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Volume 19


The Other Side - Spring 2018


Reportage

Himali Kapil

Written by
Himali Kapil

Himali Kapil lives and writes in the New York metropolitan area.

        
      
       
            
              

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Being an Ant among Elephants: An Interview with Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2018 Winner Sujatha Gidla


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A lone, bent, penniless woman singing in the fields. Enterprising tribals banished from their forests and duped into accepting the tyranny of a feudal lord. Dramatic rescues. Cruelty, oppression, and the birth of unlikely heroes. Bloody revolts, suppression, and renewed uprisings.

Sujatha Gidla goes in search of her family’s history and returns with a rich tapestry of stories about a cast of extraordinary characters. Woven along the warp of caste dynamics and its intersection with the story of India, it is tinged with the blood of a festering, ever-septic situation stemming from hundreds of years of the most abject and cruel subjugation.

Ants among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India, published by FSG, New York 2017, has won widespread acclaim for Sujatha Gidla’s unflinching portrayal of caste in India through the story of her family. Papercuts magazine caught up with her at a small café in her neck of the woods in Brooklyn. A disarmingly warm woman filled with lightness and curiosity, Sujatha shares of herself willingly, with unfiltered honesty to talk about the book, her family, #MeToo, and love, among other things.

 

When Sujatha was 15, she and her younger sister were taken to the cinemas to see a film with a fairly formulaic plot.

“In the movie a rich girl falls in love with poor boy. The girl’s powerful family intimidates the poor boy’s family into forcing him to stop seeing her. The girl, not knowing what her family has done, goes searching for the boy. When she can’t find him, she gives up and agrees to marry a nice, well-educated, wealthy man.

No surprises here for an Indian moviegoer. The shock came at the wedding scene. The heroine wears a white gown. Not a sari like a Hindu bride. A white, Western-style gown with a veil, like they wear at Christian weddings. 

My blood froze. My brain went numb. I couldn’t breathe.”

Until then Sujatha had believed that she and her family were treated with disrespect because of their religion. She believed Christians were lowly, and Hindus, superior and powerful. But here was a rich and powerful Christian family being disdainful of Brahmins. All this in a popular, mainstream film. Which meant it wasn’t such an inconceivable idea, that there was something deeper and more insidious than being Christian that held sway over her place in the order of social acceptability.

“Then came in a flood of questions that would not stop for years. In a way they still haven’t.”

Sujatha began her quest by asking her mother about who they were. Untouchables is a word that came up repeatedly. The lowliest of the Hindu caste-system. Those who were deemed to perform the most menial jobs, who were so polluted, even their shadows could defile. The outcasts, the beasts of labour, the dispensable, the disenfranchised, the barely human; not by their choosing, but by birth. They were the dregs of a system so wretched and rigid, there was no way of escaping it.

sujatha-gidla

Sujatha Gidla (c) Nancy Crampton. Courtesy Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

The antecedents of the caste system in India go back hundreds, and by some accounts, thousands of years. The broad sketch of its driving principles dictates the division of society into an impermeable hierarchy based on career and birth. An authoritarian precept disguised as a practical solution to delineating Hindu society, it has been practised over centuries while changing form and severity across the South Asian region through interpretations by various rulers. With the colonisation of this region and its consolidation as one political entity under British rule, caste oppression found a new, more pervasive lease of life. Employed with impunity by the British to subjugate natives and quell dissent, it was part of their grand scheme to divide and rule. When the call to revolt arose across the region, and Indians began to organise politically towards the common goal of independence, there was a rising hope that by ridding itself of its colonial oppressors this new unified nation could also destroy the roots of caste. While the mainstream political parties at the time were still drawn along lines of religion and religious majorities, Communism offered a viable route for those who sought to escape the constraints of class and caste-based prejudice.

