Editor’s note: US-based Dalit writer Sujatha Gidla’s debut book, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, has won Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize this year. Gidla’s book is a memoir, in which she presents vivid descriptions of lives lived in abject poverty, in the midst of violence, and caste and gender-based discrimination. Gidla also recounts struggles of women like her mother, who strived to have careers, despite many hindrance.
Here’s the introductory passage from Gidla’s book, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India
By Sujatha Gidla
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 this country ask me what it means to be an untouchable, I explain that caste is like racism against blacks here. But then they ask, “How does anyone know what your caste is?” They know caste isn’t visible, like skin color.
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.
NO ONE INFORMED ME THAT I was untouchable. It is not the kind of thing that your mother would need to tell you. What I was told was that we were Christians. Christians, untouchables—it came to the same thing. All Christians in India were untouchable, as far as I knew (though only a small minority of all untouchables are Christian).
I knew no Christian who did not turn servile in the presence of a Hindu. I knew no Hindu who did not look right through a Christian man standing in front of him as if he did not exist. I accepted this. No questions asked.
I saw the grown- ups in my family scrambling to their feet, straightening their clothes, and wringing their hands when a certain bowlegged, cross-eyed, drooly- mouthed Hindu man passed in front of us. I saw our Hindu neighbors passing us by without even registering our presence. Accepted. No questions asked.
I knew the cross-eyed, drooly- mouthed man was f**king my aunts (both of them), making children with them, 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 upper-caste girl. Christians are lowly. Hindus are superior. Christians are weak. Hindus are powerful. I understood. I accepted.
That was the natural way of things. The questions started when I was fifteen and someone took me and my sister to see a movie. Then they came in a flood that would not stop for years. In a way, they still haven’t.
(The following excerpt has been published with permission from HarperCollins. Written by Sujatha Gidla, the hardcover of Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India costs Rs 599)