God’s Oppressed Children

Sujatha Gidla, far left, with her family, Andhra Pradesh, India, 1966. Her mother, Manjula, is at right.

Many Indian houses still have a simple pit toilet, which consists of a large hole in the floor. The feces are collected at night by “manual scavengers,” who, Sujatha Gidla writes in Ants Among Elephants, “carry away human shit” and whose “tools are nothing but a small broom and a tin plate.” Most are women. In the past, they would “fill their palm-leaf baskets with excrement and carry it off on their heads five, six miles to some place on the outskirts of town where they’re allowed to dispose of it.” In many places today, baskets have been replaced with buckets and carts, but the disease-ridden job of cleaning toilets, septic tanks, gutters, and sewers still falls on Dalits, formerly “untouchable” Hindus.1

One out of six Indians is a Dalit, but for years I neither witnessed nor imagined the life of one, although almost every week small columns in the newspapers reported the murder, rape, and torture of them. If any of the students at my schools were Dalits, I did not know—such obliviousness about a hierarchy that benefited me was part of my upper-caste privilege. I did hear much whispered malevolence among relatives against the “Scheduled Castes” (the official name of Dalits) and the affirmative action program designed to bring them equal citizenship. It was only at my provincial university, in a left-wing student group, that I first came into regular contact with Dalits; and it was while reading Ralph Ellison in my late teens that I began to reflect on the historical injustices and social and psychological pathologies that had conspired to make tens of millions of people invisible.

India, the world’s largest democracy, also happens to be the world’s most hierarchical society; its most powerful and wealthy citizens, who are overwhelmingly upper-caste, are very far from checking their privilege or understanding the cruel disadvantages of birth among the low castes. Dalits remain largely invisible in popular cinema, sitcoms, television commercials, and soap operas. No major museums commemorate their long suffering. Unlike racism in the United States, which provokes general condemnation, there are no social taboos—as distinct from legal provisions—against hatred or loathing of low-caste Hindus. Many Dalits are still treated as “untouchables,” despite the equal rights granted to them by India’s democratic constitution.

This constitution was drafted in the late 1940s with the help of B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit leader, whose reputation as a bold and iconoclastic thinker has been eclipsed by the cults of his upper-caste rivals Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi. The founding principles of India’s democracy that Ambedkar helped enshrine are even more far-reaching than America’s in their guarantee of equal rights and absolute prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth. But high-minded legislation in India is rarely accompanied by a necessary change in hearts and minds. The institution of caste, the social group to which Indians belong by birth, remains the most formidable obstacle to an egalitarian ethos.

In the hierarchical order, a Brahmin ranked highest due to his “pure” occupations of priest and scholar, and the Dalit was degraded to the lowest rung because of his proximity to human excreta and other polluting bodily substances. Ambedkar, for instance, belonged to a subcaste whose members were forced to walk with brooms tied to their waists, sweeping away their evidently contaminating footprints. Among many activists he was deeply frustrated by how Dalits, denied access to education and property, had been “completely disabled,” as he wrote in Annihilation of Caste (1936):

They could not bear arms, and without arms they could not rebel. They were all ploughmen—or rather, condemned to be ploughmen—and they never were allowed to convert their ploughshares into swords. They had no bayonets, and therefore everyone who chose, could and did sit upon them. On account of the Caste System, they could receive no education. They could not think out or know the way to their salvation. They were condemned to be lowly; and not knowing the way of escape, and not having the means of escape, they became reconciled to eternal servitude, which they accepted as their inescapable fate.2

This terrible destiny has been justified over time by all kinds of religious and philosophical rationalizations. India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi claims that manual scavengers realized ages ago that it is their “duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods” and “that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries.” Such opinions are encouraged by the fact that the values, beliefs, prejudices, phobias, and taboos of the caste system were deeply internalized by its victims, including Indian Christians and Muslims, whose ancestors tried to escape the stigma of untouchability by renouncing Hinduism: the family of Sujatha Gidla converted to Christianity.

This implicit surrender to the hierarchical norms of deference and obligation has long prevented solidarity among the oppressed castes, forestalling any concerted challenge from below to the entire iniquitous system. Indeed, India’s multilayered social order seems more fiendishly organized than the simple hierarchy that placed whites over blacks in the United States. The advent of Donald Trump and the mainstreaming of white supremacism has refocused attention on how the degradation of African-Americans in the nineteenth century served to affirm the rights and dignity of poor white men. “White men,” the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis wrote, “have an equality resulting from a presence of a lower caste, which cannot exist where white men fill the position here occupied by the servile race.”

But in the Hindu caste system defined by “graded inequality,” as Ambedkar brilliantly defined it, “there is no such class as a completely unprivileged class except the one which is at the base of the social pyramid”; “every class is interested in maintaining the system” and indeed does so by dominating or degrading the one just below it. The Marathi poet Govindaraj put it more bluntly: Hindu society consists of men “who bow their heads to the kicks from above and who simultaneously give a kick below, never thinking to resist the one or refrain from the other.”

