’re so touchable.”
Only in talking to some friends I met here did I realize that my stories, my family’s stories, are not stories of shame.
• • •
My uncle Satyamurthy, who was also known as SM or Satyam, was a principal founder in the early seventies of a Maoist guerrilla group recently declared by the government to be the single greatest threat to India’s security. But the story of his political awakening began much earlier, when India was still under British colonial rule.
In August 1942 Gandhi called on the British to “quit India.” Gandhi had been a principal leader of the nationalist agitation for more than two decades. Never in all that time had he taken such a militant tone.
Now that it seemed as if something was finally going to come of all the talk Satyam, eleven years old at the time, had been hearing, he embraced the nationalist cause. For over two hundred years, the British had ruled his country and stolen its vast wealth. Freedom from that rule would naturally change everything, including his family’s situation. He had heard that the white lords lived in bungalows, ate bread they sliced with knives, and wiped their mouths with cloth. When they left, surely all Indians could live like that.
Gandhi called for “open rebellion” to back up his demand. The Indian people had been waiting for such a call. But they did not heed Gandhi’s strictures to keep the struggle nonviolent. When British troops fired on protesters, they fought back. Young activists attacked police stations, cut telegraph lines, burned post offices, derailed trains carrying war supplies.
He had heard that the white lords lived in bungalows, ate bread they sliced with knives, and wiped their mouths with cloth. When they left, surely all Indians could live like that.
Satyam longed to take part in these acts of rebellion. He searched high and low for those daring heroes. But alas, within twenty-four hours of Gandhi’s speech, all known supporters had been locked up.
Gandhi, in prison himself, deplored the destruction. He relied on the threat of mass resistance to weaken the British hold on power and persuade them to hand it over to native elites. But the last thing he wanted was for the masses to arm themselves and take power in their own hands.
When Gandhi called off the Quit India Movement, Satyam lost respect for him. Satyam dreamed of contributing his own blows against the empire. At times he felt his body had been taken over by the ghost of Bhagat Singh, a revolutionary anti-imperialist martyr hanged by the British. Satyam scrawled “Quit India!” inside abandoned buildings and defiantly walked on railway tracks, which was forbidden in those days out of fear of sabotage.
Despite his disillusionment with Gandhi, Satyam was not drawn to his main rivals, the Communists, because they did not join the Quit India Movement. Satyam asked his Communist neighbor why not. The boy explained,
“We must support the British in the war. They are allies with U.S.S.R.”
“But why should we care about U.S.S.R.?”
“Because it is the country for all poor people in the world.”
Satyam wasn’t convinced. His family was poor and so were all his neighbors. Because of this poverty his mother had died, and his father had gone away. Everyone said it was the white lords who were looting India of its wealth and impoverishing the country.
Satyam supported Congress, the political party allied with Gandhi at the forefront of the nationalist cause, because it opposed the British. But his hero wasn’t Gandhi; it was Subhas Chandra Bose, who had led a militant faction in the Congress. Unlike Gandhi, Bose held that the British could not be pressured to leave India willingly but had to be forced out. To this end, he sought help from Britain’s imperialist rivals: Nazi Germany and Japan. He raised an army in Singapore—the Indian National Army—to liberate the subcontinent. He would later die in a plane crash before his plans could be realized. But he remained an idol to the restive Indian masses.
Satyam bought a cheap, mass-produced portrait of Bose in the bazaar. One night he and Carey snuck into Satyam’s classroom and tacked it on the blackboard. This was Satyam’s act of sedition.
The next morning, the teacher demanded to know who was responsible. Satyam kept quiet. “Whoever it was,” the teacher announced, “I salute you! I am proud to be your teacher.” In those times, even some teachers in government schools were brave enough to express nationalist sympathies.
But the repression of the Quit India Movement meant Congress activists were lying low. It took Satyam a long time to find any. When he finally met them, it was by sheer chance.