All through her growing years, Sujatha had heard in hushed tones about an uncle, her mother’s elder brother, a real life hero, who had defected to the jungles to help found the People’s War Group, an underground Marxist-Leninist group that sought to demolish the hold of the caste-system through armed revolution. It was labelled a terrorist organisation by the Government of India. KG Satyamurthy, Satyam, or Comrade SM as he was known, was a poet, a philosopher, a rousing orator, and a rallying force behind radical communist action in the region.

As Sujatha delved deeper into the past of her family, Satyam loomed larger and larger as a key influencer in their history. Manjula, Sujatha’s mother, spoke eloquently of his exploits. Sujatha and her siblings found these stories enthralling. Satyam emerged as a dreamy, impassioned, larger-than-life figure through their mother’s tales. Over the years, these stories fired their imaginations.

Sujatha recalls an incident from when her brother and sister were 13 and 12, her voice growing quiet with emotion, “There was a naxalite, a young naxalite. He was killed and his dead body, the photo of it was in the papers. And my brother and sister said, look this man sacrificed his life for some cause, and this is what we want to do.”

“India is not a socialist country. So why should I be loyal to India? It’s a class loyalty, not a country loyalty. As long as I’m in a capitalist society, I’d rather be in a freer capitalist country, than (in a) backward and superstitious (one).” — Sujatha Gidla

Sujatha was the only one though who carried this spark of radical activism beyond childhood, leading her to the historic mise en scène of her uncle’s political awakening: REC Warangal, a prestigious engineering college in the state of Telangana. Enrolled as a student in the 1980s, several decades after her uncle, here Sujatha found herself drawn increasingly to the life of the revolutionary.

She participated in protests and rallies. Through the Radical Students Union, the student wing of the political party her uncle had helped establish, she engaged in radical activities that seemed to propel her along the same path as her uncle.

All of this came to an abrupt halt when, along with a group of students and activists, she was arrested and tortured in police custody for participating in a strike against an upper caste faculty member who had long been known to practice caste bias in his evaluations.

Through several interviews Sujatha recalls being in a politically catatonic state for a long time after her incarceration and torture. Partially a result of the deal that her parents had struck with the police for her release – her complete disengagement from party politics — it had a sobering effect on her idea of revolution. While she was still loyal to the party, she was no longer sure she wanted to go underground full-time.

Sujatha sought to seal her disengagement from party politics, her life back home, and her daily humiliation as an untouchable by pursuing the rest of her education in America.

For a while she forgot about the stories, as life in an alien country took over.

Sujatha has often been asked about the irony of being a revolutionary Marxist in America. There is a mild note of exasperation as she addresses the underlying smugness of this question. “India is not a socialist country. So why should I be loyal to India? It’s a class loyalty, not a country loyalty. As long as I’m in a capitalist society, I’d rather be in a freer capitalist country, than (in a) backward and superstitious (one).” Her clarity in matters of political choice appears to sometimes stem from an obliteration of complexity, but examined closer it attests, also, to an inherent rebellion, a penchant for disruptive choice-making, a desire to upturn that which is established even if it is the tenets of her chosen ideology. This has allowed her to make dichotomous life choices that would ordinarily seem out of character with her beliefs. Like working for a bank.

Riding the hiring wave of the dot-com era, she easily found a job as programmer at a bank on her return to New York. But the discomfiting conformism of the banking world eventually caught up with her. “I never really felt comfortable… Because it’s good money, I stayed there, but I always wanted to do some man(ly) kind of job. It really fascinates me. So I applied for (a) conductor’s job and when I was kicked out of the bank job, I immediately transitioned to this. I didn’t want to go back to an office job.” Sujatha became the first Indian woman conductor at the MTA, operating on the R-Train that runs between Manhattan and Brooklyn.

sujatha-gidla-conductor

Sujatha Gidla at her job at the New York MTA. Courtesy Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

In the midst of this upheaval, the stories came crashing back, more urgently than ever.

America threatened to invade Iraq. The world erupted in protest. At one such protest, Sujatha met her soul mate, Alan.

