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Untouchables will be crushed until they give in or they’ll become free: Sujatha Gidla

By December 11, 2017No Comments

Source : Times of India

The Telangana-born Sujatha Gidla is the first Indian woman to be a conductor on the New York subway. Her first book Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India is a searing examination of untouchability in India. Gidla has a raw, sarcastic, lyrical and utterly distinctive voice. In excerpts from an email interview, she talked about her family, her book, and how America proved liberating.


Q:This is your first book. It has the power to move readers to tears. How hard was it to write it?

A: The research was the hardest part. Figuring out whom to talk to, getting hold of my uncles Satyam and Carey and actually making them talk about what I wanted to know. It was also hard to hear the stories of poverty and humiliation. Like how my father’s mother borrowed chairs, plates, glasses from neighbors for my parents’ wedding. My mother was impressed to see so many things in the house. But the next day the neighbors came and took everything back. How my uncle was ashamed to ride in a car—that it was too good for an untouchable to be riding. The shame he felt at his wedding about the food they would eat and the people who were his relatives.

I went to my mother’s native village and was stunned to see our relatives still living in abject poverty. I saw a photo of my mother’s grandmother taken after she died. She was small and crumpled, propped up on a chair. They had to borrow that chair for the photograph. The only photo that exists of her. It wasn’t just about my family.


Q:One of the important characters in the book is your uncle, Satyam, a famous poet and Maoist guerrilla. How did your family move from Christianity to Communism?

A: My uncle, whether or not I agree with his politics, was an extraordinary man. He was a sublime man—good-looking, intelligent, respectful to women to a fault. Completely devoid of any desire for money. Many young people were attracted to Naxalism purely, at first, because of his poetry.

My ancestors were illiterate tribals that came out of the forests. Before that they did not experience caste. So when they came out they were not burdened with the sense of subservience that untouchables are typically subjected to. That was very important in shaping our family’s attitude. The village they founded was theirs. So they did not have caste people within the village to whom they had to be obedient. That got them into trouble with the police. Christian missionaries helped them out of it. Even as Christians, they maintained a spirit of rebelliousness. And living in Krishna district where communists were so strong it was almost fashionable to be one.


Q: Can you talk about your title Ants Among Elephants?

A: The title comes from a phrase I used when describing how my uncle felt at college among his uppercaste and upper-class classmates. Until then he had always been among his own kind. Because my family was educated, they entered circles where the typical untouchable wouldn’t go. And yet they always felt like outsiders.


Q:Do you think there has been some progress on the caste front in India since you left?

A:There has been a lot of change – I wouldn’t necessarily call it “progress” because discrimination and violence against untouchables is at an all-time high. But then this is also because untouchables are asserting themselves and wanting more than what they were traditionally allowed. When I got on social media I found that there are lot of young and even old people nowadays openly calling themselves dalits, not lying about their caste or avoiding the question like I had to. There are many who denounce Hinduism and Brahminism. I don’t think we had that kind of audacity in my time. As for change for the better, something’s gotta give. Things cannot go on the way they do now. Either untouchables will be crushed until they give in or they will become free in a new free society.


Q: You moved to the US when you were 26. How liberating has the US been for you?

A: America is very liberating for me compared to India. In India I am always aware of my caste status even when I am by myself watching TV (because of the things I see on TV). It isn’t a joke. The moment I step out I am made aware of my caste. There were times when upper-caste Hindus would invite me to their houses and ask me to dinner. But I feel extremely uncomfortable thinking I am making their house and plates unclean…In America people see me as a conductor, writer, something else.


Q:Tell us a little about your job as a New York subway conductor.

A:The subway is the most important system in New York. It is the one that enables other systems to run. If ever there are true New Yorkers we are them. We move New York. The subway is in the news almost every day. People here have a love-hate relationship with the subway. Obviously, I feel proud. When I was working in a bank, despite it being a white-collar job, we were all insecure, wondering when we would be laid off. Because there is no union. It was humiliating to be afraid all the time.
(Sujata Gidla will be at the Times Litfest at Mehboob Studios, Mumbai, on December 15-17. For more, go to


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