A few days ago, an episode from the Amazon India series Made in Heaven became the source of much controversy after Dalit writer Yashica Dutt questioned its makers for appropriating her life without giving her due credit. There’s already sufficient discourse around the subject, and the one good thing to come out of it has been the raised awareness about the issue as well as Dutt’s must-read memoir titled Coming Out as Dalit.
As a reader and citizen of this country – which is still unable to junk the stench of the regressive caste system into the garbage bin of history – you must also read the astonishing Ants Among Elephants by Sujatha Gidla. Most “upper caste” people who were born and raised in India have at least once said or heard someone say: “I’m not aware of my caste.” Gidla’s simply told yet deeply affecting book must be kept on the bedside table of all of them.
Ants Among Elephants is the story of Gidla’s family, taking us through the life of her grandparents to her own with great sensitivity. The very first page has a series of sparse but straight from the gut sentences which aptly encapsulate the tone of this book: “I was born into a lower-middle-class family. My parents were college lecturers. I was born an untouchable.”
Writer Amit Chaudhuri had wonderfully described the impact and significance of these statements in his review. He wrote, “Each [of these sentences] could exist by itself. Their proximity to one another tells us all we need to know, in a way no argument can, about how caste is a contingency, an accident of a particular culture, as well as an inescapable fact.”
It’s in an unforgettable passage that the phrase “ants among elephants” first appears – standing as an allegory not only for the poverty, hunger, and other tangible sufferings which Dalits have been subjected to for centuries, but also the burden of loneliness and shame that comes along with it.
When one sets out to correct historical imbalance and battle ancient structural violence and biases, one must have voices like Gidla’s lead the way. At the time this book was published, Sujatha Gidla used to work as a conductor on the New York City subway. The conviction doesn’t only reflect in her words, but you’ll realize it’s also evident in the manner in which she’s conducted her own life. This pun is unintended, but the discernible truth present in every page of Ants Among Elephants isn’t.