Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India

The stunning true story of an untouchable family who become teachers, and one, a poet and revolutionaryLike one in six people in India, Sujatha Gidla was born an untouchable. While most untouchables are illiterate, her family was educated by Canadian missionaries in the 1930s, making it possible for Gidla to attend elite schools and move to America at the age of twenty-six...

Title:Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India
Author:
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ISBN:0865478112
Number of Pages:400 pages

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India Reviews

  • kathyrn

    thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and netgalley for an ARC.

    I've just started reading this and honestly thought the caste system in India didn't exist anymore.

    This memoir is captivating and engaging.

    thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and netgalley for an ARC.

    I've just started reading this and honestly thought the caste system in India didn't exist anymore.

    This memoir is captivating and engaging.

  • Mollie

    This book opens the reader's eyes to a way of life that is hard to see. Generations of suffering were depicted on these pages. Family members braving circumstances no one should be subjected to. I believe this is an important read. It contains essential information for anyone who does not want to turn a blind eye to discrimination happening in this world. To poverty and abuse.

    Having said that, I wish the book had been written differently. It begdan with the author talking about how difficult it

    This book opens the reader's eyes to a way of life that is hard to see. Generations of suffering were depicted on these pages. Family members braving circumstances no one should be subjected to. I believe this is an important read. It contains essential information for anyone who does not want to turn a blind eye to discrimination happening in this world. To poverty and abuse.

    Having said that, I wish the book had been written differently. It begdan with the author talking about how difficult it has been to gather the stories about her family. And it ends with her own story. But in between that, it read as if she were writing a term paper. Impersonal. I wish she could have interspersed her own story with that of her family members. I wish she would have told the reader how she came to be a conductor on the subway in New York. I found it confusing to hear her refer to her own mother by her mother's first name. To her own childhood self referred to in third person. For me the impersonal nature of most of the narrative was disconcerting. After all, the characters depicted are her own family members and their friends and associates.

  • gnarlyhiker

    Regardless of education or job success in India, the lower caste is referred to as untouchables. And surprisingly there is a hierarchy within the caste of untouchables. A real eyeopener.

    good luck

    **ARC/publisher/NetGalley

  • Robert Monk

    Glad I read this one, because it showed me a lot about a world that I knew only a bit about. I had friends from India, and they'd talk a wee bit about the lingering effects of caste prejudice if prompted, but mostly they steered very clear of the subject (for understandable reasons). This book dived right into it, putting this particular reader in the thick of complicated modern India. I often found myself burning with indignation, both for terrible caste prejudice and for equally terrible gende

    Glad I read this one, because it showed me a lot about a world that I knew only a bit about. I had friends from India, and they'd talk a wee bit about the lingering effects of caste prejudice if prompted, but mostly they steered very clear of the subject (for understandable reasons). This book dived right into it, putting this particular reader in the thick of complicated modern India. I often found myself burning with indignation, both for terrible caste prejudice and for equally terrible gender inequality. It's mostly the history of the author's uncle, himself a very complicated fellow. He was a fighter for the rights of the poor, a poet and dramatist, a deep thinker, a caring man, a selfish prick and a rotten husband. And quite fascinating. The author's mother was also interesting, an extremely bright woman who managed to get educated and become a college teacher despite enormous challenges (female, untouchable, Christian in a mostly Hindu country...).

    All of this said, there are a few problems. To begin with, we never really get deeply inside the heads of any of the people here. They come off more as sketches -- interesting sketches, but sketches -- than fully realized drawings. At some point, the sheer number of names (some of which are quite similar to others') can be overwhelming, and one can lose track. A list would have been helpful. Similarly, a glossary of terms would have been of use, as I found myself sometimes forgetting what the various Telugu words meant.

    In the end, as I said, I'm glad I read this. It isn't necessarily going to be an indelible part of my makeup, but it was interesting.

  • Doris

    I knew nothing about communism in India, and very little about the untouchable caste and the caste system generally (other than what the terms meant), and I feel I learned a great deal. The book was very troubling, yet informative, mostly through the experience of one family. Likely there is a lot more detail than some would want.

  • Hari Bapuji

    This is a rare book. It's not easy for others to know the life-stories of untouchables because those whose lives are affected lack the wherewithal to share them. And, even if some of them are capable of sharing, those stories would identify them untouchables, and further subjects them to discrimination. That's why the tales of caste discrimination are available aplenty in the oral works, but rarely found in the written text.

    The author introduces to the reader the discrimination faced by her fami

    This is a rare book. It's not easy for others to know the life-stories of untouchables because those whose lives are affected lack the wherewithal to share them. And, even if some of them are capable of sharing, those stories would identify them untouchables, and further subjects them to discrimination. That's why the tales of caste discrimination are available aplenty in the oral works, but rarely found in the written text.

    The author introduces to the reader the discrimination faced by her family in every sphere - education, employment, politics, and social life. The incidents narrated occurred over decades ago, but they are timeless; such incidents are commonplace in today's India as well. A cursory read of any newspaper (or website), particularly the vernacular press, reports the atrocities against Dalits regularly.

    The tales of discrimination are those experienced by the writer's uncle (Satyam), and mother (Manjula). Being a popular and political figure, the life of Satyam takes centerstage and the reader is left wondering whether the story of discrimination gave way to attempts at revolution. It's only towards the end that the caste-based discrimination in the communist revolutionary group gets revealed. It is projected as the reason for Satyam's expulsion from the party. In the absence of other sources to verify the tales of discrimination, this portion becomes difficult to believe. But, research has - time and again - found that biases are inherent and cut across political and personal ideologies. So, the book may be weak for this, but the point made is not.