“He was immediately taken in with me,” she says, spilling joy. “He’s really, really, very, very intelligent, and very literary.” She recalls the first time she met his family, “I was telling his parents, you know, your son is very intelligent. And they said, oh, I think we also know.” She laughs.

“He really shaped me a lot. Like when I came here, I was very docile and non-talkative and (had) very low self-esteem and I used to perceive insults very easily.” Dropping an uncomfortable truth bomb in her trademark unfiltered, unguarded way, she adds, “The main thing is, if a white male intellectual upper middle class guy thinks that I’m good, then I must be good, you know. That’s a big factor. It may be very unflattering to me, yeah (but), it is a factor.”

Initially though her stories unspooled from a desire to share the darkest and deepest parts of her history with Alan, soon their telling became an exercise in nostalgia over a life that seemed increasingly remote. Filtered through the curiosity of her partner, and her growing distance from the events of her caste-molded life in India, these stories began to take on the shape of bad exotica that Sujatha wanted the world to see about a country that has been selling itself on a story of fast-paced growth and a desirable blend of post-independence modernity and ancient legacy.

The daughter of a poetry-loving English teacher, the niece of an established poet, it wasn’t long before Sujatha felt the need to write. She turned to Alan to sound out this idea. Initially he was skeptical, but when she wrote her first story, he was eager to see it published.

Alan used to run a website then, on which he posted an excerpt of her first piece. It was about her mother and her untouchable friends’ run-in with upper caste widows who were on their way to collect water from the village pond. Professor Kontham Purushotham, from the English Department of Kakatiya University, Warangal, who was working on an anthology of Dalit writing for an Oxford University Press publication chanced upon this piece. Impressed by her story he immediately included it in the Oxford India Anthology of Telugu Dalit Writing in which it is published under the title ‘From Mallapalli to Brahmin Town’. He also urged her to write more. “He said you should write a book. Also you should write it in time because right now people are interested in writing about Dalits and stuff. And it has a market, but maybe it will not be there in a few years. He’s the first one to say it.”

Thus began Sujatha’s ten-year long journey to writing ‘Ants Among Elephants’.

ants-among-elephants

Ants Among Elephants Book Cover. Courtesy Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

While caste-based prejudice and feudalism have been expertly dealt with in the Indian Constitution and the legal recourse it offers with the ostensible abolishment of these systems post-independence, the reality on ground has consistently described a different picture.

Chiselling away at this state-authored narrative, Sujatha summons the neglected stories of the most disenfranchised, detailing the daily subjugation and humiliations of those deemed so marginal to society that their only validation is to be untouchable.

Through the lives of her family members, ‘Ants Among Elephants’ focusses on the brutal suppression of caste-based struggles in the Andhra Pradesh-Telangana region. Sujatha’s book forms a picture of an India that had the opportunity to wipe clean its slate of systemic caste-based dehumanisation as a new nation, but chose, despite its high-minded Constitution, to build its blood and muscle on the calcified bones of an ancient and cruel system of discrimination.

It is notably relevant to the current plot point in the Indian story, as hegemonic Hindutva forces, having tied their nationalist narrative to the particularities of the most privileged of the caste system, are perpetuating an unprecedented level of caste-based violence nation-wide. Sujatha’s book arrived on the international stage at this apt moment, poised to cause ripples in the fabric of a tense nation as it sits perched at the brink of another election.

But Sujatha seems unimpressed by the trajectory of success her book has taken. She hadn’t once doubted the saleability of the book, or entertained a shadow of worry about whether it would ever see the light of day. Reflecting on her confidence now, Sujatha says without a trace of irony or boastfulness, “I was in awe of the stories I was writing. And I knew that other people, the Westerners, will be in more awe than I am, because at least I know some of it, right? So when I was writing it, (I would think) ‘Oh, just wait until it comes out, it will blow everybody’s mind’.”

In the same breath, she adds, “there’s a lot of pro-underdog politics here (in the book), Communism and stuff, and you know, papers like The New York Times … they’re like bourgeois papers, right? They may look liberal, but at the end of the day they are not pro-oppressed. So I thought politically they won’t like it, and you know, they would not promote it as much. And then also there are a lot of crappy books that get promoted to the highest level and very, very, very good books don’t get written (about).”

