In capturing the Indian caste system in all its wretchedness, Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants comes close to a depiction of hell. The reader will come away from this book with an enhanced religiosity, in that he will thank God that he was not born an outcaste in India.
Ants Among Elephants narrates the trials and tribulations of the author’s maternal ancestors in the mid-twentieth century. The two most prominent characters are the author’s mother, Manjula, and uncle, Satyam. The latter becomes a leading Communist in Andhra Pradesh, in India’s southeast, an understandable decision, given the rottenness of the status quo as highlighted in these pages. Indeed, the treatment of Satyam’s career in this book is rather undiluted propaganda, of the type this reviewer has often seen in accounts of the revolution in China. The power structure is shown to be so wantonly exploitative that the reader finds himself forced to agree that any effort to overthrow it – nay, to exterminate its members and appropriate their property – is justifiable. In Ants Among Elephants, this pattern is established early in the case of the Nizam’s regime in Telangana, where the custom of vetti made every citizen liable to the arbitrary demands of the dora class of overlords (p. 42). Gidla lets slip the fact that, after Independence and the annexation of Telangana by the Indian army, the vetti system was abolished; yet this victory is not admitted here to have been enough, for the army repossessed land that peasants had appropriated and restored it to its former owners (p. 60). Therefore, the struggle must go on, not to stop when the peasants achieve only “freedom from bondage” but to continue until they win “land” and “dignity” (p. 50).
If the chapters on Satyam are political, those focusing on Manjula are personal and therefore more satisfying. They also are better guides to the myriad oppressions suffered by the Indian people, far beyond the simple dynamic of landlord vs. peasant, the preoccupation of the Communists. The central fact of Indian society is its state of division. A typical passage reads:
Every girl in the hostel belonged to a clique. North Indians bullied south Indians and never mingled with them. There were separate messes for north and south. North Indians wouldn’t go to the south-Indian mess while south Indians wouldn’t dare set foot in the north-Indian one.
Within both north and south were subcliques based on language. (pp. 189-190)
The fragmentation never works out in Manjula’s favor. Even when she would seem to be with her own people, she is shunned and exploited, largely because she is a woman, with reputation-wasting snares strewn before her, but also owing to any number of reasons related to caste.
Interestingly, Manjula’s academic successes – she ends up with a Master’s degree – offer very little in the way of liberation from her miserable condition. The Indian reality shown here is very different from the Chinese, in which education separates the rulers from the ruled, so that the occasional peasant who earns an academic degree is transformed instantaneously into a mandarin or commissar; and in America, too, education is believed to be the key to general advancement. In Manjula’s case, her Master’s degree makes her technically eligible for certain teaching jobs, but her position at the bottom of society is irredeemable, and the economic advantages are nearly meaningless. The following sort of episode occurs in the book more than once:
On her way to the library one morning, Manjula was accosted by the history department’s peon [Of course! Why wouldn’t the history department have a peon?]. He told her the head of the department wanted to see her.
Professor R.S. Tripathi was old and doddering, but his renown as a historian was such that he was welcome to keep his position at the university as long as he liked. Inside his office, Manjula saw her own instructor, Professor Pathak, sitting to one side with a broad smile on his face. He proudly introduced Manjula as the most brilliant student in his class.
As Professor Tripathi gazed at her, his face darkened; his eyes shrank into black slits. He was revolted by the sight of Manjula. One look at her and he knew she was poor and untouchable….
‘She is the one I told you of,’ Pathak explained. ‘You wanted to meet her.’ But Tripathi merely stared at her coldly and said nothing. Humiliated, Manjula excused herself. (pp. 191-192)
A mind, and an education, is a terrible thing to waste on an outcaste, apparently.
Beyond the degradation of the caste system, Manjula also faces Neanderthal sexism (apologies to Neanderthals for the association). While the men in her family are pampered – her communist brother and man of the people Satyam cannot even button his own shirt – Manjula is essentially a slave. Malnourished and about to give birth to her third child, she is chided by her mother in law for being slow to make her husband a cup of tea; her husband, encouraged by his mother, throws the tea out the window, just after we have seen him throw a radio at her (pp. 242-243). Toward the end of the book, with her Master’s in hand and her family situation finally stable, she is as bad off as she ever was:
Since she and her husband now both had permanent jobs and regular incomes, Manjula had entertained a hope that their financial troubles would finally go away. But that, too, never happened. In Kakinada, she lived as married women commonly do, not only with her husband and his mother and brother, but also his uncles, aunts, cousins, and their spouses and children. At any given time some twenty to twenty-five people lived in two adjoining houses, and as no one else except her, her husband, and her husband’s brother, Percy, was educated and employed, the others all lived off those three salaries. Although the cooking was done by each family separately, when Manjula was at work, the other families would come and pillage her kitchen for rice, lentils, tamarind, chili powder, cooking oil, and kerosene. If they couldn’t find what they wanted, they went to the grocer’s and put it under her account. They stole her saris and bedsheets from the clothesline. (p. 293)
Even the animal kingdom seems to be against her. At one point, after moving to an apparently comfortable lodging, Manjula and her children are attacked by a cohort of monkeys. Henceforth, they must schedule their activities, particularly food handling, so as not to coincide with the primates’ incursions. (pp. 278-279)
I recommend this book for its educational value. Then, after you are finished reading it, I recommend listening to a lot of Beach Boys and thanking God for the lives that we have.
2 thoughts on “Book Review: Ants Among Elephants, by Sujatha Gidla”
I have a hard time getting into Indian literature, or the culture in general for the reasons of people being treated like shit for simply being born into a certain age-old caste. It makes me mad just reading these few excerpts, although people judge/are judged in the west too based of socio-economic class, even if it is not so blatant as it is in India. I do not believe in reincarnation or karma as it applies to being carried over into another life on earth, so I do not believe there is reason or justification for such a societal so-called system where a brilliant mind may be humiliated just for existing in the wrong body. If any person chooses to disrespect another, their behavior and its consequences are on them and they will have to answer for it. We’re all brothers and sisters, how I see it.
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This was a difficult read. The author keeps her judgments to herself; I would like to have more from her concerning her life in NYC (she is a subway conductor). Perhaps she would consider that she had escaped hell and was now in heaven; perhaps she would not.
This book made me think of ‘Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China,’ by Guo Xiaolu, which also paints a hellish picture of the author’s native place, although the mode of oppression is different.