‘Ants Among Elephants,’ a Memoir About the Persistence of Caste

Gidla’s family was educated by Canadian missionaries. Her parents were college lecturers, and she attended the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, where she became a research associate in the department of applied physics, working on a project funded by the Indian Space Research Organization. Despite their education, she and her family were daily subjected to reminders of their caste status, and the author found herself thinking, incessantly, about the relation between religion and caste, between caste and social status, social status and wealth.

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Sujatha Gidla

Credit
Nancy Crampton

Her precocious mother, Manjula, struggled in school with the poor grades she received from one professor, who realized that “she was poor and untouchable” and reacted with disgust. She was also rejected from — or harassed at — teaching posts for similar reasons. Gidla’s uncle Satyamurthy (also known as Satyam) felt himself “an ant among elephants” in college, and was cruelly dumped by a well-to-do young woman named Flora, who had started a flirtation with him, only to announce: “We are brahmins. You are have-nots, we are haves. You are a Communist. My father is for Congress. How in the world can there be anything between us?” He realized that life was not like the movies so popular after Independence, in which “the rebellious daughters of rich, evil men” fall “in love with a champion of the poor.”

An accomplished poet, Satyam did, in fact, become a champion of the poor, though an oddly spoiled one, who had followers do those things he “wouldn’t do for himself: shaving his chin, clipping his nails,” carrying his things. In the 1970s, he organized a Maoist guerrilla group, aiming, Gidla writes, “to liberate the countryside village by village, driving off the landlords and gathering forces to ultimately encircle the cities and capture state…

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