Consigned by Caste – Sneha Krishnan

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India

by Sujatha Gidla

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 306 pp., 2017.


It would not be an exaggeration to say that the political bar these days is pretty low: patrician and civil forms of prejudice find ways of continuing to thrive as extreme right-wing ideologies threaten more spectacular forms of violence. In India, we celebrate our secular past and the communal harmony that hegemonic narratives have written into it, as Hindu Nationalism grows bolder every day.

To such complacencies, Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants is a refreshing antidote. In this, the book stands in stark contradiction to other internationally-distributed books on India like Shashi Tharoor’s ‘Why I am a Hindu’ that recuperate the nation-state’s constitutional commitment to social equality. Excavating family narratives and life-histories, Gidla tells us why the violence of untouchability is not so much the exception to the liberal nation-state and its promise of progress but undergirds it. With vulnerable communities increasingly under threat in India’s current Hindu nationalist regime, violence against Dalits has been flagged as an endemic problem. Gidla’s book is a necessary reminder that this is not a new state of affairs. Violence against this community – lowest on the caste ladder – has long pervaded life in India: melding into what upper-caste Indians, even liberals, Communists and others who might consider themselves progressive, think of as ordinary life in a thriving postcolonial democracy.

The book’s searing kill-your-darlings approach leaves no room for naïve utopias. Nehru – typically celebrated as a champion of secularism and communal harmony – is shown to have held little appeal to Dalit communities. Set in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, a region that was among the earliest in demanding recognition within India’s federal constitution, Nehru in ‘Ants among Elephants’ is not so much the benign Chacha (uncle – as he was popularly called) but the Prime Minister who marched his armed forces in to establish order. At the same time, Communists are shown to be mainly upper-caste elites whose critique of class left no room to address caste. Revolutionaries like Gidla’s uncle Satyam, who is – if there might be such a figure in a book such as this – her protagonist are shown to lack a critique of gender relations, leading to the marked inequality that Gidla’s mother, Manjula suffered in relation to her brothers.

Most of all, this book leaves no sanguinity about the law and the nation-state as repositories of justice. The practice of untouchability was abolished in independent India’s constitution, prepared in substantial part by the ‘untouchable’ leader, BR Ambedkar. Ambedkar also coined the term ‘Dalit’ – literally meaning ‘broken’ – to radically claim experiences of caste humiliation as a site of identity. He also articulated deeply-held ambiguities about the potentials of the law and felt no optimism about the Indian constitution’s potential to uproot caste. Gidla’s writing, in some ways, builds on this legacy. In calling herself ‘untouchable’ she asks how modern political institutions – even as they make lofty claims to caste-transcendence – ultimately re-inscribe Dalits as surplus populations or socially abandoned subjects whose lives, to cite another closely-aligned movement, appear not to matter. The book thus unsettles the postcolonial nation-state’s articulation of its own forward-moving temporality, to which the ‘untouchable’ is an anachronistic subject of a backward past. It makes a case for untouchability not as an aberration to modernity but as forged at the intersection of colonialism, capitalism and nationalism.

The structure of the book as family history – beginning with Gidla’s ancestors and working its way to her own experience – allows her to sketch this history of two centuries. The narrative begins in the 1800s when Gidla’s ancestors became cultivators only to lose their land to usurious upper-caste moneylenders. Like many thousands of untouchables in the 19th century, the family converted to Christianity to escape the indignity of caste. Their proximity to missionaries allowed her grandfather and parents the education denied to their ancestors. Despite this education, however, Gidla shows that caste unambiguously determined her family’s everyday life. Manjula, Gidla’s mother, finds herself unable to find a stable job, and early in life, is discriminated against at school. Gidla’s uncle, Satyam finds that a wealthy friend turns down his romantic advances saying, plainly: ‘We are brahmins. You are have-nots, we are haves. You are a Communist. My father is for Congress. How in the world can there be anything between us?’

In these details, the story is also fiercely intimate and visceral. Another reviewer, compares it – not unfairly, if seemingly oddly – to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series in its telling of a densely woven-together family history in the shadows of Marxism’s failures. Its viscerality, however, comes from another place: the necessarily embodied form that the experience of caste takes. Who can wear what? Who can marry whom? Whose bodies can be claimed for sex without allowing them the dignity of marriage? Whose bodies can be disposed of when they make claims beyond their station in life? Early in the book, Gidla writes of her instinctive knowledge of caste and its hierarchies in her hometown, a place where ‘Christian’ was code for ‘untouchable’: ‘I knew the cross-eyed, drooly-mouthed man was fucking my aunts…but not marrying them because they were Christians. I knew a Christian boy who was pushed in front of a train for falling in love with an uppercaste girl’. The body, in this story, is an intimate carrier of caste. We learn that upper-caste Hindus are straight-backed, and stare straight ahead, not seeing those who must bow to them and step aside, making themselves invisible. We learn that upper-caste Christians – whom Gidla first encountered in films from Kerala, a region with a substantial elite Christian community – are not so different: wearing crisp white gowns and refusing their daughters matches with Dalit men. The political scientist, Gopal Guru, writes that the embodied experience of humiliation is central to the power that untouchability holds. Gidla’s narrative bears this out, getting graphic in parts in its description of the violence that upper-caste communities as well as the police inflict on Dalits. Indeed, it is the experience of being held by the police that eventually dissuaded Gidla herself from pursuing a revolutionary life, leading her to choose to migrate to the United States. Her uncle, Satyam, on the other hand inhabited his revolutionary dream: his body growing frail at times from the endurance such tribulations demanded of him.

At the same time, care and community too are lived in the body: most striking is the clipping of nails and shaving of his chin that run through Gidla’s account of her uncle Satyam’s life as the acts of care provided by family members and friends. This little detail takes on different forms through the narrative: suggesting the family’s understanding of Satyam’s caste trauma in college, his status as a major figure in revolutionary politics, and his followers’ devotion to him. Similarly, recalling Franz Fanon’s suggestion that bodies become sites where the psychic ruin of imperialism endures, the bodies of elderly Dalit men and women that Gidla interviewed for her book find expression in her narratives as frail repositories of a time of revolution. When one of them falls down, the memory is knocked out of her; ‘Her Memory!’ Gidla reiterates in frustration. Similarly, others ­– healthy one day, if aging rapidly – are suddenly unable to speak.

The intensely sensory quality of this book makes it simultaneously compelling and a difficult read. Ants among Elephants is, however, essential: its searing critique is an important reminder that the current moment in which extreme right forces are on the rise globally did not come to be in a vacuum. While the book itself makes no claims to speak at this scale or answer this question, it forces the reader to address the deeply discomfiting question of how then to understand the failures of elite liberalism. How to rethink the standards we set ourselves as political subjects, through the experience of those who dwell on the margins of our ‘ordinary lives’?

Sneha Krishnan is a human geographer, interested in gender, childhood and the afterlives of imperialism in South Asia.