To drive home her point, Sujatha mentions another political masterpiece that almost didn’t see the light of day. George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ was rejected several times by publishers, one of whom was T.S. Eliot, the director of Faber and Faber at the time. Incidentally, the American branch of Faber and Faber was later bought over by FSG (a tie that ended in 2015.)

(Sujatha) had envisioned a carnival of angry denouncements, death threats, protests, and book burnings (after the release of her book). Instead, she’s
seeing a wave, largely of acceptance, and often, shockingly, a slew of
shame-faced gratitude-filled missives.

Sujatha is unabashed about the fact that she has written this book primarily for a Western audience. The thought of sharing the horrors of caste subjugation with the world is what drove her each day. Apart from Alan, of course. “He’s like a task-master. I would sometimes yell at him. I’m not writing this book anymore! That is it. I don’t want to talk to you. And I would stop talking to him. And when he’s out, he would call me and say, what are you doing? And I’d say writing, but I would be watching TV. So it’s really horrible, horrible. Actually that’s the worst part of writing, you know!” she says with mock exasperation and something softer and sweeter.

Of particular interest to her among her Western audience is another deeply marginalised community. The African Americans. To her, there are many parallels between caste discrimination and racial discrimination. In an interview with Sheryl McCarthy for the City University of New York, Sujatha mentions that when she first moved to New York as a student, the group she tried to ally herself with, albeit unsuccessfully, was the Black Student’s Union. Years later, once again, despite the success of the book, she feels she has been side-stepped by the audience she most wanted to reach. “If you look at all the papers that wrote about it, it’s not there, right? Like Black papers. Black people are not necessarily reading it… Among the people who wrote reviews, I don’t know how many people are black. I would think all of them are white for some reason, you know.” She laughs. She’s had fellow-conductors and other colleagues report back to her enthusiastically about spotting POC (People of Colour) readers at subways stations. “But I’m not seeing it… Maybe they are reading, but I don’t see it, where I can gather information from. But I don’t want to say this so that they will take a look at it. I want it to happen spontaneously, organically. If it does happen.”

What she has been completely unprepared for is the reaction she’s had from its Indian audience. She had envisioned a carnival of angry denouncements, death threats, protests, and book burnings. Instead, she’s seeing a wave, largely of acceptance, and often, shockingly, a slew of shame-faced gratitude-filled missives.

For many of its Indian readers this book seems to offer a lens with which to examine their place in a complex caste-fractured political firmament. Vijeta Kumar writes movingly in The Ladies Finger about how this book helped her understand her father’s boyhood as a Dalit. “You know, I said to her, my story I threw at you like a boomerang, and it came back to me from you in the form of your story.” She smiles.

But what Sujatha finds unreliable, and confusing is the response she’s had from upper caste readers. “In my opinion, everybody in India, in the upper caste (is) very casteist.” She laughs. “I mean I haven’t lived there for 26 years, so maybe I’m wrong, but I was really, really taken aback (by the response)… And I would think, okay I’ll just have to be not so skeptical, but at the same time (I) don’t believe all of that. Maybe there will come a point where they will show their true colours. I mean if not show that they are not as anti-casteist as they would like to be seen to others.”

She recalls wondering why people would come up to her to say how heart-rending they found it “Don’t they know it’s like just touching the surface? It’s like the top molecule, the tip of the iceberg? I’m like one of the luckiest ones. There’s nothing in it, yet people are saying it really opened our eyes, and stuff. So… I take it at face value.” To Sujatha, this awakening on the part of her Indian readers is as bewildering as the book’s contents are, apparently, to them. She cannot fathom how people who live amid daily occurrences of caste-based discrimination can be so oblivious.

It irks her when people say things like, “This really happened? I’m like, you don’t know until now? Weren’t you in India? So if that is really the case that upper caste people are unable to see what’s going on with caste in India. … I’m simply shocked by the reaction of liberal upper caste Hindus.”

