An interview with writer, Sujatha Gidla, author of ‘Ants Amongst Elephants’ by Rattan Gujadhur

Rédigé par Rattan Gujadhur le Dimanche 30 Septembre 2018

Sujatha Gidla`s book Ants amongst elephants has been celebrated as a tour de force by all mainstream literary reviewers in the US and Europe. The book caught my attention as an ‘alternance’ from main stream discourses and mainstream books. It is a non-nonsense and non-sentimental look at the canyons of caste divides in India, through the biography of the author`s uncle, a revolutionary Naxalite, Commander K.G. Sathiyamuthy, who founded the PWG, and then years later (50 years), got sidelined, when he raised objections to the validity of revolution itself, and the stratification and presence of ‘appartenance’ in the revolutionary groups themselves.

I decided to ask the author a few questions to shed light on this wonderful new non-fiction work, that hopefully such an interview will lead to some interesting interchanges back home

Sujatha can you please introduce yourself? Where were you born, and what has, in brief, been your journey to become a writer in [America]?

I was born in a South Indian state called Andhra Pradesh. My family was lower-middle-class, Christian, and untouchable.

I am one among a very small percentage of untouchables fortunate enough to get an education. I received a masters degree in physics and worked as research associate in an elite institute of higher education. 

In my twenties I came to America. For thirteen years I worked as a software developer in a bank in lower Manhattan. In 2009, after the financial crisis, I was “let go,” as they say here, and took a job as a conductor in the subway trains, where I currently work.

Ants Among Elephants is a family history. It starts with my great-grandparents and focuses on the lives of my mother’s generation.

When Gandhi launched the Quit India movement in 1942, my mother and her brothers Carey and Satyam were five, eight, and eleven years old. Dazzled by the courage and sacrifice of leaders like Bhagat Singh, the eldest couldn’t wait to join the movement and commit his own acts of sabotage against the British, with his adoring siblings ready to assist him. 

But on the very evening of August 15, 1947, Satyam, alienated from his well-off caste Hindu classmates at college, was disappointed by how little difference Independence seemed to make. He was then sixteen. Feeling depressed, he immersed himself in poetry. 

Before long, inspired by an armed peasant revolt in a neighboring part of India, he decided to become a Communist. The book traces Satyam’s life up to the point when, at the age of thirty-six, he left his wife and children to start a Naxalite guerrilla party with the aim of liberating landless peasants and tribals.

The other main subject of my book is my mother Manjula, who looked upon her elder brother as her mother (her own had died when she was little) and mentor. While Satyam’s ambition in life was to lead struggles for social justice, hers was to study well, find a job, get married, have her own family, and be a scrupulously good and honest person. As a woman, and an untouchable, she faced one hurdle after another.

Though it’s non-fiction, Ants Among Elephants is written in the style of a literary novel. It combines my family’s story with a view of modern Indian history.

What was the driving force behind the book?

When I started this project, I had no plan to write a book. I was merely trying to answer a question that had long bothered me: what makes a person untouchable? Is it skin color or religion or something else?

At last I called my mother to find out what she knew of our family’s origins. I was amazed to learn my great-grandparents were scantily clad jungle-dwellers who hunted animals, snared birds, and collected fruits, vegetables, and honey. I started talking to her and my uncle regularly to find out more about how within two generations the family went from living in such an ancient manner to a modern way of life. We went from hunting and gathering to cultivating land, from having no caste to being outcastes, from appeasing evil goddesses representing diseases like malaria and mumps to worshipping Jesus Christ. From laboring on the land to teaching college, from illiteracy to one of us–my uncle–becoming a famous poet. From stateless nomads to proud citizens of an independent state, and finally to my uncle plotting to overthrow that state. When I shared these stories with my friends in America, they encouraged me to write a book.

Apart from my mother and uncle, I interviewed many of their contemporaries. They were all overjoyed at the prospect of the stories of their lives being read by people in America. But they were also afraid that they might not live to see the book published. Every time I called them they would ask, “How is the writing coming along? How much longer?” 

Sadly, most of them did die before the book appeared.

Being a Dalit was it hard to finally get the recognition you deserve as a respected intellectual?

As an untouchable from a lower-middle-class family in a small town, yes, I did have a lot of disadvantages. However, I am not a total gem in the mud. I had some unique advantages. 

My father was a locally famous English lecturer. He was fond of the seventeenth-century English poets, especially Milton. He also read Voltaire and knew about the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Although he never taught us children directly, we used to hear him lecturing his students on our verandah while we played. 

