“No one told me I was untouchable. It is not a kind of thing that your mother would need to tell”, writes Sujatha Gidla in her book, “Ants among Elephants”. The author belongs to the Dalit community, which has been treated as untouchable by higher castes, and perpetuated over time. Being at the lower rung of the caste hierarchy, they historically have been doing the jobs, which the higher caste would not do themselves, skin the dead animals, manual scavenging and “whom Hindu society considers filthy”. They have been socially excluded, and their mobility upwards does not go well with those higher up in the hierarchy.

She writes, “They must live outside the boundaries of the village proper. They are not allowed to enter temples. Not allowed to come near sources of drinking water used by other castes. Not allowed to eat sitting next to a caste Hindu or to use the same utensils. There are thousands of other such restrictions and indignities that vary from place to place.” Under such circumstances the author lived her childhood in abject poverty.

There might be different ways of looking at the origins of caste hierarchy, but occupation has been the deciding factor that decides the position in the hierarchy, on which Brahmins, priests occupy the top, the potters, the carpenters, the washers and others are in the middle. Crimes against them have been “normalized” and made “invisible’. The book sketches the struggle of the author’s family, capturing with intricacy the working of the structures that promote and perpetuate the caste system.

The book takes us back to her ancestors, their journey for a respectful life, starting from the time they converted to Christianity to her grandfather, K.G Satyamurthy forming People’s War group, a Naxalite Party in Telangana. Told movingly, through his transformation from a student to an activist, maneuvering the landscape of Telangana in South India, living whole life following his ideals of Communism. The book is an intimate portrait of her family, struggling through to overthrow the structures that normalized and permeated the caste system, from the time of Nizam of Hyderabad before the independence of the country to present day.

Sujata’s book is an important voice in the backdrop of increasing violence against the Dalits in the country and incidents like the Bhima- Koregaon violence in Pune, the beating up of Dalits in Una, Gujarat and the suicide of Dalit scholar, Rohit Vemula at University of Hyderabad in January, 2016.

In all of India, 40,801 atrocities against Dalits were reported in 2016, up from 38,670 in 2015, according to a National Crime Records Bureau data. “But this violence is still largely rendered invisible,” writes Pratab Bhanu Mehta in the Indian Express. The text works against this invisibility, and provides a vital context to the attempts at Dalit unity, and put up the lid from the injustices that the Dalit community has been facing for too long.

The author says that writing the book was a “race against death”, as her senescent subjects, could be dead anytime. The irony, called freedom in 1947, changed nothing for the families like that of Sujatha, they still would skin the dead animals, carry the shit on their heads and suffer the injustices of untouchability. They were alienated then, which continues to this day. It was just an incident in their lives that changed nothing.

Her uncles lifelong journey for the ideals of communism: a just social and economic order, in the process render the artificial boundaries pointless, but that utopian idea never materialized in his life. But the seeds sown then are finally sprouting in the open, in the Dalit candidate Jignesh Mevani’s win in the recent Gujarat elections or the efforts at different places to unite the different sections, that have been historically discriminated against. The change has not easily come, it has taken a life of generations to confront the Elephant, that pervades through the structures that you can identify with.

People at that time marveled at the wealth of Nizam of Hyderabad (ruler at that time), little knowing he was feeding on their blood, through his genocidal “Razakars” and the dora’s, landlords at a higher step in social hierarchy. The “vetti system”, wherein first male child born had to be given to the landlord when he would start speaking and walking, to be a “slave until death”. Every caste was forced to provide goods or services without being paid. The landlord controlled every aspect of their lives. On marriage of his daughter, he would send their daughters as dowry, they would be hapless.

Amidst this inhumanity, Nizam benefited from this symbiotic relationship with the landlords, who at times would get land for “maintaining his troops”. His accumulated wealth and grandeur was the result of the indignity, people suffered at the hands of inhuman landlords. It is at this chaotic stage, peasant movement took center stage and the author’s uncle was exposed to a different world of socialism and communism through his friends at college, pursuing those ideals would consume his life. His selfless devotion to the cause of giving dignity to his people, sacrificing everything personal in the way, making them aware of the injustices of the jati system, uniting villagers and at last joining Revolutionary Communist Party, a variant of Communist Party of India. The system he was fighting against again popped up its head in the meetings of the party, and by now neither Christianity nor communism could liberate them from the clutches of caste system. The boundaries between different castes in the village are still intact , relegating them to the confines or systemic working of the institutions in which the upper caste gets the preference.

The narrative interspersed with anecdotes of injustices and humiliation, at schools, colleges, and religious places, will move anyone. We are bound to question our humanity, our privileges and that is the most important thing that the book does. It makes you think, stimulates to engage with the portrait of the community the author has drawn. Its voice and language, add up a different shade.

A witnesses’ perspective to the whole issue, giving a face to the struggle of 16.6% of the total population in the country, challenges the equality narrative that has been peddled around about the largest democracy in the world.

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India
by Sujatha Gidla
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 306 pp.