'Ants Among Elephants' offers a window into the complexities of India

Sujatha Gidla's memoir of her mother and uncle is a moving, fascinating story of class struggle in India.

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 320 Pages

It should go without saying that India is a complicated place, a churning cauldron of languages, ethnicities, castes, and religions bubbling atop and throughout one another in a perplexing mass that we call, for the sake of convenience, a "nation."  But to many Western readers, the story of India begins and ends with Gandhi's campaign against the British, followed (for those who were paying attention) by the bloody events of Partition in 1947.

The gift given to us by the new memoir/history book Ants Among Elephants is the opportunity to see post-independence India through the eyes of its untouchables, Christian converts, and the Maoist rebels known as Naxalites. It's difficult to fully conceive of the privilege and power of the caste system from a foreigner's perspective; from the viewpoint of people so low on the system that they stand outside of its levels, it's a mesmerizing horror to behold, and author Sujatha Gidla spares no detail.

The book revolves around two poles: Gidla's mother, Manjula, who struggles to raise children amid conditions of utmost poverty and political chaos, and her uncle, Satyam, who dedicates his life to class struggle on behalf of the untouchables and common laborers of Andhra Pradesh, a coastal state in southeastern India.

Manjula's life is marked by intense professional struggle to find work as a teacher, magnified by her non-caste status, and tremendous personal struggle against her husband and his sometimes cruel family. Satyam willingly sacrifices what could have been a comfortable career as a lecturer and poet in order to fight an idealistic war against the landlords and police who enforce some of India's cruelest inequalities.

With her luminous command of fine details, Gidla manages a difficult and admirable task: she takes a tremendously personal memoir and renders it with such clarity that it tells the broader story of a place and an era. In her anecdotes of discrimination, malnourishment, and extra-judicial executions, she brings readers into a world of discrimination and upheaval.

This is a story that could have easily collapsed under its own weight. "Ants Among Elephants" is a narrative swimming in revolutionary groups that splinter and splinter again, and suffused with arguments about ideology and caste that will seem arcane to many Western readers.

But the humanity that Gidla gives to her subjects – many of whom are her own flesh and blood – keeps the book from sinking into a mire. Instead, the reader is given sharply observed fragments taken from life, observed and rendered with a gimlet eye.

Here is Gidla recounting how the lowest of low caste workers, the pakis (manual scavengers of human waste), viewed the presence of a loud movie theater in their run-down neighborhood:

The Gudivada pakis loved having a noisy cinema hall right beside their homes. From outside its walls they could enjoy the music and dialogue all day and all night. And they befriended the usher, who when the hall was not full would let them in to sit for free in the floor class (that is, on the bare floor – the cheapest class of seating in Indian theaters.) By the first or second week of a movie's run, every paki in Gudivada could recite all its dialogue word for word, with every nuance in tone, and sing all the songs.

And her account of the conclusion of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's 1951 visit to Guntur in Andhra Pradesh:

As the train pulled out, Nehru made a show of waving goodbye to his supporters from an open door. Waiting at the side of the track as the prime minister's car was passing, Satyam saw his chance. He darted forward to grab Nehru's arm and pull him down. The old man withdrew his hands with a look of utter terror and disappeared into the car.

"Ants Among Elephants" has a loose, sometimes rambling feel to it and there are moments where the author's clarity of memory and command of long-gone conversations taxes belief. But suffused within its folds are many thrilling and heartbreaking moments, and the book as a whole is a window into not just the heart of India, but also the elemental nature of prejudice and class struggle anywhere in the world.

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