Sujatha and family. Courtesy Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Sujatha and family. Courtesy Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

While the media has largely viewed it in a positive light, there have been many scathing and hurtful responses from more immediate quarters. In several interviews, Sujatha mentions the ostracism and abuse her mother has faced in India from colleagues and friends because of the book. For Sujatha, this is a very painful outcome.

Though Alan was pivotal to the writing of the book, as were her extensive interviews with her uncle and others who make an appearance on its pages, it is her mother to whom Sujatha owes the deep debt of its origins. In one of her interviews, Sujatha says that the writing of the book is as much hers, as it is her mother’s.

Manjula, Sujatha’s mother, the youngest of three siblings, is cast as one of the two protagonists of the book. And though Satyam, Manjula’s eldest brother, is the ostensible hero of this magnum opus, it is Manjula who emerges as its most complex character.

In the book, Sujatha has managed to portray every character with non-judgemental, yet brutal honesty. The reader is privy to the greatness and the follies of the book’s hero Satyam; the skirt-chasing, bullying, and abusiveness of Carey – the third and least illustrious sibling, alongside his nurturing tenderness; the pettiness and generosity of Marthamma the grandmother without whom the family couldn’t have been; the weaknesses and strengths of Prasanna Rao their father, and the deceit and charm of Prabhakara Rao, her own father.

The only person rendered opaque to these insights is Manjula. Ever obedient, ever virtuous Manjula.

To read Manjula as a character is to stumble upon Sujatha’s blind spot, suggesting an inextricability in their personhoods. There is a singular moment in the book, otherwise written entirely in the third person barring the prologue and epilogue, where Sujatha assumes the ‘I’ in her story. It is not when she is sexually abused as a child, it is not when she and her siblings are wandering the streets late into the night, hungry, and cold, waiting for their mother to return. It comes at a poignant moment when Manjula has been chased around the courtyard and beaten brutally by her husband and the children stand watching this macabre drama unfold. Sujatha writes, “The scene that day is burnt into Sujatha’s memory – into my – memory.”

Surprisingly, Sujatha is mildly perplexed by this observation. She waves away the suggestion that it is possibly the result of Manjula’s deep engagement with the writing of the book or her inability to distance herself from her mother’s perspective in the telling of these stories, or that she feels a deep, blinding protectiveness of her.

While she has been able to impartially parse and present the many, and often conflicting facets of every other character, Manjula appears almost incandescent in her moral infallibility.

For Sujatha though, the mere fact that Manjula is portrayed to be so pliable to the restrictions of her upbringing is sufficient censure. It is as if by holding Manjula to a strict inner code of standards reserved only for herself, Sujatha has somehow subjected her mother to the harshest scrutiny.

“She internalises women’s oppression, and whatever her brothers said – oh you shouldn’t wear those kind of clothes, you shouldn’t comb your hair that way; she does the same thing with (her) classmates… She makes fun of this girl who wears a bra instead of a smaller petticoat. So she takes pride in her chastity, her sexual chastity… a lot of people would think it as some good quality, but I totally detest it, and that is like the biggest point of conflict between me and my mother… She thinks that it’s all good portrayal, but for discerning people, you can see that she thinks it’s a good thing to abide by her brothers and father, she sees it’s a good thing not to be sexually liberated. And all of those moral things are despicable to me actually. And the fact that she wants to stick in the marriage, as if it’s a moral thing to do.” After having escaped the oppressiveness of life as an untouchable woman in India, Sujatha finds herself increasingly unable to comprehend her mother’s repeated and willing submission to it.

“Feminism, by definition, means that the world is divided along gender lines.
The opposites are men… the idea of feminism is that the major contradiction
in the world is gender contradiction, and they don’t see it stemming from class contradictions.” — Sujatha Gidla

When Sujatha and her sister were growing up, their mother would refer to them as aadapillalu – girls, in Telugu – instead of calling them her daughters or children. This grated endlessly on her sister’s nerves (who Sujatha says has always been intuitively political), but for a long time Sujatha didn’t find it problematic. To her, it was simply an insignificant matter of linguistic idiosyncrasy. “I always thought my mother was very liberated and stuff. But only after I came here, I started seeing things.”