Since barber-caste people will not touch untouchable hair, Satyam went to a “Christ barber”: a Christian trained in haircutting by the missionaries to serve their fellow untouchables. But the Christ barbers were not professionals. They cut hair in their spare time, working for free and without proper equipment. Satyam was tired of being ridiculed by his classmates for his poorly cut hair.
A caste friend from school insisted on taking him to his own barber, Veeraswami. Veeraswami, a fervent nationalist, believed all Indians, caste and outcaste, must come together to fight the British. Satyam had finally met a bona fide activist. Veeraswami not only cut Satyam’s hair, he gave him political lessons and kept him supplied with seditious reading material. As young as Satyam was, Veeraswami talked with him seriously and introduced him to the like-minded people who congregated in Veeraswami’s shop.
After World War II ended in 1945, the Labour Party came to power in Britain. The new government recognized that it was no longer possible to maintain direct colonial rule over the subcontinent. The best hope for protecting British interests there lay in transferring power to the Congress Party. The political prisoners rounded up during the Quit India agitation were released (except for Communists), and elections to form native governments in the provinces were announced. The British viceroy would stay in power in the center for the time being.
A short, chubby boy had a strange question for Satyam, one that Satyam had no answer to: “Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?”
In preparation for these elections, Congress held their own elections for party leadership. Satyam, now fourteen years old, was voted treasurer of the Gudivada Youth Congress. He was the only untouchable to hold office on the town committee.
When his Congress friends came to see him in the home his grandmother had recently purchased in the new untouchable colony of Slatter Peta, she proudly referred to him as “ma Jawallalu” (our Nehru). His siblings idolized him, bragged about him to their friends, and made all his ideas their own.
In his final year of high school, Satyam led a student strike. The strike demanded an end to the “detention system” that required graduating students to pass an exam at their own school before they’d be allowed to sit for statewide final exams some two months later. The policy was seen by students and parents alike as unfair and oppressive. When agitation against it broke out across the state, Satyam led the struggle in Gudivada. He gave the strike a political character, turning it into a protest against British rule.
He stole his father’s military shirt to dress up a straw effigy of imperialism that the students set on fire in the center of town. The strike lasted a month before the government gave in and abolished the detention system. It was a sign that the old colonial structure was giving way.
• • •
At midnight on August 15, 1947, India’s Independence Day, the day that Satyam had been dreaming of these last five years came at last. He could not sleep that night. In the morning he washed up carefully and put on his best clothes. He left his room early, not wanting to miss anything. Students from colleges all over the district, joined by thousands of municipal workers, thronged to take part in the celebration on his campus. The crowds swelled like a river in monsoon.
Standing shoulder to shoulder, the students and workers sang in one voice:
A different world,
a different world is calling us.
As he joined in the singing, Satyam’s eyes filled with tears. British rule was over, but the real work of independence still lay ahead. “They are leaving,” he thought. “But we will have to build this nation.”
In their speeches the politicians, intellectuals, and trade-union leaders all talked of bhavi bharata pourulu—“future citizens of India.” Who were they? They were him. Young men such as himself.
The celebrations went on all day. As he watched the dances and dramas and competitions, Satyam realized that in all those crowds of students, he knew no one well enough to talk to. They were all dressed in their best, and what a difference there was between his best and everyone else’s. The girls wore fine saris and the boys all had on nice Western shirts and trousers. Beside them, in his white cotton lalchi (a traditional men’s shirt) and pyjama, Satyam looked out of place.
For weeks he had worked side by side with the other students, day and night, to help prepare these celebrations. But the solidarity he had felt was no more. Now that the common enemy was defeated, the differences between him and the other students came to the fore. He noticed he was not included in any of the performances.
The difference between his family and the rest of the untouchable community was small. They were all ants. But now Satyam was an ant among elephants.