    In contrast to Satyam, Manjula's story is a more personal account of discrimination - on account of caste and gender. Her story emerges slowly, but holds its own against the much revered/feared life of her famous brother, Satyam. Even non-believers, who may attribute the discrimination Satyam faced to the choices he made, would find it difficult to discount the discrimination Manjula faced.

    Finally, the author offers the readers a brief glimpse into her own life-story, which is a combination of what Satyam and Manjula faced - just set in a different time period. And, hints at the discrimination Dalits face even when they migrate to foreign lands.

    Overall, this is a book that was needed to be written. I am glad that Sujatha Gidla wrote it, and am happy that I had a chance to read it.

  • Adarsh

    Detailed review to come soon. But this is an enlightening read on Dalit oppression in India, featuring the life story of K G Satyamurthy (SM), the founder of People's War Group, and his family. The author, Sujatha Gidla, is the niece of SM and currently lives in New York. Purely as a tale of people on the fringes of Indian society, Ants Among Elephants is much better than Arundathi Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

  • Pond skater

    **SPOILER ALERT**

    This is a stunning biography of an untouchable family involved in the Naxalite insurgency in 1940-70's India. The author's uncle was a leader in this revolutionary movement and the author herself, now working as a subway conductor in New York City, was a student agitator in her youth, who was imprisoned and tortured at the age of nineteen. After interviewing her family members, she's written a portrait of their lives, their harrowing poverty and their decision to join the commun

    **SPOILER ALERT**

    This is a stunning biography of an untouchable family involved in the Naxalite insurgency in 1940-70's India. The author's uncle was a leader in this revolutionary movement and the author herself, now working as a subway conductor in New York City, was a student agitator in her youth, who was imprisoned and tortured at the age of nineteen. After interviewing her family members, she's written a portrait of their lives, their harrowing poverty and their decision to join the communists. The most searing portrait however, is of her mother, who opted for a professional career as an academic and for domesticity, after having a rushed arranged marriage and raising three children under taxing conditions.

    There are many things wrong with this book, but they don't detract from how worthwhile a read it is. Firstly, the title and reviews are deeply misleading. They suggest that this is a plain-vanilla anti-caste diatribe about discrimination by the upper castes against the lower. However, the reality is far more nuanced. Caste plays a role in the challenges the author's family faces; even after getting an education, their untouchability follows them like a bad smell, resulting in continuous harassment by employers. However, the perpetrators of this discrimination range from the British, to the Nizam of Hyderabad, to the police and even the democratically elected Nehru government. This leads me to a major flaw in the book. While the family anecdotes are riveting, they appear almost transcribed verbatim and convey no context about the political situation beyond the immediate concerns of the narrator. In fact, the book repeatedly describes the awfulness of the untouchables' living situation, but glosses over how the communists/Naxalites came into being and took the decisions they did. For instance, in one anecdote, Prime Minister Nehru speaks in modern-day Telengana and the communists sabotage his speech by cutting off his microphone. The author's uncle then tries to grab him. All this is presented in a haze of emotion - the brave, starving young man who joins the communists and almost yanks the prime minister of India off his feet. But why? What had Nehru done? There is an allusion to the Indian government's attempt to ram Hindi as a national language down the throats of South Indians, but no context provided as to the reasons behind this decision. I've got to assume that the author, who worked as a research assistant at IIT and subsequently studied in the U.S., had the capability to research and make her case. What she has done is present a deeply moving portrait of poverty, but an extremely one-sided account of the rebels, with little explanation as to what they are fighting for and how they propose to go about it. At one point, China invades India and the communists even take China's side, because it is a fellow-communist country. There is an ongoing assumption throughout the book, that the reader will automatically side with the insurgents, simply because they are presented like Robin Hood fighting Ming the Merciless.

    One strength of the book is its unflinching portrayal of the author's family. They are depicted warts and all, which only makes their sacrifice and resilience stand out all the more. It is horrendous to learn about the author's uncle starving and wasting his time throughout his college days, because his family could not afford to feed him. The author's grandfather, a schoolteacher, is at one point, caught with his family in a hurricane in which their house is washed away. The other castes within the village provide them with shelter in a rat-infested shed, because of course it is unthinkable that they might actually invite them into their homes. At times, the author's family, particularly her uncles and mother when in young adulthood, seem to careen precariously close to the edge. One of the uncles is utterly wild and gropes a girl in a temple, of all places. Her grandfather, for reasons that were incomprehensible to me, did not want the author's mother, his daughter, to marry an upper-caste man who was in love with her, because Christian untouchables apparently believed it was wrong to marry for love. His son, the revolutionary leader, refused to allow a pig to be slaughtered at his wedding, in keeping with untouchable custom, because he had come to regard it as 'uncultured and barbaric'. Instead, he insisted on serving vegetarian food, in mimicry of the upper castes. I read these sorts of anecdotes and didn't know what to make of them. There is so much that is messed-up and deeply human here, that I can only applaud the author for her honesty. Furthermore, several of the men in her family are revealed to be selfish and unreliable; at one point, the author's mother, in desperation, leaves her children with a relative for childcare, with the result that her eldest daughter ends up sexually molested. And on and on...the problems of poverty compound atrociously.

    All in all, this is such a gripping read that I can only recommend it. But more explanation and historical context would have transformed it from an emotional diatribe into a more persuasive and cogent argument. Ultimately I could sympathize with the author's family, but remained unconvinced about the righteousness of the cause they were fighting for.

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