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Sujatha Gidla's Book-"Ants Among Elephants"

The stunning true story of an untouchable family who become teachers, a poet and revolutionary

NRI  Untouchable Sujatha Gidla's story is one of personal struggle and a certain freedom she has found in America today

  • Your life is your caste, your caste is your life.
  • Untouchable to do other work that Hindu society considers filthy. There are some 300 million Dalits in India
  • She says she found "petty caste discrimination" among the NRI community.
Sujatha Gidla, 53, hails from the Dalit community of Kazipet, a small town in southern Telangana state. The family was based in the South India state of Andhra Pradesh.

Sujatha Gidla studied physics and has a master’s degree in technology from the Regional Engineering College at Warangal, one of India’s top technical universities. Her sister is a physician in America and her brother is an engineer in Canada.

Sujatha Gidla was born into a middle-class family. Her parents were college lecturers. She was born an untouchable

She moved to America at the age of 26 and now lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

In New York, she worked as an app designer for the Bank of New York.

--After she was laid off from her bank job in 2009, Gidla took up the job at the New York subway. She was the first Indian woman to be employed as a conductor on one of the busiest mass transit systems in the world.

--When Gidla was laid off during the Great Recession, she was the first Indian woman to be employed as a conductor on the New York City Subway


Sujatha Gidla is author and her writings have been included in “The Oxford India Anthology of Telugu Dalit Writing.” Now she has written a memoir, “Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India.

Despite their education, Sujatha Gidla  and her family were daily subjected to reminders of their caste status, realized that the “terrible reality of caste” did not determine one’s identity in other countries, that being born “an untouchable. Sujatha Gidla whose recent memoir speaks of her life and her family and the plight of 300 million Dalits ("oppressed" in Sanskrit), formerly known as untouchables in India.

Like 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.

To write “Ants Among Elephants, Gidla interviewed many family members and their friends. Three of the central figures in her narrative are her mother, Manjula, and two of her mother’s brothers, K.G. Satyamurthy and William Carey Kambham.

  • Uncle Satyamurthy, or Satyam as he was known, was an extraordinary figure, a celebrated poet who wrote under the name Shivasagar and founded the Maoist People’s War Group and also raised the issue of caste system. Gidla observes in “Ants Among Elephants” that she was startled when her uncle died in 2012 to see an endless stream of stories about him on television, the many newspaper articles featuring his poetry, tributes and processions in his honor throughout his home state.
  • 2nd Uncle was a bright but tough man, also a Communist. He was known for being completely fearless and frequently getting into fights. He took a long time to finish his degree but eventually did, then became director of the sports department of a medical college. But he dealt with the pain of being an untouchable by drinking heavily. Gidla’s interviews with him proved problematic, because he was frequently drunk.

Gidla joined the junior ranks of the People’s War Group: Gidla at the age of 14, inspired by her uncle Satyam, joined the junior ranks of the People’s War Group, the Radical Student Union (RSU).

  • While she was pursuing her master’s degree, one of the professors, who was from a high caste, routinely gave top marks to high-caste students and failing ones to those from low castes. No one in authority would take action, so the students called a strike. Gidla went home and she was there when a police van pulled up and took her into custody.
  • Gidla was imprisoned for three months without being charged in a series of jails in different precincts around Warangal, where she was starved, beaten and tortured. Her family couldn’t track her down until her mother hired a famous civil rights lawyer named Kannabiran and asked him to file a writ of habeas corpus. At that point, her daughter was moved to the central jail. By the time she was released, she had contracted tuberculosis. Only because her mother appealed to an assistant superintendent of police was she allowed to finish her master’s degree.
    Gidla points out that there is still considerable discrimination against untouchables. Certain laws intended to free them from their traditional roles have backfired to some extent. A new rule turning them into wage-earners who are free to offer their services to anyone they choose has resulted in angry responses from the landlord class. These have included burning villages to the ground and murdering groups of people, often in grotesque ways intended to send a message. Then there is the technique of social boycott, which in some ways, Gidla says, is the worst. No one will buy anything from the untouchables, sell anything to them, or interact with them. They are totally ostracized

The New York Times  described the book:

    • Ants Among Elephants,’ a Memoir About the Persistence of Caste- In this unsentimental, deeply poignant book, Sujatha Gidla gives us stories of her family and friends in India — stories she had thought of as “just life,” until she moved to America at the age of 26 and realized that the “terrible reality of caste” did not determine one’s identity in other countries, that being born “an untouchable” did not entail the sort of ritualized restrictions and indignities she took for granted at home………

The Minneapolis Star Tribune described the book as the "boisterous life of an Indian family that fought the caste system".

