Book Review: Ants Among Elephants, by Sujatha Gidla

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.


My Views on Education

The value or benefit of an education depends upon its content. If, for example, a certain kind of education conditioned its subjects to servitude, then I would call the uneducated better off than the educated. In general, I would never deem educated people to be necessarily smarter or better than uneducated ones.

At American liberal arts colleges, students are trained in abstract or associative reasoning. Therefore, graduates of American liberal arts colleges are capable of abstract thought, and non-graduates are not. The reality was made clear to me on the day that I, a liberally-educated history professor, began lecturing my class of first-generation college students about Genghis Khan. As I explained how Genghis broke up Mongol tribes and redistributed its members among military units called hundreds, I associated his policy with that of Cleisthenes, the Athenian reformer who broke up Athenian tribes and redistributed its members among political units called demes. I was pleased with myself for having established the linkage, yet when I turned to face my class, I saw only puzzlement. They could not fathom why my lecture on the Mongols had suddenly detoured to ancient Athens. It occurred to me that they could not follow the abstraction, that to them, x would always equal x and could never equal y.  Their approach to history is “Genghis Khan was born in 1162 and died in 1227 and was a Mongolian conqueror; Cleisthenes lived from 565 to 492 BC and was an Athenian statesman” and never the twain shall meet. I tried to sever Genghis and Cleisthenes from their particular contexts and to locate their policies on higher planes of abstraction, to persuade my students that although Genghis reorganized Mongol tribes into hundreds and Cleisthenes reorganized Athenian tribes into demes, both reoriented loyalty to higher social units, both sought to replace tribal association with political. My students were polite, but it was as though the football game they were watching had been interrupted by a commercial for a product they didn’t want.

Indeed, they don’t want it. No matter how many times I’ve returned to Genghis and Cleisthenes over the years (I never give up), my attempts to place them in the same abstract category always fall on deaf ears. Furthermore, I have never been able to explain to my students the superiority or even the advantage of my abstract way of looking at history. It is not in me, however, to bewail my inability to enlighten the benighted history students of Mobile, Alabama. On the contrary, the more I’ve thought about my failure, the more I’ve come to accept the possibility that my abstract way of looking at history really isn’t superior to my students’ way and really doesn’t confer on them any advantage.

Is the abstract view necessarily the correct view? Is it possible that someone might become over-educated, so thoroughly skilled in making associations that he loses his ability to draw distinctions? Sometimes x is only equal to x. Sometimes concrete thinking is better than abstract.

Consider the intellectual Susan Sontag and her disapproval of the display of the American flag after 9/11. It seemed to me at the time that she was incapable of seeing the flag-flying as an expression of solidarity at a moment of national hurt and that she could only view it as symptomatic of a dangerous ultra-nationalism. Her perception, in other words, was determined, perhaps even limited, by her education, her ability to associate one reality with another and, perhaps, her inability to perceive the reality at hand more concretely. Many of the categorizations encouraged at our finer schools are somewhat predictable, as almost everything is associated with Nazism, sooner rather than later. If you were to show someone like Susan Sontag a Boy Scout picnic, she’d probably think she was looking at the Nuremberg rally.

My students, however, would know that it was a Boy Scout picnic, and they would be right, or at least more right than Susan Sontag. I find myself in a strange position, having more in common culturally with the Susan Sontags of the world but feeling far more trusting of my students’ common sense.

And so, for choosing a movie, a restaurant, or an Aram Khachaturian CD, I will consult someone like Susan Sontag. But for understanding what’s what, I’m going to ask my students. The intellectual doesn’t understand what’s what: He understands what something is like, because that is what he’s been trained to do. The liberally educated serve the function of alerting their fellow citizens to the unseen, but sometimes they distract their fellow citizens with visions of the unreal. There is no good reason to desire that more of our population become educated along these lines.