How to Tell the Dalit Story

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Moving beyond the narratives of victimhood and survival, Sujatha Gidla’s book on caste, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family And The Making Of Modern India, has come out at a time when more Dalits in India are asserting their rights, and more non-Dalits are speaking up against the discrimination towards the community. Gidla’s book, published in the US in July and in India this month, is the story of the country through the eyes of the “untouchables”. India has completed 70 years of its independence, but caste still exists and discrimination based on it manifests itself in different forms. At 26, Gidla, a Dalit from Andhra Pradesh, moved to the US, where she worked as an app designer at the Bank of New York. She was laid off during the recession in 2009, and has since been working as a conductor with the New York City Subway.

In a phone interview, Gidla, 54, speaks about her book, writing, her raw anger, and caste in India. Edited excerpts:

How do you describe yourself? Which identity precedes the other?

A Dalit, someone who is left-leaning, then I guess…a conductor. Caste is first because we are made aware of it all the time. If I go to India, I know it based on how we are treated. And since I wrote this book, caste has become my first identity here as well. In fact, my basic identity even now is that of a Dalit more than a writer. It is more like a conductor who became a writer rather than a writer who is also a conductor. I am more caste- and class-conscious than anything else. When I was young, I would say I am a Naxalite or a Communist first. I think I started becoming conscious of my Dalit identity in 1985, after the Karamchedu massacre in Andhra Pradesh, where an entire settlement of untouchables was attacked by a mob of high-castes. It really jolted me and many of us out of our oblivion.

You started out trying to figure your story. At what point, on interviewing your family, did you realize you needed to write a book?

Initially, the phone calls were about finding out where I came from, but very quickly it became clear to me that it constitutes a book. I was shocked to realize that very few generations ago we were actually living in the forests and living off of the forests, and how we came to settle to doing agriculture—which is basically the point of civilization. My family was a part of that huge transition—from hunter-gatherers to agriculture. Unlike, say, places like Germany, where it took several centuries, these huge transitions took place in a very small duration of time for my family—from forests to plains, from tribals to civilized people, from tribals to untouchables, from worshipping totems to practising Christianity. Also, I realized how one becomes an untouchable. It’s not like some people randomly got assigned untouchability, some Brahminism. There is a material basis for this segregation. That caste and its evolution can be explained was fascinating to me.

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