Dalit Literature and Ants Among Elephants by Sujatha Gidla: A Short Review
by Harsh Kichambare
I came across a really beautiful poem by an unknown poet via a confidante of mine. It was called ‘Exiled Flowers’ and it was a poem that used the metaphor of Dalits and Lower Caste people being flowers. The poet goes in length to extend this metaphor and to give us an idea. I didn’t know about the publication date of that poem; however, it was still as relevant when it was written as it is now. This poem got me searching up on Dalit Literature.
Dalit Literature is a term used for the collective works or writings done by the Dalit People for Dalit people and for all of us to learn. It represents the category of great writers and readers who during their struggle with an unjust and outdated system, found a means of express themselves without being shunned. It also represents the thought of a Modern India and of an India which is eager to break free from the shackles of its past mistakes.
Searching for the various books that have come under this category, I came across dozens of books to fill my wish list with. But the one that stood out amongst them was this non-fiction book called “Ants Among Elephants” by Sujatha Gidla. What drew me more to the book was the writer.
Who is Sujatha Gidla?
Ms. Sujatha Gidla was raised in a Dalit household in a small town in Andhra Pradesh called Kakinada. Both of Sujatha’s parents were College Lecturers and she had always felt there was a thing that she was deprived of something. It was something that is called ‘Untouchability’. This would severely affect her life in her coming years.
When she was a student at the Regional Engineering College of Warangal, she came to know of some of her professors who were failing students just because they were of a ‘lower caste’. This led to a strike that did not end on good terms. Rather, the students who called for a strike had been detained by the police. She recalls an incident where she was the only woman involved in the strike and the police had passed an order to take the students to an undisclosed location and beat with their ‘welts’ on their bodies.
She was detained for over three months and was released after her mother had contacted a Civil Rights Lawyer. She then completed her Master's and worked as a Researcher Associate at IIT Madras. Soon when she was 26, she left for America. She worked as a software designer at the Bank of New York but was laid off due to the global recession. She then started to work as a Subway Conductor at the MTA in New York, and being the only Indian Woman as a Conductor there.
When asked about her job she replied, “Because I am a Marxist and Communist, I also have romantic feelings about being a working-class person. So, this job attracted me. Secondly, I wanted to do something that men are supposed to be doing.”. She has received several accolades and has also been recognized by major publications such as Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Publisher’s Weekly, etc.
Ants amongst Elephants:
Ants Amongst Elephants was published in the year 2017 and it became one of the best non-fiction books to be published that year. The book is a memoir that tells us about the life of her Uncle, KG Satyamurty (or Satyam as she calls him in the book). He was a Left Leader along with being a Maoist and the founder of a guerilla group known as the People’s War Group.
The book also tells us about the personal life of the Author’s mother, Manjula, and the hardships that they had to face along with the oppression by the upper-class society. The book finds itself in a middle ground, where on one hand you have a rising peasant revolt throughout the state which had a leaning towards the left, and a newly formed and independent India on the other.
Gidla in the book talks about the story of her Uncle, Satyam, and how he had transformed himself from being a poor student and a labor organizer to being a poet and leading to the foundation of the Notorious PWG which is regarded as the most successful Naxalite Party in India.
She talks of the background of her Mother and her Uncles in the slums and how the entire area was a place that had a major political bent and a place where arrests were common. The new and rising independent India promised the independence of all its citizens and also the ongoing oppression of Dalits and people of Lower Caste who had been kept from it.
She recalls an incident where she realized how her family was deemed ‘Untouchable’ by society. She was watching a film where there was a couple who wanted to get married. The girl was from a well-to-do Christian Family whereas the boy was a Hindu who didn’t do well for himself. She soon realized that they were Christians and hence they were treated as Untouchables.
A young Gidla soon began to ask herself these questions which were born out of the oppression faced by people of Lower Caste. To know more, you’ll have to read the book. She has planned a prequel as well as a Sequel.
The Book is a phenomenal read with its pages taking you to a post-independence small town in Andhra Pradesh. It talks about the struggles of a family to become who they are now against the backdrop of the ongoing injustice. It is a personal history told through stories of love, hardship, and struggle. Anyone interested to know more about Dalit Movement in the post-independence era should give this book a read.
Another thing to know while reading Dalit Literature is that Dalit Literature is not written out of vengeance for the oppression. It is rather a perspective of a group of people who were shunned by society for ages and had been kept in the dark. It demands a creation of a newer and inclusive society that seeks equality.
- Harsh Kichambare
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