My mother was a history lecturer at a women’s college, where she taught European history. She was different from her colleagues, who just read the prescribed textbooks and taught from them. They would read nothing else in their lives and were interested in nothing other than their husbands and children. My mother was an avid reader of English-language newspapers and magazines, such as Indian Express, The Hindu, Illustrated Weekly, and India Today. She followed Indian parliamentary politics keenly and would loudly comment on them.

Then there was my uncle, whom I met for the first time when I was twenty-two. As a child hearing about him from my mother I decided I was going to be like him, a Robin Hood. 

Going by the number of invitations I have been receiving from universities in America and Germany, I could say that at least in the West I have achieved the recognition you speak of. In India, though, it is very different. Caste prejudice is not found only among right-wing, conservative Indians. It is deep in the marrow even of most of those involved in organizing movements for social justice: women’s rights, civil and human rights. I mean Communists, Maoists, those fighting for the tribal rights, even anti-caste intellectuals. Upper-caste leftists are fond of “encouraging” and “giving support” to untouchables who want to write or speak, but they despise an untouchable who gets recognition without their encouragement, or one who gets too much recognition of the kind Ants Among Elephants has received in America and Britain. In my own home state, very little has been said of my book in the media. No publisher is interested in translating it into my native language. I will never be recognized by such people even if I write a sequel to Das Kapital.

Tell us about KG Satyamurthy.

My uncle, known as Satyam in the family, was an extraordinary man who led a remarkable life.

My mother says whenever there was a conflict in the movement he was a part of he always moved “left, further left, further, further left.” 

In the early 1990s he was expelled from the very party he co-founded because of political differences, one of them on the question of how lower-caste members were treated in the party. 

After his expulsion he wanted to start a party that combined revolutionary Marxism with an anti-caste agenda. He led a movement to commute the death sentence of two young untouchables accused of setting fire to a bus. In 1991, thirteen untouchables were murdered in a village called Tsundur. My uncle led the struggle for justice for the victims (actually moving to that village and living with the victims’ families). He advocated armed self-defense for untouchables.

He was as a passionate a poet as he was a revolutionary. Many students who joined his Naxalite party did so because they were inspired by his poetry. In the 1980s and 90s, students from Hyderabad and Warangal used to make slogans out of his poems and paint the cities red, covering the walls with bold red paint.

I do not agree with his Maoist political program or his guerrilla war strategy. But I cannot deny admiring him for his steadfast adherence to the cause of oppressed people to his very last breath.

About the arrested people

To begin with, the five people arrested must be freed immediately and all charges against them dropped.

What happened is this. In January, right-wing Hindus disrupted a peaceful gathering of untouchables in a place called Bhima Koregaon to commemorate a historical event in which untouchables took part. Instead of arresting the miscreants, police arrested the untouchable activists.

On August 28, police arrested these five people, charging them with inciting the violence in Bhima Koregaon. The fact is none of these five people were anywhere near Bhima-Koregaon, nor did they have anything to do with the dalit celebration there. They are not even involved in the dalit movement. They are associated with some Maoist outfits operating in the Chhattisgarh area.

Why then were they placed under house arrest? Things have gotten so bad under Modi for the majority of Indians that his popularity even among his right-wing Hindu base has waned. Elections are coming in 2019. Modi wants to instill fear of a threat from outside enemies to once again consolidate the Hindu vote. Those enemies are Muslims and untouchables. In order to demonize them, an attempt is being made to brand them as Maoists because Maoists have already been so throughly demonized that no one questions it. This makes it easy to target Muslims and untouchables with as little justification as in the case of these five people. 

Earlier this year the Supreme Court weakened an anti-lynching law, the Prevention of Atrocities Act, which was anyway toothless and did little to curb violence against tribals and untouchables. But the ruling gives a green light to caste-Hindu mobs to kill and terrorize untouchables and tribals with impunity. 

Caste consciousness persists even in ex-British colonies such as Trinidad, Mauritius, like I mentioned above, what is the status of caste in modern India? Does it stunt the development of the country? What role does the government play today in enhancing or diffusing the divides across caste in India?

I am not very knowledgeable about how caste plays out in former British colonies, but I do have a lot of West Indian coworkers, many of Indian origin. I always ask them about caste in their countries. I typically get confusing answers but on the whole they seem to say that although people call themselves pundits, kshatriyas, etc., in practice this does not mean very much. Pundits marry non-pundits. Anyone can pursue a career as a pundit. I imagine it is is the same in Mauritius.

