Sujatha Gidla at JLF 2018: Hinduism is a religion tailor-made for caste
US-based Sujatha Gidla, author of the acclaimed Ants Among Elephants, talks about the inescapable and amorphous nature of the caste system.JaipurLitFest Updated: Jan 29, 2018 20:22 IST
Caste in India is like the air we breathe and the water we drink, it is in the people we marry, and how we get remembered after death. And most importantly, it is in the visceral experience of shame.
Sujatha Gidla, who was born in a Dalit family, didn’t escape this shame until she left the shores of India. She might be blazing a trail with her new book Ants Among Elephants but even today, the shadow of caste hangs over her every time she comes in contact with the Indian diaspora in the United States.
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“The Indian immigrant cultural groups are caste networks. Some are overtly casteist and don’t invite Dalits to groups and events. Others are more refined and refused to support Rohith Vemula because they thought he was cowardly,” said the 54-year-old author.
Her redemption came when she made friends with black activists. “They helped me overcome shame about caste.”
A rising star, Gidla is soft spoken but carries enormous conviction. At the sidelines of the Jaipur Literature Festival, she exudes little confidence in the current form of government.
“You cannot legislate against untouchability. You will have to attack the material reasons of caste. You cannot work within the current political form and eradicate caste, it won’t work,” she said.
What about the current crop of Dalit leaders such as Jignesh Mevani, who has just won an assembly seat in Gujarat’s Vadgam. “I admire him for the Una protests, but I think his words are mostly empty rhetoric,” she said.
For Gidla, a Dalit Christian and a former Naxal radical, Hinduism holds out little hope of Dalit emancipation and almost nothing separates the BJP and the Congress, who she sees as the overt and covert faces of the same casteist brand of politics.
“Hinduism is a religion tailor-made for caste. It is a religious prop for caste, which is a social system.” Her views on Mahatma Gandhi are even more acerbic. “He was a consciously casteist man. He just wanted to prettify it,” she said.
Ants Among Elephants adds to the growing list of works by Dalit writers who have refused to be boxed into the category of “marginal literature”, instead telling sensitive and compelling stories of society, love and life.
When the book, written primarily for a western audience, came out in India, its reception surprised Gidla. People kept writing to her saying it had revealed caste to them, that they had never encountered caste oppression before. “It surprised me. I thought, are you serious? Open the newspaper, everyday there are five atrocities against Dalit women. How can you not see it?”
Her book chronicles the life of her uncle, KG Satyamurty, one of the Maoist movement’s tallest leaders, and the family’s journey through the tumultuous years of the peasant revolt and the formation of a new state.
For years, Gidla travelled back and forth between New York and India to conduct interviews with Satyamurty, that were lovingly stitched together with her mother’s life to tell the story of a country seen from the eyes of its most vulnerable constituents.
The book is also viscerally about the women, Sujatha’s mother, aunt and grandmother and the trying circumstances they grew up in and fought against, including against their own husbands, brothers and fathers.
“Satyamurty was not a violent man, but he definitely condoned violence against women. Dalit women are subject to oppression both on the basis of untouchability and gender. I am deeply aware of that.”
Her book is a moving memoir – one that doesn’t mention Gidla at all until about page 250, in a memorable passage where the author is revealed to the reader as “Sujatha, that is I”. Gidla explains that she wanted to use the third person, while her editor thought the first person pronoun was more personal. The passage was the compromise.
Gidla knows caste in India is pervasive and continually changes form – it is not just in the form of violence or untouchability but also in the ways Dalit students face harsh treatment in colleges, in how they are absent from offices and how our cities are structured. “Why are there no Dalit judges, professors or media personnel? The answer is obvious.”
A conductor in the New York subway, Gidla has big plans for the future. She plans to write two more books – her autobiography, and one on the remarkable journey of her family from being hunter-gatherers in the forests of Andhra Pradesh to moving to villages and getting absorbed in the Hindu society at the lowest, most inhuman level — all in the span of a couple of generations. It is in fact, this journey that planted the seed of Ants Among Elephants in her mind.
“If you are uneducated and live in a village, you think caste is a curse, that it is fate. But anyone who is rational would think, why are we treated like this? It is this question that made me question my mother about our caste and start writing the book,” she said.
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