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Memories of an ‘untouchable’ New York subway staffer

Sujatha Gidla’s memoir, Ants Among Elephants, is a visceral account of the humiliation that is a part of everyday life for Dalits in India.

books Updated: Jul 25, 2017 20:44 IST
HT Correspondent

A searing account of caste-based discrimination in India is currently creating a buzz among readers and critics in America. The memoir, Ants Among Elephants, has been written by Sujatha Gidla, 53, who works as a conductor at the New York subway.

In the book, Gidla, who immigrated to America at age 26, writes about growing up as a Dalit woman and the discrimination and humiliations that are part of life as a Dalit in India. Gidla was born in Kazipet, a small town in Telengana (then Andhra Pradesh), and was raised in a middle-class household. Her parents were college lecturers.

Her great grandparents converted to Christianity in the beginning of the 20th century, and her grandparents were educated at Canadian missionary schools, says NBC-2.com. Thanks to the Canadian missionaries, Gidla had access to education and went on to study physics at the Regional Engineering College in Warangal, Telangana. Later, she joined the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) as a researcher in applied physics.

Sujatha Gidla (Nancy Crampton)

“Ants Among Elephants gives readers an unsettling and visceral understanding of how discrimination, segregation and stereotypes have endured throughout the second half of the 20th century and today,” says a review of the book in The New York Times.

The book is more than just an anecdotal account of her personal tribulations and through her Maoist uncle’s story, Gidla also weaves in the political aspect of the movement for freedom from oppression. After moving to America, Gidla worked as an applications developer in software design.

“For me, what was appealing was the idea of America, especially Bob Dylan’s music, the culture of protest, and the draw of joining a society where debates on rights and equality could be articulated,” she told the BBC.

While the so-called land of milk and honey offered her freedom from caste oppression and discrimination, she was laid off from her bank job in 2009 during the economic depression.

It was then that Gidla took up work as a conductor at the New York Subway and in doing so became the first Indian woman to be employed as a conductor by NYC. Her sister is a physician in America at present and her brother works as an engineer in Canada.

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