Caste plays a central role in Indian society and politics. While in the center it is not so obvious, in state elections caste plays an absolutely decisive role. Invariably it is the landowning castes that rule the state legislature and assembly. In Andhra, for example, the state is little more than a kamma caste fiefdom, while Telangana is dominated by the velamma caste. Kamma caste landlords who killed eleven untouchables in 1985 in a village called Karamchedu were close relatives of the chief minister of the state. None of them were convicted.

Caste is not a like tick stuck on a dog that can simply be plucked off. It is an integral part of Indian society. Nor is it just an old custom or superstition. It is a living institution with a material basis. Indian agriculture depends on the caste system, with untouchables providing the labor. To keep them bound to the land as dependent laborers, it’s necessary to perpetuate caste. Unless this social and economic basis is removed, caste oppression will endure. In the urban economy, caste plays the same role as race in America — it divides the working class and renders it powerless.

Governments are not neutral. They are there to look after the interests of the dominant classes, which in India are the capitalists and the landlords. If caste oppression serves the interest of these classes, naturally the government will foment it. Modi does it openly and Congress does it not so openly.

Your book talks about KG Satyamurthy and his life and struggles in the PWG and his discovery of the dead end of the revolutionary struggle and efforts: how does it connect to other events in India, i.e. The anti-independence struggle, Nehru’s overtly pan-Hindi outlook, the making and unmaking of the Communist Party of India, the Telangana Armed Struggle, the Separate Andhra Agitation, the Naxalite movement and its effects, the origins and functioning of the Christian missionaries in the Southern India?

Satyamurthy, even after he decided the party he helped found was steeped in caste prejudice and got expelled, never saw revolutionary struggle as a dead end. He wanted to uphold revolutionary class struggle and add to it the struggle against caste oppression.

All the events in India starting from the transfer of power from the British to the Congress to the Naxalite movement represented the rule of the bourgeoisie and the feudal lords stemmed from one thing: the Stalinist betrayal of revolutions in other parts of the world in order to make peace with imperialist powers such as the US. “You leave USSR alone,” they promised, “and we will make sure no one makes a revolution in other countries, such as India.” The two Communist parties in India, the CPI and the CPM, were but water-boys for Moscow’s policy. The bankruptcy of these parties led to the birth of Maoism. Although the Maoists sound militant because of their guerrilla strategy and abstinence from parliamentary elections (some of them), in essence their program is indistinguishable from that of the CPI and CPM.

Christian missionaries from countries such as Britain and Canada came to India during British rule to spread their faith. At first the British did not welcome them, but later, realizing this work could help inculcate some loyalty to colonialism, they withdrew their objections. Indeed propagating this loyalty was an aim of the missionaries’ work. But in the process they did things like providing poor people, especially untouchables, with free, quality schools and hospitals. When the government declared that ex-military men were entitled up to four acres of unclaimed land, missionaries helped illiterate untouchables with their paperwork. Because barber-caste people will not cut hair for untouchables, missionaries taught untouchables to cut hair so they could serve their caste fellows. One of the most significant contributions of the missionaries was abolition of the breast tax. In parts of Tamil Nadu, a low-caste woman was not allowed to cover her breasts in the presence of upper-caste men unless her family paid a high tax. Missionaries spearheaded the struggle against this practice. My family would still be impoverished field workers if it weren’t for Canadian missionaries.

With the rise of Hindu fanaticism, it is not safe for missionaries to fo to India. In 1999, an Australian missionary named Graham Staines, his wife and two young sons were trapped in a Jeep and burned alive.

With the rise of Hindu fanaticism, Christians have become an endangered species. In 2008 Hindus led pogroms against Christians in a place called Kandhamal in which a hundred Christians were murdered and thousands injured. The Hindus destroyed 300 churches and 6,0…

A propos de l'auteur : Rattan Gujadhur left Mauritius for higher studies in the US in 1999. He has practiced in the Pharma and Biotech world for over 29 years and is a Dr in Chemistry. He remains deeply in love with Mauritius and has published reminiscences of Mauritius via a poetry collection and a novel 

An interview with writer, Sujatha Gidla, author of ‘Ants Amongst Elephants’ by Rattan Gujadhur

Dimanche 30 Septembre 2018

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