"Gidla is our Virgil into the world of the untouchables and their acts of defiance; not just as an observer, but as a participant," wrote reviewer Peter Lewis.
"She is bitten by the revolutionary bug, and bitten hard: arrested by the Indian authorities, tortured, left to rot, released. She has been party to the heights and the depths of living a revolution."

In America, writes Gilda, "people know only my skin colour, not birth status".
"One time in a bar in Atlanta I told a guy I was untouchable, and he said, 'Oh, but you're so touchable'."

MY STORIES, MY FAMILY’S STORIES, were not stories in India. They were just life. Only in talking to some friends I met here did I realize that my stories, my family’s stories, are not stories of shame.


The caste system in India:

Untouchable, also called Dalit, officially Scheduled Caste, formerly Harijan

The caste system in India:

The caste system divides Hindus into four main categories - Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras. Many believe that the groups originated from Brahma, the Hindu God of creation. The word “Dalit” comes from the Sanskrit root dal- and means “broken, ground-down, downtrodden, or oppressed.”

Aa caste system is a process of placing people in occupational groups. It has pervaded several aspects of Indian society for centuries. Castes are an aspect of Hindu religion. Other religions in India do not follow this system.
India’s caste system has four main classes (also called varnas) based originally on personality, profession, and birth:

  1. Brahmana (now more commonly spelled Brahmin): Consist of those engaged in scriptural education and teaching, essential for the continuation of knowledge.
  2. Kshatriya: Take on all forms of public service, including administration, maintenance of law and order, and defense.
  3. Vaishya: Engage in commercial activity as businessmen.
  4. Shudra: Work as semi-skilled and unskilled laborers.

The most biggest  problem with this system was that under its rigidity and the lower castes were prevented to climb higher and restricted.

'Untouchables' Are Still Being Forced to Collect Human Waste by Hand: Dalits are the manual scavengers, the removers of human waste and dead animals, leather workers, street sweepers and cobblers. The mere touch of a Dalit was considered "polluting" to a caste member. Thus, the concept of "untouchability" was born.

In India, the people employed to clean such toilets have always been the untouchables or dalits—and 98% of them are women.People work as manual scavengers because their caste is expected to fulfill this role, and are typically unable to get any other work,” says Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at HRW. “This practice is considered one of the worst surviving symbols of untouchability because it reinforces the social stigma that these castes are untouchable and perpetuates discrimination and social exclusion.”

“The first day when I was cleaning the latrines and the drain, my foot slipped and my leg sank in the excrement up to my calf,” Sona, a manual scavenger in Bharatpur, a city in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, told HRW. “I screamed and ran away. Then I came home and cried and cried. I knew there was only this work for me.”

Dalits are prohibited from eating with other caste members, marrying with other caste members, separate utensils, entering dominant caste homes, seperate seating and food arrangements in village functions and festivals, not to use common village path, separate burial grounds, contesting in elections and no access to village’s common/public properties and resources (wells, ponds, temples, etc.). If any Dalit members made violation of these rules, they may face social boycotts by dominant castes for refusing to perform their “duties.”

Dalits regularly face discrimination and violence which prevent them from enjoying the basic human rights and dignity promised to all citizens of India.  Caste System can be found in Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, as well as other countries outside of South Asia. More than 300 million people worldwide suffer from this “hidden apartheid” of segregation, exclusion, and discrimination.

Our Cast system is still alive and kicking: Every year, we celebrate anniversary of India's independence from UK and it reminds us to be proud of our country’s prolonged battle against colonialism, of the martyrs who gave their blood for India

But Hindu, Christian, Buddhist,  Sikhs and Jain, carry some vestiges of the caste system in them and ‘untouchables’, oppression and violence are still  everyplace in our life.

What does freedom mean? Free to be mercilessly thrashed for doing a job thrust forcibly on you, such as skinning dead cows, your destiny because that’s the caste you were born into?

Mahatma Gandhi made the lower castes and untouchables a fifth, lowly class with the name Harijan, or references to SC- Scheduled Castes and ST-Scheduled Tribe.

 India’s Constitution abolished “untouchability,” meaning that the dominant castes could no longer legally force Dalits to perform any “polluting” occupation. Since 1950, the country has enacted many laws and social initiatives to protect and improve the socioeconomic conditions of its lower caste population. These caste classifications for college admission quotas, job reservations and other affirmative action initiatives. Discrimination against lower castes is illegal in India under Article 15 of its constitution, and India tracks violence against Dalits nationwide. To prevent harassment, assault, discrimination and similar acts against these groups, the Government of India enacted the Prevention of Atrocities Act on 31 March 1995. But they were forbidden entry to many temples, to most schools, and to wells from which higher castes drew water. Their touch was seen as seriously polluting to people of higher caste, involving much remedial ritual.