Govindaraj offered this generalization in the late nineteenth century; it remains largely valid in the twenty-first. In rural areas, which many upper-caste Hindus have migrated from, members of India’s formerly subordinate middle castes, for instance, are often responsible for some of the worst atrocities against Dalits today. It is also true that a growing number of people at the very bottom of the hierarchy are vigorously resisting the kicks from above. Political parties and social movements organized around Dalit identity have emerged in recent decades.3 Such is the electoral potency of this Dalit political awakening that India’s present Hindu nationalist regime, though dominated by upper-caste Hindus, has had to position itself as the benefactor of Dalits. The liberalization of the Indian economy since 1991 has helped some Dalit entrepreneurs, provoking ambitious claims by some commentators that global capitalism is finally bringing about a long-delayed emancipation from the inequities of caste.4

The range and intricacy of Dalit experience can be grasped by English-language readers through the works of scholars and critics such as Anand Teltumbde, Gopal Guru, and D.R. Nagaraj.5 Daya Pawar’s pioneering Dalit autobiography, Baluta, which describes caste violence in Mumbai in the 1940s and 1950s, appeared in a fine English translation in 2015. Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan and Vasant Moon’s Growing Up Untouchable in India: A Dalit Autobiography are eye-opening memoirs of impoverished Dalit childhoods in the mid-twentieth century, while Ajay Navaria’s stories in Unclaimed Terrain turn an ironic gaze on the recent emergence of a Dalit middle class through affirmative action and economic liberalization.

Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants, which records the life of a Dalit family in the central Indian state of Andhra Pradesh and spans nearly a century, significantly enriches the new Dalit literature in English. Gidla grew up in India and now works as a conductor on the New York City subway. She knew firsthand the poverty and discrimination that several generations of her family had suffered. Defiant in the face of endless cruelty and misery, and tender with its victims, she seems determined to render the truth of a historical experience in all its dimensions, complexity, and nuance. The result is a book that combines many different genres—memoir, history, ethnography, and literature—and is outstanding in the intensity and scale of its revelations.

Gidla is fully aware of the sanction the caste system receives in Hindu scripture. She seems more interested, however, in how the twin shocks of colonialism and capitalism in nineteenth-century India turned the caste system into a more exploitative force. A brisk account of her ancestors describes how

they worshipped their own tribal goddesses and had little to do with society outside the forest where they lived.

When the British cleared the forests for teak plantations, my great-grandparents’ clan was driven out onto the plains, where the civilized people, the settled ones, the ones who owned land and knew how to cultivate it—in a word, the Hindus—lived. The little clan, wandering outside the forest, found a great lake and settled around it. There was no sign of human life for miles and miles. They took up farming. The land around the lake was fertile and gave them more than they needed. They called their new settlement Sankarapadu, after one of their gods.

But soon the civilized people took notice of them. They were discovered by an agent of the local zamindar—the great landlord appointed by the British to collect revenue in that area—who saw the rice growing in their fields and levied taxes, keeping the bulk of what he extracted for himself.

But that was not enough for this agent. He and his family and his caste people moved nearby and set about stealing the land by force and by cunning. They loaned the clansmen trivial sums at usurious rates to buy small necessities such as salt, seeds, or new clothes for a wedding. Unable to pay off these debts, the villagers gave up their land acre by acre. My ancestors, who had cleared and settled the area, were reduced to working on their old fields as laborers.

In a few simply phrased sentences, a great movement of Indian and world history is compressed: the corralling of peoples in subsistence economies into the world made by feudalists, colonialists, capitalists, and other “civilized” peoples. Gidla is acutely aware of how modern much of what we call tradition is. Take her account of the “vettisystem” in central India, in which “every untouchable family in every village had to give up their first male child as soon as he learned to talk and walk” to the local landlord. The system had its origins, she writes, in “British demands to maximize revenues” and land reforms that created a class of oppressive landlords while turning low-caste peasants and artisans into slave labor. “Although based on traditional caste hierarchies,” Gidla writes, “the vetti system was not a traditional system. However antiquated it appeared, it was unknown before the end of the nineteenth century. Like chattel slavery in the Americas, it was a modern product of the capitalist world market.”

But Gidla’s characters are not two-dimensional victims, poor and weak, waiting to be liberated from their primitive existence by some modern ideology or institution such as secular democracy, Hindu nationalism, or global capitalism. Rather, she commemorates their ingenuity and creativity, their repertoire of cultures and memories. A tireless interviewer, she displays an ethnographic fidelity to the stories, images, gods, taboos, and fears of her community—her account of its tradition of pig-hunting and wedding feasts is particularly vivid. And the emotional current is always strong. People fall in love, and are cruelly thwarted, by both fate and man-made prohibitions.

The book’s most memorable character is the author’s mother, Manjula. This gifted woman’s struggles with entrenched caste prejudice and misogyny form the emotional core of the narrative. But the largest place in it is reserved for Gidla’s maternal uncle, K.G. Satyamurthy, a famous poet and revolutionary who in the 1970s organized a guerrilla group that aimed “to liberate the countryside village by village, driving off the landlords and gathering forces to ultimately encircle the cities and capture state power.”

This was a doomed project, given the superior military strength of the Indian state. But it would be too easy to judge its advocates as deluded losers who failed to grasp the emancipatory potential of liberal democracy and free markets. Many Dalits were not enraptured by freedom from British rule or what they saw as the substitution of a white ruling class by high-born Hindus. In the midst of India’s independence day festivities in August 1947, a “boy Satyam had never before seen” asks him: “Do you think this independence is for people like you and me?” Nehru, India’s first prime minister, soon clarified this issue by unleashing his British-trained military on rebellious landless peasants in Satyam’s region.

Olivia Arthur/Magnum Photos