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Thursday, August 02, 2018

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India (2017) by Sujatga Gidlla


Book Review
Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India (2017)
\ by  Sujatga Gidlla

  A major frustration for any reader seeking familiarity with contemporary Indian society through literature is the scarcity of books written by the "untouchables" of India, a permanent underclass who face pervasive discrimination that is many ways worse than what African Americans faced after the Civil War.  The tenacity of caste in modern India is, along with the lack of modern sanitation, the dirty secret of modern Indian life.  From the perspective of the ruling Brahmani upper classes, there have been feverish attempts to legislate the caste system out of existence, through the aggressive use of quota hiring and anti-discrimination legislation. At the same time, little has changed at the local level.

  Sujatga Gidla, who obtained an impressive level of professional educations despite her caste origins, tells the story of her own extended family and their experience in modern India as upwardly mobile untouchables.  Such a phrase is not an oxymoron, both due to the aggressive quota system instituted by the government, and also by a quirk of fate by which middle and upper castes rejected Christian missionaries, who taught literacy as a matter of course, leaving untouchables as the only formally educated individuals in many rural areas of India.

 This is the position of Gidla's family, who despite their status had already achieved multiple generations of college educated individuals in the time of this narrative, roughly from the birth of Gidla's parents to her own birth.  The story she tells bears many similarities to the plight of African Americans in the mid 20th century, when they were supposedly equal under the law but suffered at the hands of unsympathetic fellow-citizens.

  Gidla's narrative includes dozens of shocking examples, including that of her mother, who managed to receive the equivalent of a teaching civil service position only to be turned away- on sight- by the Brahmani administrator of her new post.  Gidla also delves deeply into the history of post-independence Marxism, her uncle being a formative figure in that movement within her families part of India.   What you read here should shock you.

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