The celebrations continued into the evening. The program included a fancy-dress contest. A girl dressed up as a Lambadi—a member of an impoverished tribe in Andhra whose traditional costumes are remarkably colorful and ornate—won the first prize. “Would a real Lambadi woman get this admiration?” Satyam asked himself as the girl—the darling daughter of a rich Hindu family—got up before the applauding crowd to receive her prize.
As he looked on, a short, chubby boy Satyam had never before seen came up to him and introduced himself. He had a strange question for Satyam, one that Satyam had no answer to: “Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?”
• • •
Some years later, Satyam began studying at the prestigious A.C. College in Guntur. But when his father’s rising debts sank the family into deep poverty, Satyam no longer had money to pay for college. He was in a painful predicament. He knew no one at A.C. College, no one in the entire city of Guntur, whom he could turn to for help. He did not pay the mess bill for July. He was given a month’s time, but when he failed to pay the following month, the administration added his name to the list of delinquent students posted at the entrance of the mess hall for all the world to see. To avoid running into his classmates he started going to the mess just before it closed, after everyone else had left. Even then, every time he walked in, the manager would look at him as though to say, “You don’t pay bills and you show up to eat?” Satyam skipped meals as often as he could.
Poverty was nothing new to him. All his life he had been poor. In Slatter Peta the difference between his family and the rest of the untouchable community was small. They were all ants. It mattered little if one was a bit bigger than the others. But here at A.C. College, Satyam was an ant among elephants.
No other student was in his situation. He suffered from hunger, but even more from loneliness and shame.
Now Satyam was all alone in a strange town with no one to ask for help. His family had made a mistake in sending him to A.C. College. They had been greedy. They wanted too much for their own good.
Satyam was ashamed that his classmates might have seen his name posted at the entrance of the mess hall. He had no money for books or lab records or term fees or exam fees. He couldn’t afford to dress the way students were supposed to, in shirt and pants. The strap of his thongs was broken and secured by a safety pin that kept coming undone. So he stopped going to classes.
A nation is not the soil. A nation is the people.
With nothing better to do, he started reading newspapers at the college library. After finishing the papers, he would wander into the stacks.
The A.C. College library, located above the lecture hall, had a large collection of Telugu literature. Satyam had never been particularly interested in Telugu literature. What he had seen of it in his high school textbooks had bored him. Classical Telugu poetry was of two kinds: puranas (mythological poems in praise of the gods) and prabandhas (courtly poems in praise of the rulers). They were written in a highly formal dialect that borrowed heavily from Sanskrit. To most Telugu speakers, including Satyam, it was all but unintelligible.
While looking through the stacks in A.C. College library, Satyam discovered a new kind of poetry that took as its subject matter neither gods nor rulers. It was about ordinary people and contemporary life. The verse, Satyam found, was free of the strict and complicated metrical rules that marked the older forms. The language was modern colloquial Telugu, easy to understand and yet beautiful. Satyam read the Navayuga Vythalikulu (Harbingers of the New Era) anthology of Muddu Krishnudu. It was the first anthology he had ever seen, a selection of modern Telugu verse.
Much of it was love poetry. Reading it, Satyam felt new sensations stir inside him.
He went on to read every modern poem in the library. Poems by Joshua, Devulapalli, Nandoori, Duvvoori, Thripuraneni, Karunasree, Gurajada. These were pioneers of navya sahityam, “new literature,” as the movement he had chanced upon was called. While on the floor beneath him lecturers lectured and students studied, Satyam read. He read eda-peda (left and right). He learned to hide in the library when it closed at night and even slept there sometimes.
The father of navya sahityam was Gurajada. His most famous poem was one he wrote in 1910 called “Love Thy Country.” Two lines in this poem had a great impact on the political consciousness of Telugu speakers:
A nation is not the soil.
A nation is the people.
Two simple lines and yet so powerful. It was as though Gurajada was explaining what a nation was to the many for whom this was a modern and abstract notion. These two lines followed Satyam wherever he went.
July 18, 2017
15 Min read time