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Dalit voice gets heard with Sujatha Gidla’s Shakti Bhatt win

Sujatha Gidla's book Ants Among Elephant is an account of growing up in an 'untouchable' family in modern India

Sujatha Gidla
Sujatha Gidla

Bengaluru: A New York subway conductor’s story of growing up in a Dalit community in India won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2018. Fifty-five-year-old Sujatha Gidla’s electrifying debut, Ants Among Elephant: An Untouchable Family And The Making Of Modern India, published by HarperCollins India, beat five other titles in the shortlist to claim the prestigious award.

Instituted in memory of editor Shakti Bhatt, the prize honours first-time writers for an outstanding work of fiction or non-fiction. The winner receives a cash award of Rs2 lakh and a trophy. This year the prize was judged by writers Githa Hariharan, Raghu Karnad and Sampurna Chattarji. The shortlist was co-curated by writer and translator Arshia Sattar.

“It is a marvel how, with so little friction or strain, (Ants Among Elephants) absorbs readers into undramatized lives of poverty, patriarchy, and rebellion, and the encounter with subaltern Communism," the jury said, before going on to applaud the technical dexterity with which the book is crafted.

Gidla’s widely acclaimed memoir, which The New York Times praised as “unsentimental and deeply poignant", describes her life in a Dalit community in Kazipet, a small town in Telangana. Born in 1963 into a family that converted to Christianity through the influence of Canadian missionaries, Gidla studied physics at the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai. At the age of 26, she moved to the US, where she worked in the IT industry for several years, before taking up her current job.

In Ants Among Elephants, Gidla tells the story of her uncle K.G. Satyamurthy, a Maoist leader who founded a Left-wing guerrilla movement called the People’s War Group to overthrow the Indian state. In her youth, Gidla joined his fight briefly, before she was arrested and tortured in police custody. Her uncle’s doomed struggle, her mother’s trials as a lower caste woman, and her own deepening awareness of discrimination, informs the emotional core of Gidla’s intensely affecting book.

“Ants Among Elephants pushes the grand historic events to the backdrop, and shows the lives and minds of the wretched," wrote journalist and writer Manu Joseph in a column for Mint Lounge earlier this year.

In an earlier interview with Lounge, Diya Kar, Gidla’s publisher in India, said her book was “a reminder that caste is a reality, even today; that segregation, discrimination, oppression form the fabric of the world’s largest democracy".

An exceptional first book, it deserves to be read widely indeed.

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