7 members of Dalit family beaten up for skinning dead cow

Una town, July 21, 2016

Last month, seven members of a Dalit family were allegedly beaten up by a group of gau rakshaks for skinning a dead cow in Una town of Gir Somnath district in Gujarat. After beating them up, the attackers reportedly took Vashram, Ramesh, Ashok and Bechar to Una town. There, they paraded the four victims, and flogged them publicly all the way to the police station. In the video, some of the victims are seen tied to a car, while the accused are beating them up.

Tens of thousands of dalits marched through Ahmedabad and announced a march from Ahmedabad to Una.


Death of a Dalit PhD Scholar in Hyderabad:

Rohith Chakravarti Vemula, 26, was an Indian PhD student at the University of Hyderabad and author of the book Caste is Not a Rumor. Rohith was a student activist of the Ambedkar Student Organization who committed suicide on 17 January 2016. He hanged himself from the ceiling fan in a friend’s hostel room. Chakravarthy Vemula belongs to Hindu Mala caste, which is classified as Scheduled Caste in Andhra Pradesh and his family comes under Below Poverty Line.

Mr. Vemula was raised by his single working mother, who is from a “scheduled caste,” the lowest rung of the hierarchical system that structures traditional Hindu society. Mr. Vemula identified as Dalit, a word meaning “crushed” or “ground down” and refers to the oppression, often violent, suffered by scheduled castes over centuries of Indian history.

Rohith Vemula, had been suspended along with four others after a complaint by the local unit of the Akhil Bharatatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the BJP.

Vemula’s fellowship of Rs 25,000 was suspended for raising “issues under the banner of the Ambedkar Students Association” (ASA).

The ABVP’s complaints against the ASA was taken up by union minister Bandaru Dattatreya who forwarded them to the then HRD minister Smriti Irani who asked the university administration to look into them.

Vemula found it difficult to manage his expenses and after the he and the four other students were removed from their hostel rooms, they set up a tent on the campus and began a relay hunger strike.

Mr. Vemula had secured admission to a prestigious graduate science program, as well as a highly competitive national research fellowship. He was a brilliant scholar and a popular and vociferous campus activist for the rights of disenfranchised communities. He killed himself because of relentless caste discrimination. On Feb. 23, thousands of students marched through central Delhi demanding “Justice for Rohith,” was the largest and perhaps the most palpably indignant.

He left behind a searing suicide note: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind.”


Book on discrimination against Dalits creates buzz in the US

New York, July 28 (IANS) A highly anecdotal and touching account of caste-based discrimination in India by an "untouchable born in Andhra Pradesh", who emigrated to the United States at the age of 26, is creating a buzz in publishing circles here.

The book, titled "Ants among Elephants", has been written by Sujatha Gidla, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Madras, who is currently working as a conductor with the New York subway. The book details memories of growing up as a Dalit woman in India. Gidla also lists many instances of "discrimination and humiliations" that Dalits in India are customarily subjected to.

In the introduction of the book, the author writes that she was born in Kazipet, a small town in the then state of Andhra Pradesh. Her parents were college lecturers but they were "untouchables".

According to excerpts available on the publisher's website, Gidla compares the case of "untouchables" in India to the racism against blacks in the US.

"The untouchables, whose special role -- whose hereditary duty -- is to labour in the fields of others or to do other work that Hindu society considers filthy, are not allowed to live in the village at all. They must live outside the boundaries of the village proper. They are not allowed to enter temples.

"Not allowed to come near sources of drinking water used by other castes. Not allowed to eat sitting next to a caste Hindu or to use the same utensils. There are thousands of other such restrictions and indignities that vary from place to place. Every day in an Indian newspaper you can read of an untouchable beaten or killed for wearing sandals, for riding a bicycle," Gidla writes.

Major US publications, including the New York Times, have reviewed the book and have commented on its "insightful" understanding of India's social and cultural fabric.

According to a news report in, Gidla's grandparents converted to Christianity at the onset of the 20th century and were educated at Canadian missionary schools.

Gidla, too, with the help of Canadian missionaries, studied physics at the Regional Engineering College in Warangal, in what is Telangana today. She also pursued a researcher course in applied physics at IIT-Madras.

In the US, she initially worked as a developer in software design, then moved to banking but lost her job in 2009 during the economic crisis. Finally, she took up the job of a conductor at the New York subway.

The book has been published in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan publishers, and is yet to enter the Indian market.