Untouchability and Modern India: “Ants Among Elephants” by Sujatha Gidla (HarperCollins/FSG)

Sometime last year, while going through my Facebook news feed, I came across an interesting story on the BBC titled “The defiance of an ‘untouchable’ New York subway worker“. It was on a woman named Sujatha Gidla (@gidla_sujatha, Author.SujathaGidla), who recently wrote the book Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India.

Gidla hails from the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, grew up in the slum of Elwin Peta in the city of Kakinda, studied physics at the Regional Engineering College, Warangal, worked as a research associate at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, appeared for GRE, moved to America at the age of twenty-six, studied for a while, worked in technology, then was laid off during the financial crisis. Since 2009, she has been a conductor on the New York subway and is based in Brooklyn.

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla (2017, HarperCollins)

Gidla was born an “untouchable” or Dalit—these are those Indians who are so low in rank that they are basically outside the pyramid of the Hindu caste system, which, since ancient times, has been divided into the four broad categories of “Brahmins” (priests and teachers), “Kshatriyas” (warriors and rulers), “Vaishyas” (farmers, traders and merchants) and “Shudras” (labourers). The outcastes are mostly (supposed to be) street sweepers and latrine cleaners.

What exactly is “caste” when used in the Indian context? Is it class? Yes, but much, much more than that. It is indeed a stratification based on occupation and income but it also happens to be divinely ordained. If you are born in a low class in a country like the United States, that is mere chance, your bad luck. If you are born in India in a low caste, your social-spiritual inferiority is believed to be strict justice. A person can improve the status of his caste in his next reincarnation through proper conduct in this life…

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla (2017, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Well, have the untouchables been able to rise in modern India on a day-to-day level? To an extent, I would say. Post-Independence the government introduced affirmative action programmes (known as reservation) that have secured Dalits places in educational institutions and government enterprises. Some have converted to faith communities that are on the whole more egalitarian—Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism. Sometimes this is effective, but the solution is far from magical, as Dalits who embrace a new religion are unable to extricate themselves from the larger matrix of Indian society. For example, an Indian Christian whose ancestors were Brahmins will continue to be socially superior to the one who has converted from a lower caste.

Sujatha Gidla’s family converted to Christianity and was educated by Canadian missionaries. She grew up in a complex environment that was marked by poverty and injustice but also showed signs of possibility and progress. In Ants Among Elephants, she tells a personal story of her own family but also a history of modern India “from the bottom up”. In the narrative, we learn about the indignities faced daily by those of her group, the allure of Marxism, the tensions between the princely state of Hyderabad (ruled by a Muslim king, with Urdu as official language) and the newer regions of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana (with Hindu majorities and Telugu as major language), all manner of militant movements and political rallies. Two particularly important characters are Satyam, Gidla’s uncle, who becomes a poet and a Communist, and Manjula, her mother, who struggles her way through college and married life to become a respectable lecturer.

What stood out to me was just how very informative this memoir was and how courageously unsentimental the writing—despite the grim and difficult subject matter—opening up vast territories and experiences that I had no (or very little) idea of. I didn’t really look for any message in the book (there may be countless)…for what really thrilled me was the author’s sheer act of storytelling, candid and complete. Somehow that itself seemed like a triumph—a righteous disobedience, rebellion, subversion—an absolute joy to read!


Two excerpts:

The Affair of the Pig…

The staple for pigs in India is what’s delicately called malinam—filth. They eat human shit. If the wedding family is too poor to feed their pig, it’s not a big deal. The pig simply goes around the village eating shit and gets just as fat. Untouchables will often marvel, “Shit it may eat, but a pig’s meat is the sweetest meat of all!”


Untouchables are commonly associated with two creatures: the crow for its blackness and the pig for its foulness.


“Untouchables are commonly associated with two creatures: the crow for its blackness and the pig for its foulness.” (Photo: Pixabay)



As a piglet grows in size, its neck soon gets so fat that as long as it lives it is never able to lift its head and look at the sky. But a wedding pig, in the last moments of its life, gazes skyward at last. Untouchables will say of an unfortunate man who has lived in poverty all his life, never having had a moment of happiness but for a small respite at the end when his son gets a job and is finally able to take care of his parents, “Veedu pandi lanti vadandi. Chacchipoye mundu akasanni choosedu” (This fellow is like a pig. He saw the sky for the first time at the end of his life).


…the affair of the pig is more than its taste. It’s the circus of hunting it, the feats of the men. It’s heroic, it’s romantic, it’s erotic. It’s a metaphor, it’s rhetoric. It is deeply philosophical. But there are all mere superstructures. At the base, it’s economic. “The cheapest meat for the cheapest man on earth.”


Ravaged by Starvation…

A woman named Santoshamma with her two gaunt teenage sons lived across the street from our house under a thatch supported by four posts. She was only in her late thirties or early forties, but her body was so ravaged by starvation that she couldn’t walk anymore. She lay on rags under the thatch, moaning day and night, hungry and in pain. One day she just wanted something to eat. She sat up. But she couldn’t stand up. She put her hands on the ground behind her. Propping herself up on the heels of her palms, she lifted her ass up and propelled herself forward. Then she lowered herself to the ground again and stretched out her legs. Repeating these steps, she crawled all the way across the street and through our front gate.



“She lay on rags under the thatch, moaning day and night, hungry and in pain.” (Photo: Pixabay)


She continued around the side of the house toward the kitchen back to beg for some food from my grandmother. My grandmother, catching sight of her, was shocked and started weeping with helpless compassion and yelling at her in a trembling voice, abusing the poor woman for presenting us with such a bizarre and pitiful spectacle.


Experiences like this made me wish there were no poor people in the world. But how could that be achieved?

Learn more about the author in this transcript (conversation with Tyler Cowen) from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.




Image Credit:

Featured: A school of untouchables near Bangalore, by Lady Ottoline Morrell (died 1938), National Portrait Gallery, London, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons