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Book review Revelatory account of the 'untouchables' experience in the making of India

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India
by Sujatha Gidla     
(Daunt Books, £14.99)

SUJATHA GIDLA’S new book is not about the modern India of Bollywood, nuclear weapons and a thriving economy. Set at the end of British colonial rule it is the story of her family —  “untouchables” who are part of the caste system which dictates their  role in society and even where they live.

The title of the book sums up the “untouchable” experience as an ant among elephants, at the bottom of a system that is determined to squash you.  

As the author says, one in six people in India are born as “untouchable, whose special role — hereditary duty — is to labour in the fields of others or to do other work that Hindu society considers filthy, [they] are not allowed to live in the village at all.”

It was when Gidla left India to study in the US that she decided to talk to her family about her background.

Her uncle KG Satyamurthy, known as SM, was a founder in the early 1970s of a Maoist guerilla group which the Indian government designated as the biggest threat to national security.  His sister and Gidla’s mother Manjula, who against all odds became a teacher, are the  heroes of the book.

Ants among Elephants is  both her family’s story and that of the independence movement in India and Gidla’s account of discovering her family’s history is a fascinating as that story itself. Based on interviews with her  mother, uncle and their contemporaries, it's an account of the places where her family had lived and remote villages where she came across people who were happy to share their memories and backed up the stories her relatives told her.

It's an account of how people, however poor and marginalised,  can and do fight back, set during an era in which politics are writ large,  one that delivered independence to India but also sold the “untouchable” community short.

“My stories, my family’s stories, were not stories in India. They were just life,” Gidla writes, and they are not simply worthwhile in themselves but an important part of the subcontinent's history.

Hopefully, they will inspire other people to follow in the footsteps of Manjula, Satyamurthy and Gidla.








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