Matters recently came to a head during a conversation with her mother about their inheritance. Her mother has a small apartment that she wants to leave to her children. She decided she would will it to their brother on paper, and leave it to him to handle the paperwork and distribute it equally among the siblings. This incensed Sujatha deeply. She felt it was wrong of her mother to place her faith in her son, rather than in Sujatha, her eldest born.

Sujatha recalls she was on the train when this conversation took place. “I was punching (the train cabin) like that,” she says, pounding her fist. “You can’t imagine, it feels like somebody sexually violated you. If you’re being treated based on your gender, to me it’s non-literal rape.”

Despite her fierce feminism, Sujatha is deeply suspicious of the label. She has gone as far as to say in an interview with Tyler Cowen, in the Medium: “People read this book and they think that ‘Oh, she’s automatically going to be a feminist…’ which I am not.”

This denial of feminism is abrupt and somewhat grating, especially in light of her writing, her ideas, and the course of her life. However, Sujatha veers the slant of her protest, alluding to a more complex landscape of intersectional feminism.

“Feminism, by definition, means that the world is divided along gender lines. The opposites are men… the idea of feminism is that the major contradiction in the world is gender contradiction, and they don’t see it stemming from class contradictions.”

She especially detests the kind of feminism that is drawn along the lines of what she calls “lifestyle-istic principles”, fronted by women who already exist within spheres of considerable intellectual and economic power, who choose to reduce their brand of feminism to verbal gimmickry. She gives the example of those who refuse to spell women with, men, instead spelling it as ‘womyn’, or insist upon using the term ‘herstory’, instead of history, where the driving idea of feminism hinges on the rejection of men altogether. What she finds particularly offensive is the assumption by some feminists that women have no agency in their sexuality, for whom the singular narrative of feminism revolves around a prey-predator dichotomy.

“And this MeToo# thing.” She laughs. “Dalit women face that every day! Who’s writing a list for them?”

“When I see women asking government, asking officials, asking authorities, asking police to protect them, their faith in that kind of system annoys me. In Delhi, the Nirbhaya case, they were asking for more police force, but police force will be mainly used against Dalits and tribals and workers.”

“I don’t think books have the ability to change social consciousness on
a big scale and move it to some kind of protest and revolution.” — Sujatha Gidla

A Marxist first, Sujatha aligns all her political views strictly along its line of vision. For her the meta-structures that perpetuate oppression, whether caste, patriarchy or capitalism cannot be undone by publishing narratives of victimhood to those structures, they can only be eradicated by actively and forcibly demolishing their foundations.

In the book, Sujatha leaves off at an unconvincing note about her political views. After having glorified the idea of armed revolution through the travails of her uncle, there is a very unformed, quiet, almost whispered departure from his politics. It is as if she has woken up to the fact that violent revolt is not the answer, but then what is?

Towards the end of his life, Satyam too suffered a crisis of politics, something that he had not fully resolved even to his last days. The book ends at the point when Satyam was booted out of the PWG, because he questioned the casteism in the party. This had been a long-standing issue he had come up against repeatedly as he had drawn closer to the upper echelons of the Communist Party in his earlier days. When he joined his mentor Kondpalli Seetharamaiah to found the PWG, he had hoped that these issues would no longer plague the new party. However, old caste-based patterns of discrimination returned to haunt him and other members from the lowest castes who were only allowed to take on caste-reinforcing roles in the party.

Perhaps because she’s a lecturer and inclined to balance in her approach, Manjula had turned very early to the ideology of Ambedkar. To a significant segment of privileged and educated Indians, Ambedkar is an intellectual figure inextricably linked with the scripting of the Indian Constitution, a pivotal force in the freedom movement, and an erudite spokesperson for the Dalit community. But according to Sujatha, Ambedkar has long been viewed with suspicion, and in most cases altogether avoided by the Marxists for what they deem is his traitorous and bourgeois stance.

