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How to tell the Dalit story

Sujatha Gidla, author of a book on untouchability, on the pervading caste discrimination in the country

Sujatha Gidla.
Sujatha Gidla.

Moving beyond the narratives of victimhood and survival, Sujatha Gidla’s book on caste, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family And The Making Of Modern India, has come out at a time when more Dalits in India are asserting their rights, and more non-Dalits are speaking up against the discrimination towards the community. Gidla’s book, published in the US in July and in India this month, is the story of the country through the eyes of the “untouchables". India has completed 70 years of its independence, but caste still exists and discrimination based on it manifests itself in different forms. At 26, Gidla, a Dalit from Andhra Pradesh, moved to the US, where she worked as an app designer at the Bank of New York. She was laid off during the recession in 2009, and has since been working as a conductor with the New York City Subway.

In a phone interview, Gidla, 54, speaks about her book, writing, her raw anger, and caste in India. Edited excerpts:

How do you describe yourself? Which identity precedes the other?

A Dalit, someone who is left-leaning, then I guess...a conductor. Caste is first because we are made aware of it all the time. If I go to India, I know it based on how we are treated. And since I wrote this book, caste has become my first identity here as well. In fact, my basic identity even now is that of a Dalit more than a writer. It is more like a conductor who became a writer rather than a writer who is also a conductor. I am more caste- and class-conscious than anything else. When I was young, I would say I am a Naxalite or a Communist first. I think I started becoming conscious of my Dalit identity in 1985, after the Karamchedu massacre in Andhra Pradesh, where an entire settlement of untouchables was attacked by a mob of high-castes. It really jolted me and many of us out of our oblivion.

You started out trying to figure your story. At what point, on interviewing your family, did you realize you needed to write a book?

Ants Among Elephants—An Untouchable Famlly And The Making Of Modern India: By Sujatha Gidla, HarperCollins, 312 pages, Rs599.

Initially, the phone calls were about finding out where I came from, but very quickly it became clear to me that it constitutes a book. I was shocked to realize that very few generations ago we were actually living in the forests and living off of the forests, and how we came to settle to doing agriculture—which is basically the point of civilization. My family was a part of that huge transition—from hunter-gatherers to agriculture. Unlike, say, places like Germany, where it took several centuries, these huge transitions took place in a very small duration of time for my family—from forests to plains, from tribals to civilized people, from tribals to untouchables, from worshipping totems to practising Christianity. Also, I realized how one becomes an untouchable. It’s not like some people randomly got assigned untouchability, some Brahminism. There is a material basis for this segregation. That caste and its evolution can be explained was fascinating to me.

You break down caste to its basics—was this book intended to be written for an international audience?

I was writing for the Western audience. I didn’t expect Indians to be even interested. I probably underestimated how many people in India are—or at least they consider themselves—anti-caste. I probably believed everybody is mired in this casteism, so nobody would appreciate it. I was actually surprised to see the reaction. But when I think about it, I am sure no Indian publisher would have been the first to publish the book. I think it is only because it got so much praise from the West that people in India got to reading it.

On Twitter, you started the hashtag #WhereIsCaste. Why?

After the book, I did several radio interviews where people call and ask questions. And all these people calling from India would say, “Oooo, I live in Delhi and I never saw anybody practising casteism. Where is caste?" I heard those people and I also heard some untouchables who have moved up say things like caste is not prevalent any more. That’s when I decided to start this hashtag.

Has caste discrimination changed its form?

People think that only the concept of an untouchable’s touch defiling the upper caste characterizes caste discrimination. It isn’t just that. Caste discrimination is everywhere. There’s segregation in living areas, and in towns and cities too, people ask your caste. My family always lived in towns but we were never able to find houses in regular colonies. Either they don’t see it because of their own sensitivities or they deliberately don’t want to see it, or else they think only certain things define caste, and since those are not so visible, caste discrimination is not there. From my point of view, caste is there. Right from the most defining factor of untouchability that is touching, to someone saying look, we do let untouchables eat with us...there is a whole range of untouchability.

Did you expect your book to achieve such critical acclaim?

The more I wrote, the more I realized that the story was becoming interesting. I really wanted to write it in a very simple manner, and not give in to lyricism and poetic stuff, and I consciously used the Telugu idioms and expressions (rather than from the English language). The best compliment for my writing came from someone in India. He is a Brahmin but a very poor Brahmin. He couldn’t graduate from high school, so whatever English he knows is through reading news that interested him. He told my mother he read the book without looking at the dictionary even once, and that there were just three words he didn’t understand, but even for those, the context explained the meaning. I was very heartened by this.

Do you have any favourite authors?

I read a lot compared to people of my background, but much less compared to people I am put alongside with now. I don’t have favourite authors, I have favourite books. I liked Halldór Laxness’ Independent People. I also liked Hindoo Holiday: An Indian Journal, by J.R. Ackerley. I liked his style of writing. He doesn’t go into lyricism and nonsense like that.

Do you think only Dalits can tell the stories of Dalits?

I disagree that only Dalits can tell the stories of Dalits. On the other hand, people who are in those circumstances have to be extremely conscious, and extremely politically open and progressive, to be able to do that despite being upper castes. Yes, upper-caste people can champion Dalit rights and issues, but they all happen to harbour some kind of a patronizing attitude which we can see but they can’t.

There are a lot of conversations happening around the assertion of Dalit rights. How do you view this?

I think Dalit assertion really stands out of what is happening in rural India. What is happening in urban areas is only a reflection of what is happening in rural areas. Basically, even reservation and all of that really comes out of the oppression of untouchables in the countryside. They are the ones who are oppressed. And their fight in rural areas is what makes us conscious of our Dalit identity. The conflict in rural India is really sharp these days, because untouchables are fighting for land. The landed don’t want them to have land. Previously, the untouchables didn’t ask for land because they have been told for centuries that this is your position and you should accept it. When they saw all the other groups, which were originally landless—like the Yadavs, Kumbis, Reddys—owning land, the untouchables also realized that caste lines are not hardened and carved in stone. And if it can change for the others, why not for them? That’s where the assertion comes from. Not as much because of reservation. Reservation is actually dampening Dalit assertion.

Is the situation better for Dalits now than it was two generations ago? How are the battles different?

It is better only for those who benefited from reservations, and were able to move up. But for others, it is becoming worse. As we can see, people who made it to higher education, like (University of Hyderabad student) Rohit Vemula... He made it but that’s when he was hounded and pushed to kill himself. Everyday atrocities are more and more brutal. It started with just killing, now it’s the killing of pregnant women, parading women naked, forcing people to lick spit as punishment. There is no way you can be less conscious of being a Dalit with all this going on around you.

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