For Manjula to have broken free of the influence of Satyam’s political persuasions, for her to have embraced Ambedkar was an extraordinary step. When Sujatha and her siblings were growing up, Manjula started a study group with a few men from the neighbourhood. She is now considered an expert on Ambedkarite philosophy in her locality. “She’s not like an admirer, worshipper, she knows what he talked about and what he stood for and what he didn’t stand for. She’s critical also.”  Her voice rich with admiration for her mother, Sujatha acknowledges that in matters relating to the political landscape of India, her mother is her most reliable sounding board. “Ambedkar is something that really connects me, my sister and my mother. When we call my mother, we hardly ever say how are you doing, we say, did you see in the paper…”

Among their recent points of discussion has been Dalit author and activist Kancha Illaiah, a family friend who had helped Satyam come out of hiding after his expulsion from the PWG. His most recent book has caused a furore among a higher caste community, leading to death threats. The Bhima-Koregaon incident is another event that has dominated their conversations.

Ironically, after his excommunication from the party, Satyam too turned to Ambedkarite ideology and tried to assimilate it with his more radical ideas, unsuccessfully.

While Sujatha has deviated quite significantly from her uncle’s radical ideas, she is still unable to replace its attractive immediacy with a more viable alternative. “I don’t think books have the ability to change social consciousness on a big scale and move it to some kind of protest and revolution,” is a common refrain in several of her interviews.

“And this MeToo# thing.” She laughs. “Dalit women face that every day!
Who’s writing a list for them?” — Sujatha Gidla

For now, Sujatha has joined forces with her sister Anitha, a physician in the US, to mentor a few students. When Anitha moved to the US, she faced a shock of caste-based discrimination. While Sujatha had thrown herself headlong into politics from an early age, Anitha had turned the other way, trying to assimilate as much as possible in her pursuit of a medical degree. All through her years in India, she bore the discrimination silently and stoically choosing to ignore it, rather than confronting it. But after experiencing it again in the US, she awoke to the realisation that the only way forward with dignity was to embrace her Dalit identity.

After the deaths of Rohith Vemula and another JNU student Muthu Krishnan, they are now trying to create a kind of support system to prevent young Dalit students from getting to a point of suicidal despair. “My sister knows some psychology and some psychiatry… so she wanted to give them guidance on how to deal with crises.” They have also tried to offer classes in English. “For Dalit people, English is like a huge, huge obstacle. I mean, even though it’s not caste related… but it has a lot of social power… I was going to teach spoken English. But because it’s not paid stuff, they would get into silly romantic or other kinds of quarrels.”

Sujatha is very conscious of her celebrity and the weight it could lend to her activism, but is unsure of what shape it should take. While they have not yet been able to scale up their model of aid, Sujatha and Anitha are determined to find a way to offer timely and appropriate interventions to a wider population of under-privileged Dalit youth. Currently, they continue to maintain contact with a few of the students who were part of the original group.

Since her departure from the student political group and her move to the US, Sujatha has stayed away from organised politics. For now she is content with expressing her politics through her job as an R-Train conductor, where she revels in being a “cog in the system”, as, in her words, it saves her from ever being in a position to hire or fire anyone. And, through her writing. She hopes to write more, channeling her advocacy through her stories. And while there is a distinct sense that she is still seeking a political mantra, she does seem to have come home to a life that fits just right.

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Text in italics excerpted from Ants among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India. Click here to read Himali Kapil’s review of the book on the DWL blog.

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Corrections: A previous version of this interview misquoted Sujatha Gidla as saying liberal US newspapers are “not pro-uprest (sic)” instead of “not pro-oppressed”, and misstated the Telugu term for girls as aadapilla instead of aadapillalu. The errors are regretted and have been corrected. November 24, 2018.

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